On Screen

'Black Hawk' Down and Dirty

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2002

"Black Hawk Down" isn't just brutal for its multiple deaths and grisly woundings, blood spritzing into the dusty African air. Or that shot of a severed hand lying absurdly on the ground. That last one's hard to forget.

Ridley Scott's blood-and-guts opera is also a frontal assault on American confidence and that once-unshakable belief that what the world needs is our freedom, our democracy and our Coca-Cola.

But that's not all. This compelling account of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, adapted from Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," is about arrogance, too. It's also a cautionary tale about the importance of military preparedness. It's about watching for scorpions underfoot. And packing infrared goggles and extra water before you climb into that helicopter. And hoping against hope you'll get home alive, even if your innards are hanging out. And wishing to God you'd never set foot in Somalia.

And there's still more to be drawn from Scott's chronicle of this 15-hour skirmish between U.S. elite forces (Army Rangers and Delta Force) and seemingly countless followers of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.

The ancient truths, for example: That sense that death on the battlefield, as all warriors know, leads to the Elysian Fields, Valhalla or Arlington National Cemetery. And perhaps there's this barely perceptible message (at sheepdog-whistle pitch): War is always thus. Know it. Take your place with the valiant and dead. Like others before you.

And there's this, too: What were we thinking?

Sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation, the soldiers' mission is to abduct two of Aideed's top lieutenants.

It's supposed to be a good-guy endeavor. Aideed and his militia have been intercepting international food supplies, causing thousands of Somalians – the food's intended recipients – to starve. Get the food to the hungry. Feed the world. Gentlemen, start your Humvees.

Almost immediately, that higher purpose is dragged, like Hector's body, through the dirt. When two Black Hawk helicopters, Super Six One and Super Six Four, are brought down by Somalian gunfire, Mogadishu becomes a military rescue operation.

But when the troops sent to save the stranded flight crew become pinned down themselves, that rescue turns into an all-points-bulletin: Get out of Hell, but bring every soldier with you, dead or alive. Watch out for that shoulder-fired missile streaking toward you.

The faces of the actors, including Josh Hartnett (the closest to a central character in the movie), Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and William Fichtner, are almost indistinguishable from one another. Their hair is shorn, jaws set, helmets strapped. They're Army.

As the movie spirals into tighter downward coils, those faces become even more alike: covered in blood, dust and grime. Their eyes are wide with terror, disbelief and confusion as they try to make sense of the commands and cross commands screaming into their walkie-talkies.

As if part of some nightmarish video game, the Somalians (nicknamed "skinnies") rush out from behind buildings or from shadowy doorways, guns blazing. Occasionally they use women as shields.

Sometimes, there are three or four of them on a truck with mounted artillery, performing some East African form of drive-by. And there's another one, standing atop a construction site, aiming his missile.

Despite having the world's greatest warmaking technology and best-trained fighters, the Americans are powerless. At one point, a badly wounded Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Sizemore) is barreling through Mogadishu in a Humvee, trying to get away from the deadly rain of bullets. His purpose is to get to the other end of town and rescue the downed flight crew. But he's dependent on overhead surveillance for directions. He's driving too fast, say the helicopter guides overhead. By the time directions are relayed down to him for any particular road or intersection, he has already driven past it. He's going to have to slow down. But if he does, he spits into the radio, he's dead.

Everyone is losing and losing badly. And in Scott's hands, this grand defeat is almost embarrassingly spectacular. Aesthetically, you're in heaven, thanks to Slawomir Idziak's exquisite cinematography, Pietro Scalia's stunning montage and Hans Zimmer's pulsating score. Of course, Scott is the orchestrator. When a soldier sees that hand, for example, the music stops. There's a moment of silence. The soldier is having a reality shift. Then the music returns. And we're back again. Back in hell.

And you're drawn in, like it or not. You can't get away from the immediacy. Or the feeling that you're getting sucked in, too. At the beginning, some of the flight crew – unaware of the bad day they're about to have – are streaking over the Indian Ocean. The shark-infested Indian Ocean, that is. They're like good old boys, or California surfers, whooping it up from above. They're young, eager and, yes, arrogant. And they're playing a song, loud. It's Elvis.

"We're caught in a trap . . . "

BLACK HAWK DOWN (R, 144 minutes)Contains graphic battlefield violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company