RECAP: Black Hawk Down
Black Hawk Down (2001): Ridley Scott
October 1993 was a bad time for Somalia. Beset by self-proclaimed president Mohamed Farrah Aidid and, at the time, the world’s worst famine, which he evoked, Somalia, and especially its capital Mogadishu, needed help.
The United Nations sent peacekeepers who were handcuffed to oppose Aidid. The United States sent many of its best soldiers. Those soldiers spent a long period searching for Aidid to no avail. Then, one afternoon, they learned of a meeting of two of Aidid’s top people in the city, and perhaps they could capture them.
That afternoon became one of the worst military results for the US in Africa.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: In a mission to capture a vicious warlord in war-ravaged Mogadishu, an American black hawk helicopter crashes, and American soldiers spend the worst night of their lives trying to save the men trapped inside it.
There’s a million buzz-cut guys in Black Hawk Down, and they barely stand out. Chief among equals, perhaps, is Josh Hartnett as Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann. Eversmann is drafted early to command a unit of the US Army’s 75th Rangers in the operation to capture Aidid.
Eversmann is “a bit of an idealist.” He was “trained to make a difference,” and that’s what he’ll do, though not in the manner he expects. He assumes leadership of his team like a seasoned vet, telling his charges, “We’re elites. Let’s act like it out there.”
Well, shit goes wrong real fast, and Eversmann goes into damage control. He’s charged with guarding the downed black hawk until the crash survivors can be rescued, and he leads many men through the streets to do that.
One time a gun is shot out of Eversmann’s hand, but Eversmann shoots that man in turn. He and his men dodge RPGs and rounds from .50-caliber machine guns. This within a few minutes of the attack and before reaching the black hawk.
When they reach the chopper, Eversmann orders a perimeter set up, and sits tight for many hours. Other soldiers arrive throughout the day and night, and Eversmann organizes their locations around the street intersection.
Eversmann gives kind words to a man under his command who bleeds out, a scene discussed later. Couple that with a heroic run across the street (is more dangerous than it sounds) and you have him slightly edging other characters for the top spot. That, and Hartnett has top billing and his face on the poster.
I might as well talk about Tom Sizemore as Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight. This Ranger commands the Humvee convoy tasked with transporting the Aidid prisoners from the hotel to the base. This simple mission, which should take 30 minutes, stinks to McKnight. It will be daylight, and in the afternoon when everyone in Bakara Market, “an entirely hostile area,” is “fucked up on khat.”
When everything goes wrong, McKnight stays cool. You won’t catch this guy ducking or running in the firing zone. As countless bullets whizz past him, McKnight strolls to his troops to bark commands as if it’s a Sunday afternoon soccer game.
As the convoy stops again and again, bogged down by roadblocks and gunfire, McKnight realizes he cannot reach the crash site. They bail and return to base with their prisoners.
That doesn’t sit well with McKnight, who studies the bloody prisoners like they are responsible for the mess. McKnight returns to the city after the second black hawk crashes, does some more walking under fire, wins the Screamer Award, gets shot in the neck but survives. He’s dope.
Mohamed Farrah Aidid is the villain, but he’s like Rebecca in Rebecca, a character much discussed and never seen. Aidid inspires insane loyalty from thousands of militia (or is it the euphoria, a side effect of khat?) eager to die. I wish we had seen Aidid and learned about his personality. Black Hawk Down is not that kind of movie because it was not that kind of book, instead a blow-by-blow of the conflict.
A militia leader emerges as a face on the ground, but he does little except seem smarter than the other militia.
More than half of Black Hawk Down is an unceasing gunfight in the Bakara Market section of Mogadishu. It’s pointless to relay the blow-by-blow, and anyway you can read that in Mark Bowden’s masterful book of the same name. Instead I’ll focus on some of the technical aspects.
Continuity: Ridley Scott keeps a steady pace throughout the proceedings. With the enormous cast of of mostly white actors wearing gear covering most of their bodies and dirt covering the rest, following who is who and where is a difficult task in any war, and nearly impossible in Black Hawk Down.
At least it should be. But it’s not. Scott helpfully adds details that let the viewer keep track. Characters are often saying (shouting) other names, and those names are written on the helmets. Most of the soldiers on the ground are confused, but several higher-ups have literal birds’-eye views of the battle and relay that information to the combatants. The camera also hovers above the ground showing the view from 1,000 feet.
Sound: Incredible. Actors must have had mics stuffed on their person to be heard so clearly above the cacophony of bullets that last nonstop for about 30 minutes, punctuated only by screaming RPGs. Dialogue is clear, as it should be when most folks are yelling. How did the actors keep their voices through take after take?
