I was skeptical going into "Black Hawk Down". After all, just look at the credits. Ridley Scott is the director, and he hasn't had a good film for ages (no, not even "Gladiator".) Jerry Bruckheimer has bad enough judgment to produce cash cows like "Pearl Harbor" (and that's a train wreck big enough to destroy anyone's career.) The cast, while featuring some good actors, is not exactly stellar. I was convinced I wouldn't see the film after seeing the trailer (the dialogue struck me as incredibly poor). But somehow I found myself seeing it, and boy was I surprised when I discovered the most riveting, unsettling war film since "Saving Private Ryan".
The time is October 3, 1993; the place is Somalia. 120 American soldiers were on a mission to capture lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. "Black Hawk Down" is a portrait of how what was supposed to be a half-hour mission turned into a grueling, 18 hour ordeal that led hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans to their deaths. "Black Hawk Down" is amazing in how it puts you right in a soldiers shoes. It doesn't speechify or go heavy on irony. The event is depicted through actions, not words, and the result is stunning. We see each little decision that was made, each step that went wrong, and how it all lead to tragedy. Watching "Black Hawk Down", I felt like I was actually a soldier in combat, and it was terrifying.
It is important to remember that this film isn't about the politics and the reasoning behind the mission, but about the experience. There is no trying to justify the reasons why things happened like they did. At times, it seems the screenplay (written by Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian) wants to go that route, but Ridley Scott won't let it. We don't get to know the characters, but the idea of the film is that you are one of them. "Black Hawk Down" differs from films like "Saving Private Ryan" in that it isn't so much about the soldiers lives and their legacies, but more the terror of being shoved into circumstances beyond your control.
Scott has regained his title of one of the most visually brilliant directors around, after losing it with films like "Gladiator" and "Hannibal". Anyone can make a film gory, few people are clear-headed enough to make it realistic. "Enemy at the Gates", for example, gives us a good look at Russian soldiers being mowed down by German machine guns, but the film is such a blur that it's impossible to care for them. In "Black Hawk Down", a sense of urgency is constantly pushing the film forward. Every time Scott cuts to a wide-angle shot to show the incoming enemy, it will get the entire audience tense. But as soon as he brings you back down into the action, the tenseness turns into horror. At times it feels almost impossible to watch, but it is just as hard to turn away.
There is the issue of the treatment of the Somalis in "Black Hawk Down". It's a sticky subject. I won't pretend that most of the Somalis aren't being treated as the enemy. But I will say that the film is not overly unfair. This is a film about battle, told from one side's point of view. If this were a story about the Somalis, then the Americans would be just as much the "bad guys". But this is battle, plain and simple, and no matter which way one looks at it, its barbaric. What would be unfair is if the film assumed it knew the other side's every thought and tried to simplify their story. This was done to the Japanese in "Pearl Harbor" with disastrous results.
"Black Hawk Down" is a visceral film that shook me down to the core. It doesn't try to tell the political and moral complications behind all the chaos, which are far too vast and incomprehensible for any film to grasp. Film is a visual medium, and so Ridley Scott keeps the speechifying to a minimum and with his camera puts us in the middle of one of the biggest travesties since the Vietnam War.