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Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott) 2001 

After an opening coda that shows us a zillion dead Somalians lying around while captions explain to us the events leading up to its central conflict, Ridley Scottís Black Hawk Down has the audacity to claim thereís nothing political about combat. One character, in a speechifying moment typical of the filmís excuse for characterization, says that after ďthe first bullet flies by your head, politics and all of that shit go out the window.Ē Nice try Ridley, but when you show a group of soldiers inexplicably watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in a bunker just so you can show the Child Catcher (subtle!) as a war metaphor, youíre making a political film. 

Although Iím certain that many critics will compare Black Hawk Down to Spielbergís equally visceral Saving Private Ryan, the film that it evoked most for me was Verhoevenís underrated Starship Troopers. The videogame-style us versus them mentality is recreated here, and the raging black horde of Somalians are about as personified as the horde of bugs in that sci-fi epic. Only occasionally does Scott attempt to show the enemies on the battlefield as something more than a target, and usually he manipulatively trots out a child or two to do so. The Good Old Boys donít get shown in much more depth though, and most of the attempts that the script uses (Ewan McGregor making coffee, Ewen Bremnerís deaf comic relief) feel completely arbitrary and pointless. Again, I think of Starship Troopers, which surrounded the combat with a soap opera that was so incredibly inappropriate that it makes this sort of narrative shorthand feel out of place in any war film that Iíve seen since. 

What is stunning is that Scott (who isnít even American) could make a film that shows a conflict where fewer than twenty U.S. soldiers (they were the aggressors, mind you) lose their lives, and still pay more attention to them than the Somalians, who lost over one thousand people. Thatís not political? Surely the decision to ďleave no man behind,Ē repeated like a mantra throughout, is. It canít be strategically sound to risk the lives of an entire squadron to retrieve a cadaver. Refusing to acknowledge morale and the political pressures upon the operation is shortsighted. The troops themselves have even been trained through a political process to the point where they donít even notice it. They donít think of the enemy as people, but rather as ďSkinniesĒ. They donít think of themselves as individuals, but as part of a greater good. Perhaps the lack of perspective toward their own conditioning that the U.S. troops shows is meant to be ironic, but given the speeches that are delivered in the final reel, I highly doubt it. 

Still, Scott manages to do some dazzling technical work here. The film, using digital technology, can take us closer to the combat than any previous war film has. Who knew what promise CGI held? Now we can graphically see a rocket as it blows people apart. Itís pretty stunningly orchestrated sometimes, but for a film that offers about ninety minutes of sustained combat, it feels a bit boring overall. A few sequences, such as the moment where the black hawk helicopter actually goes down, are ecstatic though. The filmís cast is relatively subdued, and manages to generally avoid chewing the scenery (Tom Sizemore excepted). One must wonder what the point of all of the carnage is though. If itís not trying to make a political statement, and itís not trying to entertain, it simply must be trying to recreate history. I highly doubt the action that really occurred was as polished as Scott would have us believe, but the film is obviously the result of a lot of hard work. I imagine most people will find something to like in Black Hawk Down, but I donít know why theyíd want to be bothered with a picture that puts the audience through so much to give so little. 

**1/2 

12-27-01 

Jeremy Heilman