Rock the Casbah
There are ominous similarities between Ridley Scott's latest offering Black Hawk Down and last year's uber-turkey Pearl Harbor. Both are blockbuster retellings of notorious American military disasters, and both have Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore and Ewen Bremner somewhere on the cast list. And as I'm not a fan of Ridley Scott's work at the best of times, I turned up to the cinema with quite a few misgivings.
Black Hawk Down is set in war-torn Somalia in late 1993. As part of an international taskforce, a mixed group of American elite troops - Rangers, Marines, etc - is attempting to eliminate the genocidal warlord Mohamed Aidid, who's based in the city of Mogadishu. Their ability to act is hampered by the protocols established by the UN and they pass much of their time in the traditional pursuits of off-duty war-movie soldiers: doing jigsaws, playing scrabble, illustrating children's books and listening to classic pop-rock songs. All this changes when authorisation is given for a raid on a meeting of Aidid's senior advisors. But a series of misjudgements leads to the mission going spectacularly pear-shaped...
1993 isn't that long ago - I remember seeing the news of these events on TV at the time they occurred. Probably because of this, the producers appear to have stuck closer to the facts than is usually the case even in 'based on a true event' pictures like this one. Even so, it's still a big-budget action movie - and as a result Black Hawk Down has something of an identity crisis which it never quite recovers from.
The problem is that the characters on the screen are all instantly familiar from a hundred other war films - there's the idealistic young noncom, the naive rookie, the grizzled veteran, and so on: Ewen McGregor plays a clerk who gets his first chance at front line duty (he suffers slightly from Wandering Accent Syndrome), Eric Bana (okay, he's not very well-known now, but he's toplining Ang Lee's Hulk, one of next year's blockbusters) is a taciturn covert ops officer who learns to respect the grunts, and Sam Shepherd plays the CO who watches his command engulfed in what's almost literally a nightmare scenario. All verging on the stereotypical, but, that said, most of the acting is pretty good - though the most memorable performance is a cameo by George Harris as a Somali arms dealer.
But the situation at the heart of the film is absolutely not your typical well-choreographed action-movie scenario. It's an escalating disaster as the soldiers are misdirected, split up, and surrounded by apparently limitless numbers of Kalashnikov-wielding local militiamen. The presentation of this very realistic chaos is the film's great achievement, but it jars weirdly with the glossy Hollywoodism of the stock characters and the famous faces portraying them. Band of Brothers, which this resembles at times, got round this by hiring a cast of relative unknowns - a step Black Hawk Down's producers should have considered.
As it is, and credit where it's due, Ridley Scott's direction holds the film together. As you'd expect, it's visually ravishing, but most of the time Scott manages to stay focussed on telling the story - an unexpected but welcome development. He does a brilliant job of communicating the confusion and panic of the troops in the streets as the mission disintegrates, while simultaneously ensuring that the viewer is aware of the situation and the positions of the various different groups involved (mainly through computer game-like aerial shots and expository dialogue from Shepherd and his staff). There are genuinely horrific and moving moments as the crisis deepens. Even so, this is pretty much a one-note movie and after a while I felt I wouldn't have minded if I never heard another hammering assault rifle or saw another dancing shell casing ever again. There's no light and shade here, no leavening humour or romance, and not really much of a plot. But if you like unrelenting realism, grit, military hardware and carnage you should have few complaints.
Post-September 11th, of course, any film about the American armed forces' engagement in the Third World brings a whole load of new baggage with it. You may argue that it'd be unfair to review it in terms of its politics, and had Black Hawk Down not had its release date actually advanced to cash in on the current mood of the USA, I might have agreed. But as things stand, I don't, so here goes.
It goes without saying that this is an unreservedly pro-American movie. It doesn't scale quite the same heights of sanctimony as Pearl Harbor, thank God, but there's absolutely no ambiguity on display. Well - the one exception to this is in the apportioning of blame for the debacle: armed forces overconfidence and the UN rules of engagement both get the finger pointed at them, but not as much as 'Washington' - a blatant criticism of the Clinton administration and thus one that's very unlikely to irk the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It's oversimplistic. It's not always the case of Americans suffering for the sins of the rest of the world, no matter what the film suggests. The mission it recounts may be a confused, chaotic mess, but the film's moral and political viewpoint is cleanly and uncompromisingly black-and-white. The film itself is all right, but its attempts to promote a set agenda in this way are insultingly obvious. There's an awful lot of spinning going on in Black Hawk Down - and I'm not talking about helicopter rotor blades.