Weapons: You don’t need me to tell you the fire power packed here is hot and blazing. The militia carry AK-47s and similar cheap, inaccurate weapons, while the Americans sport M-16s and larger rifles. The locals do have dozens of trucks with mounted .50-cal machine guns.
The black hawks and other American vehicles carry the real badass weaponry. Miniguns spray enormous bullets at RPG-wielding enemies and the Humvees sprout their own .50-cals to bring the thunder down on the enemy.
Black Hawk Down won Oscars for editing and sound, and they were well deserved.
Hoot: Sergeant First Class Norm “Hoot” Gibson is the Delta Force soldier with the most screen time and the biggest set of balls in the Horn of Africa. Hoot is on the front lines time and again, tasked with capturing the Aidid prisoners first, but then he volunteers to return to the city multiple times.
Whether it’s taping grenade pins or telling other soldiers to chill out about whether or not the US should be in Somalia, Hoot does everything calmly. He seems like a guy who should chew gum.
Grimes: Ewan McGregor plays Specialist John Grimes, a guy who spends most of his wars behind a desk, because he has a very particular set of skills, and those include making coffee and typing.
Watching your fellows live (and die) on the front lines is not the reason most people get into the Army, and that’s why Grimes’s getting called into service is kind of fun for him, even though he looks out of place. If you can get past Ewan’s bad American accent, try enjoying his enthusiasm.
Somali militia gunned down are a dime a hundred. The streets are littered with their bodies. The sight amazes and begs disbelief, but that’s kind of how it went down.
Easily the grossest scene of 2001, and perhaps in war movie history, occurs about 2/3 in, just before nightfall, when Jaime Smith is shot in the leg before he reaches Eversmann.
Poor guy takes a round in the thigh, and he’s placed on a table in the relative safety of a building. Eversmann and the medic open his pants, and that’s a huge mistake because that femoral arterial spray hits them. I mean it covers them. That thing’s like a hose when you cover most of the spout with your thumb. And all red.
The screaming. It’s driving everyone crazy, and it’s the reason a medevac is denied. I’m kidding. The evacuation is denied because hundreds of RPG-wielding militia are still on top of their position. If Smith is to live, they’ll have to save him right there.
Eversmann is called in to hold Smith open. Yes, he is to hold open the man’s wound while the medic digs inside his leg to find the bullet that’s crawled into his pelvis so they can close the wound. Well, they get to it. The medic digs up in them guts while Eversmann uses both hands, all fingers on each hand, to claw open the leg wound. The screaming is as insane as the closeups of the wound.
The medic finds the bullet and drags it close to the entry point. Eversmann fumbles with the tools, blood-soaked are his hands. We get a full-frame shot of hands squeezing some things that might be muscle, blood vessel, skin, bullet, something–all of it red. Smith, who’s been denied morphine because it might kill him, passes out.
The medic loses the bullet before they can get it and close the wound. Eversmann tells Smith, when the latter awakens, that all is well. Smith dies pretty soon after that.
I spent this scene making fists and shaking them at its visceral depiction. I won’t forget the blood spray, and I suspect the actors won’t either.
Black Hawk Down speeds up toward its climax. The first hour of the battle occupies nearly an hour of runtime, while the final half-day takes about a half-hour.
The UN and Pakistani peacekeepers hold parts of Mogadishu and a staging ground at the Pakistani Stadium. The UN was not informed of the American strike against Aidid, so it wasn’t immediately ready for a rescue mission desperately needed.
So it’s not until 2323 when a convoy of armored personnel carriers and Humvees disembarks from the stadium to save the remaining soldiers pinned down around the first black hawk.
Over in Bakara Market, Eversmann has just watch Smith die horrifically, and he’s thinking too much. Hoot comes in to proverbially slap some sense into him. “You’re thinking,” Hoot says. “Don’t. It’s just war.” Who lives and who dies isn’t up to us’ it’s up to fate.
That pep talk and more incoming militia foreground the present to the soldiers holed up at the four corners of the block surrounding the downed black hawk, still with medics and two surviving soldiers aboard receiving treatment.
Two gunships fly toward the crash site, less concerned about RPG fire now that it’s night. The gunships find the area crawling with gun firing men, but they can’t tell the good from the bad. They need an infrared beacon to mark the targets.
Eversmann takes charge of the moment. He seizes the beacon and, calling for cover, runs across the street to throw the device, about the size of a softball, onto the roof of the next building. That he isn’t shot by the dozens of enemies is a miracle, and the movie recognizes it, showing his efforts in slow motion.
