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'Black Hawk Down'

Friday, January 18, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine if the Almanac said of your country what it currently says of the "Somali Democratic Republic: pop. 7 million; per capita income $600; President, vacant; Prime Minister, vacant; no functioning government in place."


RATING: R for extreme violence and language

STARRING: Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Thomas Guiry

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

Critic's call:


This, a decade after Somalia was plunged into anarchy by mutually hostile guerrilla groups, whose civil war combined with the worst-ever drought of 1992 to produce total economic ruin and famine in which one-third of the people were starving to death. U.S. food-relief efforts were taken over by the U.N. in May 1993. But before leaving, the Americans would undertake one last daring mission in the ravaged capital of Mogadishu: to capture two top warlords not unlike our latter-day Osama and Omar.

Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" is a devastating depiction of that mission possible-turned-impossible. From its ominously calm beginnings to the bitter end, Scott's focus never wavers: His exclusive concern is the men -- soulfully played in superb ensemble fashion by Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana, William Fichtner and Thomas Guiry.

We will get to know them well, first through their soft voices in a series of elliptical night-before-battle conversations. Dialogue among these jittery-but-disciplined soldiers during their preparations is as undramatic as it would be in life. Only the beads of sweat on an idealistic young lieutenant's forehead betray his emotional state beneath the nervous banter and card games.

A philosopher wonders about the enemy he's about to face: "They're poor, hungry and uneducated -- can we do something for them other than shoot them?" Some play basketball to beat the agony of waiting. A mess-hall veteran champs at the bit ("I made coffee all through Desert Storm!"). One soldier has a seizure. An asthmatic one clings to his inhaler. Another refuses the envelope a comrade hands him: "I'm not takin' a death letter." A long-distance phone call goes unanswered despite the repeated whisper, "Pick up, baby...!"

In pre-battle superstition, every ritualistic move and noise is pregnant with good or bad luck -- and fear of the unknown. But, "We're Rangers -- the elite!" They'll be ready when the moment comes.

It comes from the businesslike voices of the Joint Operations Center, whose load-up order sends the troops into Black Hawk helicopters for ferrying to the Red Zone. The operation has surprise on its side and goes well at first -- until a single Yank slips from his 'copter rope and falls to the ground. "No one gets left behind" is the firm -- and fatal -- order. The initiative is lost. A Black Hawk is down. A disastrous mission quickly turns into even a more compound-disastrous series of rescue missions.

Scott's terrifyingly realistic chronicle is dark, violent and relentless with a grueling hour-long battle sequence that tears apart the viewer no less than the soldiers under fire.

Say again? they scream into their radios. It is too noisy to hear, too dusty to see.

Which way?

I thought YOU knew!

A relief convoy is just six blocks away, but it might as well be six miles. They are lost in a strange foreign city where everyone -- even children -- are armed. Snipers line the rooftops and lurk around every corner. The only thing more petrifying than the explosions are the silences that punctuate them.

Director Scott's visual and narrative rendering of this chaos in semidocumentary style sets "Black Hawk Down" apart from other war films, including "Saving Private Ryan." The Spielberg epic (which also starred Sizemore) with its gigantic, three-hour scale was a definitive statement of war as hell and heroism in the field. "Black Hawk's" narrow scope achieves that impact in a leaner, more "military" manner, minus Hollywood histrionics and excessive F/X.

Scott's past work seems to have prepared us for or led up to this, in a strange way: "The Duelists" ('77), a lavish adaptation of Conrad's story about two feuding officers in the Napoleonic Wars; "Alien" ('79) the landmark sci-fi terror tale; "Blade Runner" ('82), his bleak projection of 21st-century Los Angeles; "Thelma & Louise" ('91), the dramatic ballad of feminism.

What those previous films will not prepare you for, however, are some of the most horrendous and difficult-to-watch medical emergency scenes ever filmed. Reaching in to find and clamp off the main artery of a blown-off leg, for example, will defeat all but the strongest health-professional stomachs.

Be forewarned about that, but also about the brilliant direction and acting. There are no real villains here, just lots of victims -- and more than a few heroes, some with the most touching, Christ-like qualities. Certain moments -- a soldier falling once, twice, three times on the run -- are wrenchingly similar to Stations of the Cross.

"Black Hawk Down" is not about politics but, rather, about the few sent to carry out what the millions back home have theoretically willed. It brings to mind another American defeat, the one at The Alamo. But for those who died in Somalia, there will be no ultimate satisfying victory or grand monument to commemorate their sacrifice -- except this film.

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