Starring: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs
Rated R for Intense, Realistic, Graphic War Violence, and for Language
At some point, everything is going to go south on you...everything is going to go south and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem...and you solve the next one...and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions? --Mark WatneyWatching this movie again, I thought of Matt Damon's speech at the end of "The Martian" (which was ironically also directed by Ridley Scott). I thought about it in the sense of what it means to be a hero. Sure, we love it when Aragorn leads his army to attack the forces of Mordor in "The Lord of the Rings," but of course, that's a fantasy. Doing the right thing when the odds are against you and your injured or just plain scared out of your mind, that's heroism too.
I think Scott would agree with that sentiment. His telling of the 1993 Mogadishu disaster is essentially the anti-"Lord of the Rings." It's a no-frills, "no bs" version of what happened and why. There's no Hollywoodization of the events. When he uses a certain technique, it's only because he must. Hans Zimmer, who is known for his bombastic scores, is relatively subdued here; accentuating the action but not highlighting it. Character development is minimal, and that's by design. Scott wants us to see these characters as normal people, not colorful "characters." With all that melodrama and style absent there's plenty of room for adrenaline and terror.
It was a simple operation. Or it was supposed to be. A brutal warlord has used tribal conflicts to seize control of a sizable portion of Somalia. He rules it with an iron fist by controlling all of the food supply. With the death toll topping 300,000, the international community intervenes. Pre-emptively led by the U.S. Rangers and Deltas, the goal was to trap the warlord and two of his top advisors. However, with bad intel and worse luck, the operation turned into a bloodbath that left 18 US soldiers dead and hundreds of Somali casualties.
"Black Hawk Down" is less a traditional narrative than a play-by-play telling of how the events unfolded. Scott doesn't go for the emotional highs and lows. He lets what happens speak for itself, and as a result the film feels more realistic than a normal Hollywood war movie. That realism enhances the film's impact and brings its themes to the forefront.
That there are no "standout" performances is by design. Scott trusts his actors and his own skills to allow the audience to identify with the characters because they are normal people. Indeed, the cast is littered with parts by famous actors, some of whom are unrecognizable. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some effective performances. Special mention has to go to Jason Isaacs, whose portrayal of a grizzled, humorless commander is one of his best, and Eric Bana, who plays a man that does the right thing no matter the risk.
Like "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down" is extremely violent. The violence is brutal: body parts get severed (in one case, a whole body), blood flies everywhere, and in one excruciating sequence, a makeshift surgery is presented in its full, graphic glory. Scott spares us nothing to show us how war makes a cruel joke out of human life.
If there's a flaw, it's that Scott has trouble identifying who is where and why. That's partly by intent, but it does lead to confusion. We never get a good idea of how the operation is supposed to go, and the appearances by Sam Shepard (playing the general in charge of the operation) that tell us where everyone is come too infrequently.
It's a small quibble and does little to damage the film's impact. "Black Hawk Down" gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.