Eversmann marks the target and two gunships kill the shit out the bogeys, spraying the roofs with countless, unceasing gunfire that lights the sky like the fourth of July. It’s a remarkable example of the technological divide between Americans and the Somali, all the example you need to understand how thousands of locals could die against 19 Americans.
The convoy arrives to rescue first the wounded men two blocks from the crash site and then the crash site itself. The time is 0205. McKnight is there, still walking around, glad to meet Eversmann. There’s slow motion again of both sides firing and the rain of spent shells.
The UN troops must power saw into the downed helicopter to safely extract the injured men. There’s some second-guessing the mission, but armed forces commander Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) is on the line to remind them, “No one gets left behind,” he says. Skip ahead three hours and the men are removed. Three hours of sitting in the middle of street taking fire. Sure, the gunships helped hold back the tide, but that’s a long time to wait.
Now for the extraction. The wounded take up the room in the transports, so Eversmann, Hoot, and other able Rangers and Delta Force are forced to run alongside the trucks or ride on top. No one dares to ride, so they run.
As the sun rises after the most hellish night of their lives, the joggers are separated from the convoy. They know the direction to run, but their dehydration, fatigue, heavy gear, and the continual gunfire hailing their way takes its toll. Guys are puking for take your pick of reasons. They’re running out of ammo.
Suddenly, joking through smoke/fog/mist/haze or whatever it is, laughing children show up to guide them. The men, emboldened and overwhelmed, run through rows of cheering locals. Some people in Mogadishu like them and support their mission.
Slowly they jog into Pakistani Stadium and find, of all things, men bearing water glasses served on trays. Some of the survivors find the energy to laugh.
Later that day, Eversmann finds Hoot gearing up to return to Bakara Market yet again. Men still languish in the city. People, Hoot says, will ask him why he does what he does. “They won’t understand,” Hoot says. It’s not about him. “It’s about the man next to you. That’s it.” Besides, it’s Monday, a whole new work week.
No one gets left behind.
This movie plays it serious.
Filmmakers descended upon Morocco to depict Somalia, the situation in actual Somalia being less than ideal for filming the movie.
The Mogadishu of Black Hawk Down resonates for its ruin and decrepitude, a dusty, rubble-filled wasteland littered with roadblocks and pockmarked from munitions fire a minute old or a decade old. When soldiers take cover behind a plant-covered wire frame, that green stands out like an anachronism.
The movie covers enough of the city to make one wonder how people could live there. Yet live there they do. Most of the action occurs in Bakara Market, presumably the most war-torn area of a war-torn city, and every inch of it looks awful. One of the American informants drives a car through the city and it might as well be an alien ship traveling through the Stone Age.
There’s not a single whole thing or person in Mogadishu, and that reflects on a job well done.
Black Hawk Down overlays the Somali situation to start, panning across several emaciated and impossibly alive-but-starving people, telling us that Aidid is using hunger as a weapon. An early scene shows militia killing Somali as they try to take food from a UN shipment, telling the crowd that the food belongs to Aidid.
The American soldiers fighting later in the movie are heroes opposing the monstrous, inhumane war lord struggling to ward off challengers. Whether or not American troops had a place in Somalia outside the UN jurisdiction is a point not addressed in the movie. That Aidid sucks is addressed, and how.
Black Hawk Down took a lot of heat for its depiction of the Somali. Filmmakers didn’t hire a single Somali actor to play the hundreds of Somali depicted (and mostly killed).
The movie grazes flag-waving territory without doing so. Aidid is characterized as a monster, no doubt, ready to commit genocide to achieve power. The movie comes right out and says that hunger is Aidid’s weapon.
Yet we never see Aidid. Some of his underlings we hear from, and we watch dozens, hundreds of Aidid’s men martyr themselves to remove the American menace. The Americans capture several people at the Olympic hotel, but we never learn who they are. Did the get the VIPs? We don’t know.
It’s hard to believe that more than 1,000 men would give their lives to stop a convoy of American trucks capturing their top brass, but that’s what really happened. Did the movie question American involvement in Somalia? No. Was Aidid wrongly characterized? Fuck no.
- (3) Automatic real-life war bonus.
- (1) Eric Bana, Josh Hartnett, Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor, Tom Hardy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Ioan Gruffudd–Is Black Hawk Down the hunkiest movie ever made?
Summary (42/68): 62%
Black Hawk Down‘s action scenes are documentary-authentic, with crisp sound and editing, helping the viewer follow the action when the soldiers in real life barely could.