In 10YA’s third revisit into Sir Ridley Scott’s oeuvre, Mark Batalla of PixelDrip Gallery takes a closer look at this film’s depiction of the Battle of Mogadishu, the political and social impact within its gritty, intense storytelling and filmmaking style, and its lasting impact on the world of videogames.
I consider Saving Private Ryan to be the definitive cinematic World War II experience. I hold Black Hawk Down in the same regard when it comes to contemporary 90s conflicts. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that feels that way. One has to look no further than the videogame industry’s many attempts to recreate the visceral experience of watching this film. There’s NovaLogic’s Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, which was based on the events of the Somali Civil War. But that game never reached the heights of popularity as 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which had an action sequence leading up to its most iconic moment where the player had to rescue a downed Black Hawk helicopter pilot in a hostile urban environment. Fast forward to 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and that game has a mission that takes the player through a hostile Mogadishu.
So what made the October 3-4 Battle of Mogadishu so important? The final casualty count that appears during the credits (19 American soldiers were killed, with over 1,000 Somalis dead) almost downplays the events of that day. Sure, it was high on the Somalis side, but war movies and the action genre have accustomed the movie-going audience to absurdly high kill counts. Even the results of the battle weren’t significant to the overall state of Somalia, as the credits also not that warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid would continue on with his influence until his eventual death in battle three years after the events in the movie. And to this day, Somalia remains in conflict.
It wasn’t the results of the Battle of Mogadishu, but rather the actions taken by the soldiers involved with the operation that make Black Hawk Down such a compelling watch. At its core, the film is simply the story of heroic bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. The film’s slogan is “leave no man behind” and that line is often repeated by Major General William Garrison at each unfortunate turn of events. And boy, do things go south. The Battle of Mogadishu was an operation where everything that could possibly go wrong, did go wrong. Even when the armored reinforcements arrived to rescue the encircled troops, there wasn’t enough room in the vehicles so a number of soldiers had to trek back to friendly territory on foot in what would become known as the “Mogadishu Mile.” And once the soldiers made it back to the U.N. Safe Zone, there’s the realization that Operation Gothic Serpent isn’t done and that they would have to go back into hostile territory in due time.
There are several great dichotomies going on throughout the film. One is the soldiers’ portrayals before the start of the operation compared with their state after it on the following day. The United States Army Rangers, Delta Force, and Special Operations Aviation Regiment have an extended downtime sequence at the beginning of the film. This helps establish each of the characters’ respective personalities because it does get hard to visually keep track of them on the battlefield. It also points out that a number of them haven’t been involved in direct combat, much less shot at a person. Their transformation is that much more magnified once the fighting starts.
Another dichotomy is between Josh Hartnett’s Ranger Staff Sergeant Eversmann and Eric Bana’s Delta Force Sergeant First Rank Norm Hooten. The two of them couldn’t be any more different from each other. Eversmann was unexpectedly thrown into the leadership position over the Rangers after his Lieutenant had a seizure. Throughout the operation, he’s forced to adapt quickly in order to keep his men out of danger. On the other hand, the combat hardened Hooten goes into battle situation after battle situation without a second thought. At film’s end, Hooten explains to Eversmann that he isn’t a war junkie. He does his duty because the lives of the men serving next him are all that matter on the battlefield. Eversmann realizes that he shares a similar perspective as he recalls a moment when a friend asked him if he felt he was a hero for fighting somebody else’s war. He feels that “nobody asks to be a hero. It just sometimes turns out that way.”
A third dichotomy is the portrayal of the American soldiers and the Somali militia, which leads to one of the main criticisms about Black Hawk Down. One could easily accuse this film of dehumanizing the Somali population. Despite the opening recap that described how the civil war was causing famine on a “biblical scale,” not much effort was shown in differentiating the opposing factions. Three of the four Somali characters with significant screen time were part of Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s forces. The Somali militia itself was presented as a giant hostile mob. During aerial surveillance shots, they could be seen swarming around the helicopter crash sites. From the ground force’s perspective, they were a faceless threat that would rapidly appear and disappear through the market alleys, windows, and rooftops. For better or for worse, it worked at establishing the danger that the Americans faced.
And yet, you can’t fully fault the film because Ridley Scott knows the importance of showing the other side’s perspective. Even with their limited screen time, the Somali characters call into question America’s involvement with their country. While being interrogated, warlord Osman Atto explains that Somalia isn’t inhabited by unintelligent savages. There’s a history of civil war that rages in the country and the presence of U.N. and American forces aren’t going to magically cause the conflicts to cease.
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
Better after gaining more knowledge about the Battle of Mogadishu since my initial viewing. Ridley Scott knows how to set a mood and Black Hawk Down is no exception. The film conveys Mogadishu as the very last place anybody would ever want to do battle. I’ve seen this film plenty of times and it still has the same emotional impact on repeated views. It’s shot in the gritty, shaky style as many of Scott’s newer films but it makes sense within the context of battle. And the award winning sound just immerses you in the conflict.
What really changed for me though is my viewpoint on war. When I was a teenager, I was war buff. I would spend weekday afternoons watching World War II shows on the History Channel. I went to the Van Nuys Air Show every year to check out the fighter planes. I bought every book I could find on military vehicles and operations. I could grasp the horrors of war, but not necessarily the morality. Black Hawk Down, along with Three Kings, was what started to give me a different outlook. A couple years later I finally had the opportunity to really take time to analyze warfare through a variety of college courses. I don’t consider myself a strict pacifist but I’m also not as hawkish as I used to be.
What I like best about Black Hawk Down is that it doesn’t get too heavy-handed with a message as say Oliver Stone would if given the reins. The film’s ambiguity allows for a person to enjoy it regardless of having a pro-war or anti-war stance. The number of casualties remain the same, and nothing can take away from the bravery of those involved in the conflict. U.N. and American involvement in Somalia came about from the best of intentions, yet failed to accomplish lasting beneficial effects. And really, isn’t that the unfortunate circumstance of modern warfare in general?
My favorite cinematic depictions of modern warfare are The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, and Three Kings.
I was not a big fan of Josh Hartnett at the time, but the trailer sold me on seeing it. You know the one I’m talking about. The one with “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” by Moby.
This movie had quite the line up of actors: Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hardy, and Orlando Bloom. Wait a minute. They’re not American. They took our jobs!
I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track of all the reviews coming out on 10YA, but 2001 was a banner year for what would become the cast of Game of Thrones. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau in Black Hawk Down, Sean Bean in The Fellowship of the Ring, Michelle Fairly in The Others, Iain Glen in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mark Addy in A Knight’s Tale, and Jason Momoa in Baywatch.
And since this is the last 10YA post of 2011, I’d also like to mention a couple more things:
Even though I met her a couple years prior, I didn’t really get around to talking in depth about movies with Stevi until Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, which just so happens to be another Ridley Scott/Orlando Bloom picture. In that sense, Black Hawk Down seems like a fitting way to cap off this year. I started doing guest posts on Ten Years Ago back in March and I look forward to contributing more in 2012. The blog offers a great look back on cinematic history with its retrospective lens. Even though I live two states away from Marcus and Stevi, it’s nice to know that I can still keep in touch and talk movies with my friends through these posts.