An article on the movie "Black Hawk Down" in the Jan. 13 Arts section incorrectly stated that Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann is retired. He is a sergeant first class on active duty at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. (Published 1/29/02)
Eight years ago President Clinton ordered American troops out of Somalia after a covert mission to capture guerrilla clan leaders in Mogadishu went horribly wrong. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed. Seventy-three were wounded. The battered bodies of two Americans were dragged through the city streets by Somali mobs.
Ever since, when the U.S. government has considered sending troops to trouble spots, the collective memory of Somalia as an unmitigated disaster is rekindled.
But when Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" opens nationally Friday, the conventional wisdom will get a jolt. There will still be debate about what lessons to draw from the nightmarish engagement, but millions of moviegoers will see those bloody hours painted as a triumph, at least for the soldiers.
That version of events and the portrayal of what it was like to fight in the streets of Mogadishu were shaped by Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who survived the mission, and by the Department of Defense, which provided extensive support -- Black Hawk helicopters, equipment, trained pilots and Special Forces -- to the film.
With Somalia again in headlines as U.S. intelligence scours the still-lawless African nation for remnants of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, this raw portrayal of more than 100 elite soldiers in a desperate 15-hour urban street fight with thousands of heavily armed Somalis has a special resonance.
The film, two years in the making, was inspired by Mark Bowden's 1999 bestseller, "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," a meticulously researched account of the raid, based on interviews with the soldiers who took part in what has been called America's fiercest firefight since the Vietnam War.
And for many, a moment of infamy.
"There's no doubt that the perception people have of this episode is that it was a total fiasco," Bowden says. "But this was a successfully completed mission. And in the eyes of the military men involved, it's a mission they're very proud of."
Two retired soldiers who fought in that operation signed on as the film's military consultants: Lt. Col. Lee Van Arsdale, who led the rescue column into the heart of Mogadishu, and Col. Thomas Matthews, who commanded the helicopters circling over the battle.
Van Arsdale received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his role in the fighting; Matthews was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
"For the memory of the soldiers who were killed in that combat operation and their families, I felt I should do the best job I could to technically advise on the movie," says Matthews, now working as a civilian in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. "From the beginning, Jerry" -- Bruckheimer, the producer -- "and Ridley said they wanted this to be something special, a tribute to the soldiers in the mission. Everyone involved understood that this was being done for the memory of the men."
When Bruckheimer ("Armageddon," "The Rock," "Pearl Harbor") read Bowden's book in galley form in 1997, he envisioned not the typical Bruckheimer action flick but an inspirational and realistic war film. He recruited A-list director Scott ("Blade Runner," "Alien" and "Gladiator," winner of best picture last year) and persuaded Revolution Studios head Joe Roth to take on the challenge of producing it. He hired a crew of young, relatively unknown actors, including Jeremy Piven, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom, as well as Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and Sam Shepard. After months of scouting locations, the team determined that Morocco would be a safe place to restage the Somalian event.
The United States initially deployed Rangers and Delta Force soldiers to Somalia in 1993 as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. After weeks of trying to capture Mohamed Farah Aideed, a warlord whose forces were stealing food meant for starving civilians, the troops undertook a brazen raid to snatch up two of Aideed's top lieutenants.
It was supposed to be simple. An hour, max. The Rangers, leaving heavy equipment, night scopes, even canteens back at their base, roped down into Mogadishu from Black Hawks to cover the Delta soldiers dropped off minutes before. The Americans rushed the building and captured the targeted clan leaders. Suddenly things got messy.
When one, then two, of the heavily armed Black Hawks were shot down, the ground soldiers fought through an urban hornets' nest to secure the crash sites and protect their wounded buddies before hostile forces got to them. The besieged troops were vastly outnumbered in an urban war with thousands of well-armed men, women and children until a relief column reached them 15 hours later. The Somalian body count was estimated at 500 to 1,000. One downed pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, was captured by the rebels, held for 11 days, then released. The two Aideed lieutenants captured in the operation were set free a few months later.
But to Bowden and the soldiers, this added up to a victory, not a defeat. "If we captured two of bin Laden's top guys like this, it would be called a success," Bruckheimer says. Retired Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann, one of the first Rangers to drop into Mogadishu and portrayed in the film by Josh Hartnett, agrees.
"The reality of war is that good men who are well trained are going to die at the hands of an inferior enemy. That's been true from the time of Hannibal to Gettysburg to Normandy and Mogadishu," Eversmann says. "But I'll tell you until my dying breath that was our finest hour and something I am fiercely proud of. I get really bent, as a lot of the guys do, when I hear people refer to the action on October 3rd and 4th as a failure. That is wrong. That is untrue."
