Exit Strategy

'Black Hawk Down' Gets in and out of Somalia With No Questions Asked

There's another corrupt, black Somali (George Harris) who sinisterly smokes Cuban Cohibas and sniggers at Shepard's character for being another "Arkansas white boy." The few civilians who aren't shooting at Americans are blue-filtered, wraithlike, expressionless skeletons--morbid extras in a nightmare version of a Michael Bay Kodak Moment. Why do these people behave this way? You can accept the official statement of the movie--This is just how it is--or you can read its (unconscious) subtext: They hate us because they're foreign and they're black.

Rushed out to cash in on post-9/11 jingoism and likely Oscar nods, Black Hawk Down seems outmoded in light of the moment's events: Its message is purebred Pat Buchanan isolationism. (In an interview, Hartnett described the movie's intent to offer "a cautionary message about endeavors like the one we're in now." Yeah, Josh--tell it to the little girls who were horsewhipped by the Taliban for their Hello Kitty backpack stickers.) Though Scott practically herniates himself in impersonation of Spielberg circa Saving Private Ryan, the movie that Black Hawk most resembles is another haunted house erected by a British advert director: Alan Parker's Midnight Express, in which a saintly, sultry (and Hartnettesque) Brad Davis confronts an evil, sweaty, sadistic foreign race: the lecherous, pain-freaky Turks.

The hell that Spielberg put audiences through at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan at least had a point: Here was the price paid for saving the world. But since Black Hawk's rescue mission exists in a moral void, there's no meaning to the movie's 145 minutes except to insist that being surrounded by the enemy and blasted to bits is a really awful way to go. (One gets the sense that Scott would gladly record a woman's slow torture and murder at the hands of a serial killer if it, too, combined grisly kicks with the faint odor of high moral purpose.)

Just do it: The good guys go to work in 'Black Hawk Down'
Sidney Baldwin
Just do it: The good guys go to work in 'Black Hawk Down'

Really: What's earning this distasteful, dull, and exhausting movie the kind of worshipful reviews that Scott and Bruckheimer rarely if ever receive individually? I suspect that most of it derives from the fact that, after all the hero worship of firemen, cops, and rescue workers, sleepy and sedentary movie critics are feeling awfully guilty, and in the mood to acclaim anything that honors their betters. I also suspect that Black Hawk Down inadvertently captures Americans' current fetal-position anxiety about the people under the stairs: all those angry folks in ruined-looking countries who want to set us on fire. (You should have heard the terrified silence that greeted the trailer for the movie that really dings the 9/11 anxiety alarm: David Fincher's Panic Room.)

Now, I don't mind that Scott, who already revealed his Spielberg envy in the war scenes of Gladiator, wants to do a rough-and-tumble procedural movie about the horrors of combat. But why is it that filmmakers who actually saw combat, such as Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone, have a much more analytical, big-picture approach to their first-person war movies than the Ridley Scotts of the world? (For the antidote to Black Hawk's bugles and sunsets, check out Fuller's The Steel Helmet and the battle scene in Stone's Born on the Fourth of July.) In his historical pictures, Spielberg labors mightily to make you feel that you are there; he also--less successfully, in general--strives to make you understand what brought such suffering into being. Scott isn't the brightest light on the dashboard even under ideal driving conditions (much of the black humor in his Hannibal seemed beyond his recognition), but one still expects more from the man's "mature" movie than the cynical shrug that he gives us here. Would the families of the dead soldiers--the ones for whom Scott and Bruckheimer claim to have made Black Hawk Down--be pleased to know that their loved ones' elegy was a high-priced video game?

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