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Black Hawk Down sells "good war"

MOVIES: Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden, starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore.

Review by Stuart Easterling | January 18, 2002 | Page 9

BLACK HAWK Down is a war movie that hopes to ride the wave of post-September 11 patriotism to box office success.

The story is based on a 1993 U.S. Special Forces raid in Somalia, which intended to capture several associates of Somali "warlord" General Farah Adid. But the mission quickly goes awry, with helicopters shot down, soldiers separated from one another and convoys lost on the streets of Mogadishu--all while facing unremitting hostile fire.

The original battle and the ensuing rescue operations lasted through the night, and led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and roughly 1,000 Somalis.

Director Ridley Scott developed the art of cinematic spectacle and visual imagery in past films such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. In Black Hawk Down, he uses his talents to depict the fear, violence and confusion of battle. The protagonists are equipped with an array of modern weapons that can reduce another human being to a pulp, and the bulk of the film is devoted to showcasing their effects.

Ultimately, however, all of this is in the service of patriotism. It's true that there are very few scenes in the movie for flag-wavers to cheer. The sentiment Black Hawk Down most evokes is one of horror. Young people--filled with a mixture of fear and bravado--leap into war and meet with barbarism, as their friends are quite literally blown to bits.

The film has been criticized for its cardboard-cutout characters. Yet watching someone weep as his friend bleeds to death, or seeing someone ask another soldier to say goodbye to his daughters for him, immediately humanizes them. You can feel that there are daughters growing up without their father somewhere because of this event.

The real cardboard cutouts in the film are the thousands of Somalis the Americans are fighting. While Black Hawk Down expresses the fear and tragedy faced by the people in U.S. uniforms, the Africans seem to feel nothing.

Wave upon wave of them come at the U.S. soldiers, their faces twisted with rage and cruelty. Whether the daughters of dead Somalis will miss them isn't something the film dwells on. The U.S. soldiers don't seem to think much of them either--they refer to the famine-stricken Somalis as "skinnys."

Like countless war movies before it, Black Hawk Down systematically dehumanizes "the enemy." Meanwhile, the Somalis' reasons for fighting seem to make no sense. We're left asking: Do they just not want to be fed by their American saviors?

The general in charge of the operation repeats more than once that he fears for the soldiers' safety, because by nightfall, "the whole city will descend on them." But why would a city attempt to destroy its benefactors? Black Hawk Down carefully dodges this issue, and instead focuses on the firepower.

Meanwhile, we get the usual formulas from past war movies: the unwelcome meddling of politicians in military affairs, the harmful rivalry between sections of the armed forces, the problem of U.S. troops who want to do good having their hands tied by the United Nations.

This shouldn't be surprising, given that the filmmakers worked hand in glove with the U.S. military to make Black Hawk Down. The film's gala opening in Los Angeles featured generals along with celebrities.

Black Hawk Down briefly toys with the issue of whether the U.S. should have intervened in Somalia. That the U.S. might have stepped in because of Somalia's oil reserves and strategic location--and not to help the hungry--is not considered.

Like so many other American war movies, Black Hawk Down gently questions the intervention from an isolationist perspective--the "America should mind its own business" and "America shouldn't fight other people's wars" argument of right-wingers like Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms. In such movies, as with Black Hawk Down, we are meant to ask: Can we really do any good in trying to pacify natives as hopeless as these?

In the end, Black Hawk Down seems to want to convince us that "war is hell." But it's far from an antiwar movie. Rather, it's a story about a mission that went wrong in a "good war."

Meanwhile, the film studiously avoids the bigger picture. In doing so, it helps to provide yet another justification for U.S. intervention abroad, despite the brutal consequences it portrays.

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