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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Black Hawk Down"


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In the opening scene of Black Hawk Down, the plain white text on black background says calmly that the movie is based on actual events. This is an understatement. In the midst of reality-based entertainment, this film pushes the envelope the furthest so far, totally immersing you in a war environment like no other experience before. Director Ridley Scott re-creates a fierce 15-hour battle between besieged U.S. troops and Somali fighters on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, in which 18 Americans were killed and 73 injured, along with thousands of Somali militia. Scott's exceptional visual sense is expressed to perfection, putting you directly in the center of action, from beginning to end, as if you were one of the soldiers themselves. But, don't think it's just another testosterone-laden war film. It's not. It is an intelligent and ambitious effort to accurately portray the soldiers' experiences of that fateful day.

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The plot is actually rather simple. American servicemen were to capture the warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, in a mission that was to take less than one hour. Things went awry from the beginning when a soldier falls to the ground from a helicopter. The dominoes start to fall as his comrades attempt to rescue him, and they start getting picked off by snipers. The movie is all about what these soldiers went through, and how they survived, or how they died.

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And herein lies the dilemma. The cost of portraying reality so intensely and dramatically in two hours means that anything that could soften this experience has to be left out. In this case, any sort of character development, plot, or historical context that may suggest political commentary one way or the other have all been swept aside. Also note that the film portrays experiences, not necessarily everything that happens. The political objectives of their mission are, as you might expect from a soldier's point of view, all besides the point. What's more, certain events, like the dragging of two American soldiers through the streets - an event that was televised on CNN that moved American public opinion so strongly - are also left out of the film. It isn't entirely clear what the Scott's intent was for the film, since what I saw seems to differ from what he said he wanted to do in interviews I've read with him. Regardless of intent, I thought the film was a fabulously intensive visual experience, and I felt I got a true sense of what things are like in a modern combat situation.

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Discussion of the problems with the film get complex and difficult, since it's not entirely clear what story or message the film wanted to tell. From a filmmaker's perspective, this is a risky approach, and in so doing, has already alienated many people who feel that the film leaves out too much context, or that the film should take a position on whether we were doing the right thing by being there. Then again, when you're in battle, it's easy to forget, let alone think about, the political or humanitarian reasons for your presence, and the movie makes that abundantly clear.

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But, taking the position of "neutrality through non-statements on either side of the issue" is not as ambitious as "neutrality through explicit expression of both sides of the issue", as was done so skillfully in the film, Dead Man Walking. In that context, I felt Black Hawk Down paled dramatically to its potential. Even less excusable is that the skills of these mature and well-seasoned filmmakers could have taken those bold steps.

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While the film's realism is violent and bloody, it is not exploitive. Rather, it is tastefully done such that anyone-as uncomfortable as they may be seeing such things-can have a better appreciation for what real battle is all about. It is also timely, as the very same powder keg in Somalia is once again back in the news as this film is being released. In fact, the same warlords are still in power. What we do about it now, as opposed to 1993, will be interesting to witness. One of the effects of September 11 is that America had a rude awakening to the realities of a harsher world with terrorists and anarchistic warlords. Seeing and understanding Black Hawk Down is a sad, but necessary next step in our maturation process for world events. It's only too bad that it didn't really take the bolder and more difficult step in broaching the difficult and complex political and social issues.

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