January 20, 2002 -- "Black Hawk Down" is a slam-bang war action movie with fantastic special effects and stunts. One of the many things that ran through my mind as I was watching it was, "how in the world did they do that?" It looked so real, but I knew it couldn't be.
Based on true events surrounding an October 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia by U.S. special forces acting as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation, the film does an excellent job explaining what went wrong and why. The film only hints at the role that Osama Bin Laden played in the death of 18 U.S. servicemen during that raid and it doesn't get into the politics of the situation in any depth. Instead, the film focuses on the situation on the ground and in the air in the combat zone. It allows the viewer to analyze and understand a chaotic situation that made little sense at the time to the troops on the ground. That, obviously, is very hard to do. The film has even been praised by the Pentagon and by some of the soldiers who fought in the battle, and that is rare praise indeed.
The main characters are Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (played by Josh Hartnett of "Pearl Harbor"), who leads the "Chalk" team on the ground, Company Clerk John Grimes (played by Ewan McGregor of "Moulin Rouge"), who gets a rare opportunity to fight on a day when he should have stayed in the office, Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore of "Saving Private Ryan"), a tough officer in charge of evacuation of prisoners by ground convoy and Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard of "The Pledge"), who is in charge of the raid.
The raid, designed to capture leaders of local warlord groups who have been stealing foreign aid food from starving people (over 300,000 Somalis starved to death, in part, because of the food thefts), goes well at first, but then a Black Hawk helicoper is shot down. As the major general observes upon hearing about the crash, "We have lost the initiative." The prisoner evacuation turns into a rescue operation for the crew of the downed helicopter. The well-armed locals attack the crew like jackals attacking a wounded lion. It looks like the whole city is coming after the downed helicopter. The streets are blockaded by locals to prevent rescue vehicles from reaching the crash site.
Eversmann's Chalk team is ordered to move from where the prisoners are being loaded to the crash site to set up a defense perimeter around the helicopter. In order to get to the crash site, the squad must travel on foot a long way through hostile territory. This is Eversmann's first time in charge of the squad. Eversmann, an idealist, feels the U.S. mission in Somalia is a noble one. "We can help these people or we can watch them die on CNN," he says. The rescue mission will change his perceptions. Shawn Nelson (Ewen Bremner) and Lance Twombly (Thomas Hardy), become separated from Eversmann's squad at the beginning of the mission and have to fight their way across the city in a dangerous effort to rejoin the rest of the team.
While the Chalk team works its way toward the crash site, A force of Army Rangers led by Captain Mike Steele (Jason Isaacs) and Delta Forces special operations personnel led by Sgt. Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner of "Pearl Harbor") form an uneasy alliance in another attempt to get to the downed chopper. At the same time, a convoy of Humvees tries to make it to the crash site. All of these forces encounter heavy small-arms and rocket fire. What was supposed to be a half-hour mission turns into an 18-hour survival ordeal.
The fighting sequences are incredibly realistic-looking. The aerial helicopter assault scenes may be the most elaborate and extensive since "Apocalypse Now." All the sequences are well-staged, making it possible for the viewer to keep track of all the parallel battles. Aerial shots allow the viewer to see the positions of various combat groups relative to each other. The viewer gets a good sense of how the battles and the strategy developed during the fight. One is able to simultaneously experience both the chaos of battle and see the big picture. We also see behind-the-scenes strategy decisions and U.N. politics. The film gives us a feel for the camaraderie among the troups, and the rivalry between the Rangers and the Delta force. It also depicts an interesting nighttime strike by the famed Nightstalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).
This film could almost be a military recruiting film if it were not for the terrible carnage so graphically depicted. One particularly gruesome scene depicts field surgery on a wounded soldier, another graphically shows a thumb shot off. There are also tragic scenes of Somalis being killed, including children caught in the crossfire (some 1,000 Somalis were killed in the battle). The film depicts the U.S. soldiers as professional, well-trained, proud and brave. The motto "leave no one behind" is a big part of the story. This is not a political, or a message film, however. The main thing you get out of it is that soldiering is a profession. The motivation for the heroism depicted in the film is not primarily patriotic, but arises out of concern for one's fellow soldiers. They risk death to save each other, not for some abstract geopolitical goal.
It would have been nice if the film did have more of an explanation of the rationale for and history of the mission, or more about the motivation of Somali civilians to kill U.S. troops, or more about Osama Bin Laden's role in the whole mess, but that is not what the film is about. Judging the film on what it is, rather than what it is not, I'd have to say this is one of the best films of 2001, and the best war movie since "Saving Private Ryan." It rates an A.
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