That perception arose, perhaps, because there were few compelling images of the combat itself, much of which was at night. The only bit seen by most Americans was the image of two American soldiers' bodies near the site of a crashed chopper. They'd been stripped and mauled by the frenzied mob, an image that caused such outrage, President Clinton soon withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia.
Until now, few people other than the men who fought that day knew all the tactical details of the mission. That will change with "Black Hawk Down." And the Department of Defense couldn't be more pleased.
"We wanted to show what soldiers encounter in modern warfare, whether it's in Somalia or Afghanistan," says Kathleen Carham Ross of the Army's public affairs office in Los Angeles.
Bruckheimer told the DOD when he was making "Pearl Harbor," another controversial historical film, that he was planning to make "Black Hawk." Before lending support, the Pentagon requested its usual early script review.
"We care if the project is historical, if it's accurate in its depiction of the Army," Ross says. "Obviously there are some scripts that, just by looking at, we know we can't support, like ones where the Army is in the employ of the Devil."
But the Army was already very familiar with Bowden's book, which is often used as a Special Forces training text. Before filming began, the Army trained actors with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga., and in a commando program with the 7th Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C. Some went through the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopter training program at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Boot-camp training for actors in war films is now de rigueur, but "Black Hawk" technical adviser Harry Humphries, a veteran of Bruckheimer's movies, said the training actors went through at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg was the most extensive he's ever seen.
Getting those 65-foot-long Black Hawks, pilots to fly them and guards to protect them in Morocco was a special operation in itself. Arranging for the deployment of arms, equipment and actual U.S. troops to establish what would be, to outward appearance, a working U.S. military base in Morocco for 92 days of filming meant intense negotiations involving the State Department, the Pentagon and the Moroccan Foreign Ministry.
Two down-to-the-wire days before the crucial "insertion" scene was to be filmed, two C-5 transport planes landed near Rabat carrying eight choppers (four Black Hawks and four Little Birds), pilots from the 160th SOAR and more than 100 soldiers from Bravo Company of the 75th Ranger Regiment's 3rd Battalion -- the same company that had fought in Mogadishu.
The bill from the Pentagon: $2.2 million, a small bite of the film's total $90 million budget. The money the studio paid covered the use of the equipment, choppers, transportation, maintenance and repair, as well as the troops' lodging and meals. "They even paid their laundry costs," Ross says.
Van Arsdale and Matthews were on the set in Rabat and Sale, Morocco, every day from "rolling" to "it's a wrap," keeping a close eye on the stuntmen, extras and actors. Of particular importance was making sure the actors wore their uniforms and carried their weapons like real soldiers.
"There's always someone who will find a way to hold their weapon wrong or wear something incorrectly in the background," Van Arsdale says. Even during the film's Dec. 18 Los Angeles premiere, he spotted a detail that demanded correction.
"There's a scene where Eric Bana gets on the helicopter with his gun muzzle pointing up," he says, shaking his head. "That's wrong. You always get on the helicopter with the muzzle pointed down so that if it discharges, the bullet won't hit the rotor blade and make you crash. We always harped on that, but that was a second-unit shot and neither Tom nor I were there for that."
In the end, did the filmmakers hit the mark? "It's frank and brutal and about as realistic as you can get," Matthews says. "I think it's a tribute to the guys and gives people an incredible insight into what modern warfare is like."
Despite a few errors and cobbled character composites necessary to condense a 15-hour mission into a taut 2 1/2-hour movie, the soldiers speak highly of the level of realism.
"It's very authentic," says Eversmann, who flew to Casablanca, then was driven to Rabat, then out into the desert during the filming.
"The driver drops me off and I walk over a hill, and the first thing I see is a sea of Somalis attacking a grain distribution center and the hair on the back of my neck just stood up. That scene, the way they were dressed, the backdrop, it was unbelievably accurate," Eversmann says. "It was so surreal that I had to stop, sit down and take a breath. That has been my impression of the whole film."
Originally slated for a late spring release, the filmmakers moved up the Los Angeles and New York release dates to Dec. 28, in part for Oscar consideration. But they also felt the time was right in this post 9-11 patriotic climate.
"Black Hawk" is definitely not for folks with weak stomachs. Remember those first 20 hit-the-beach minutes of "Saving Private Ryan"? This may be gorier, with rockets lodged in bellies, torsos blown apart, hands and legs ripped off by grenades.
One of the film's most graphic scenes is also one of the most touching. A geyser of blood spurts from a soldier's thigh. There's no hope of rescue, so his buddies hold him tight as a determined medic shoves his arm inside the screaming boy's groin to find the severed femoral artery and stop the bleeding.
"The movie realistically depicts young men fighting the enemy up close, fighting for their buddies and, like the Rangers' creed, never leaving a fallen comrade," Eversmann says. "I hope people see this movie and leave thinking, 'Wow, we have brave men who are committed to defending our country.' That's what I hope will come from this."