The confluence of forces depicted in the war movie Black Hawk Down is so incredible as to defy the word history. In 1991 the militarized gangs that gained power in Somalia after the downfall of dictator Muhammad Said Barre collapsed into civil war. The ensuing struggle for preeminence involved the choking-off of relief efforts by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid; as the West was being deluged with nightly news images of 300,000 starving people, its conscience, still stinging from what had happened in the Balkans, propelled it into action. Operation Restore Hope, which ended in the deaths of 18 American servicemen and an ignominious retreat from Somalia, is best known today as the lesson from which the Bush administration took its Afghan orders--the first rule being, Make America know that victory comes at a human cost. It's also regarded as the folly that emboldened Osama bin Laden--the thing that made him realize that "America is a paper tiger."
The dizzying array of lose-lose scenarios presented as options for American humanitarian engagement makes our police action in Vietnam look almost endearingly clear-cut. On the one hand, the indigenous resistance to "colonialist" aid groups--combined with the actual racketeering of many such organizations, and topped by the do-or-die territorialism of Somalia's regional militias--made intervention seem insanely futile. On the other, those of the left who protested our "racist occupation" and praised "the Somali resistance" in 1993 must now gaze into the pit of the post-America, post-U.N. Somalia: a Boschian hell as ferocious as the one we first stumbled into. Its agonies are never-ending: Just a month ago, a U.N. report warned that in southern Somalia, a half-million people are again nearing starvation. And there is talk that Somalia will soon be the next arena for the "war on terrorism."
Sins of omission and commission present themselves with equal force. Forget the "exit strategy" for a moment: Where is the blueprint for nation-building in a place where the genuine experience of a nation hasn't existed in anyone's lifetime? What are the inherited forces--cultural and economic--that would make the one country in Africa that's unified by a shared language appear the most fractious of all? And why were the United States' flawed relief programs received more bitterly than Somalia's own home-brewed gangland corruption?
If the entire foreign-policy apparatus of the American government was unable to answer or even to articulate these questions, how can we expect a Jerry Bruckheimer movie to do so? Black Hawk Down, about the bloodbath that ended the Somalia initiative, issues a terse no comment right from its opening scenes. A liberal, idealistic army Ranger (Josh Hartnett) mutters something about "making a difference," and a buddy tells him, "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that other shit goes out the window. You just wanna figure out how to get home." Hartnett's character and a team of Rangers and Delta Force special-operations guys are dispatched to abduct two of Aidid's henchmen in a densely populated commercial block of Mogadishu. As they say in movie trailers: It was supposed to be a routine mission... But when Aidid's sympathizers are alerted to the incoming Americans, they manage to shoot down a patrolling Black Hawk helicopter before the raid is completed. The movie is mainly about the 18-hour efforts of the rest of the team to rescue the downed Americans before the city's inhabitants converge on the fallen men and tear them apart.
From the get-go, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan characterize the American servicemen in quick, shallow, likable strokes. There's Ewan MacGregor, his Scottish accent serving as a symbol of his earthy good humor, as a Ranger stuck in the back making coffee; there's Tom Sizemore, the same proletarian lump he was in Saving Private Ryan, time-warped to 1993 as a Ranger team leader who's all sighs and rolling eyes; and there's Eric Bana, the great actor from the Australian Chopper, in the bit part of a Special Forces guy who looks like a killing machine. We sit with these fellows as they nervously laugh at The Jerk playing on an airplane hangar VCR; we watch a young father draw children's-book illustrations for his kids; we listen to the men rag on one another, and we notice how clean-cut and straight-arrow they are. Then General Garrison (Sam Shepard) sends them on their mission. And then we watch them die.
Oh, and there's one other thing we notice about them: They're all white (save for one black Ranger, seemingly added as an afterthought). Whether this is historically accurate or not, I can't say--but it certainly puts the audience in an uncomfortable position even before the shooting starts. And when the mayhem begins, you really start to writhe. As the head of the Aidid button men, Razaaq Adoti wears mirrored shades and chews gum with a sexy-psychotic sneer: He looks like a Detroit auto worker sassing the Man in a Seventies blaxploitation movie. And when Aidid's crew captures Mike Durant, Adoti gets to deliver a speech about how the white Americans should never have come: "You think you can bring American democracy here--at the end of a gun? There will be no peace without victory. There will be nothing but killing here." (He even mocks Durant for not smoking: "You Americans lead such dull, bland, uninteresting lives!")
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.)
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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