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Black Hawk Down
by Lionel E. Deimel

I just left a theatre where I saw the Ridley Scott movie Black Hawk Down, about the disastrous 1993 U.S. military operation in Mogadishu that was part of a U.N. peacekeeping effort. In that operation, intended as a modest undertaking to nab two lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the U.S. lost 19 soldiers in a hellish 15-hour battle. Though I did wince a couple of times and even looked away from the screen, the nonstop action provided little time for reaction, much less reflection. I was, in fact, oblivious of the filmís 150-minute running time, but I was stunned, sad, and weepy when the credits ended. I left the theatre and, in something of a fog, walked quickly through the mall to my parked car.

Black Hawk helicopter

Black Hawk Down is part of a moviemaking trend toward the super realistic depiction of war, a trend most popularly represented by Saving Private Ryan. Black Hawk goes much further than Ryan, however. In that earlier movie, the viewer, after enduring half an hour of D-Day carnage, got a respite from combat. Save for brief moments at the beginning and end of the movie, Black Hawk offers no such respite. The story is that of a battle; there are no subplots, and there is no character development. The battle is bracketed by a few terse sentences that set the scene and provide a sparse epilogue. There is no narration, and, unlike the book on which the movie was based, there are no maps.

Of course, what is most extraordinary about Black Hawk is that the battle depicted is widely regarded as a major U.S. defeat. Americans are not used to seeing war movies where our side loses. Perhaps not since Tora! Tora! Tora! has a war film seemed to offer so little comfort to an American audience. Even Pearl Harbor insisted on adding an upbeat ending based on the Dolittle raid.

Not all reviews of this movie have been positive, but no one has accused it of failing to capture the horrors of modern urban warfare. It has been accused of being confused, devoid of character development, mindlessly glorifying the American soldier, and pandering to the audience by offering up a kind of warfare pornography. The Village Voice even accused it of being a racist film for not placing more blacks on the American side than participated in the actual battle.

Actually, I thought it refreshing to see a film so focused on one event and intent on fairly portraying that event without sentimentality or extraneous material. The story of a raid gone bad is exciting, if painful to watch. Like all the super realistic war portrayals, the viewer has to ask what it must be like to be in the situation on the screen. I asked myself if urban warfare seemed worse that storming the beaches of Normandy (you arenít the fish in the barrel, but neither do you know where the next bullet is coming from), and I wondered why the Army did not blow all the buildings in the area to smithereens. I was impressed that the planners could monitor the situation as well as they could, but I realized that they couldnít see everything, and they could control even less. War is still hell.

The filmmakers seemed intent on delivering some rather commonplace messagesóbe prepared, plan ahead, one fights for oneís buddies, who must not be left behindóbut the larger questions are left ambiguous. Should we have been in Somalia, where starvation was used as a political tool to kill 300,000 people? Was there any hope of doing any lasting good there? Did the U.N. have enough firepower? Did U.S. forces have enough firepower for the operation in question? Was, in fact, the Mogadishu raid a defeat? (U.S. forces killed about 1000 Somalis and achieved their objective of capturing the Aidid lieutenants.) Should we have left Somalia? Did we encourage forces inimical to the U.S. by leaving Somalia after our perceived defeat? (Suggested answers: yes, yes, no, no, no, no, and yes.)

Black Hawk Down may flout the standard Hollywood rules, perhaps even older dramatic rules. It is, however, exciting and thought provoking. Donít miss it.

ó LED, 1/28/2002

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