BLACK HAWK DOWN
directed by Ridley Scott with Josh Hartnett, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore opens Jan. 18 at Majestic Bay, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others
POOR RIDLEY SCOTT. An enormously talented filmmaker, he's forever relegated to the second rankers by his reliance on others' source material, his reputation fixed between the superior (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise) and the mediocre (White Squall, Black Rain, Gladiator). Based on Mark Bowden's best-selling 1999 account of America's ill-fated 1993 "humanitarian" mission in Somalia, Black Hawk Down would then seem to finally bring Scott the respect he merits. Already it's popped up on several critics' 10-best lists; an Oscar nomination or two would not be undeserved. Like Hitchcock, like few directors today, the man knows lenses; he knows camera placements; he knows how to tell a gripping story suspensefully.
If only he could choose, or control, his scripts better. Down is fundamentally a producer's picture, representing the timely, weirdly prescient fit between Jerry Bruckheimer's production-line patriotism (Pearl Harbor, Crimson Tide, Top Gun) and our current national mood. That mood is: Let's kick some dark-skinned ass; we want payback, big time. Unfortunately, it's also historical revisionism time again, so soon after the greatly inferior Pearl. There, our catastrophic unpreparedness was a good thing, since it set up a tidy third-act revenge. Here, a minor military debacle is transformed into this week's news. Hastily compiled end credits link the 18-hour firefight, which left 18 Americans and an untold numbers of Somalis dead, to the ongoing War Against Osama.
Instead of Wagner, which accompanied Coppola's choppers in Apocalypse Now, Scott's Army Rangers and Delta Force troopers fly into combat to the strains of "Voodoo Chile"—not the Hendrix original, but the even more muscular Stevie Ray Vaughan cover version. (It's a strikingly ominous, wrong-footed choice since Vaughan died in a helicopter crash.) Clearly these boys are headed for a fall—or at least a temporary humbling.
Initially, ho-hum, the overequipped, hubris-ridden grunts are doing a simple 30-minute "extraction" in downtown Mogadishu, then winging back to base in time for ice cream. Right. Down employs every possible omen, portent, and stereotype to hint how wrong things will go. You might as well call the rookie "The Overenthusiastic Guy Who'll Get Killed First." Subtlety is beside the point here. Lord knows what convinced Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner to participate, but they, too, enlist in the clich餠company.
NEEDING A HERO, Down coughs up Pearl Harbor's Josh Hartnett, a fine actor who plays an idealistic Ranger sergeant, Matt. (He's actually called an "idealist," in case you missed the point.) Opposite him is the Delta's lethal badass Hoot (Australian Eric Bana, almost unrecognizably slimmed down after Chopper). They're rivalrous yin and yang until the clutch comes.
As for the others—who cares? Sam Shepard, playing a general, wears dark glasses indoors so he can remove them for a dramatic line reading. Tom Sizemore drives a truck and swears a lot. Built from WWII mythology (particularly Saving Private Ryan), Down's most familiar character is the meaty Sizemore (a Ryan and Pearl vet), who would've fit nicely into a generic '40s foxhole melodrama; the other guys are too buff, too lean, too chiseled. No man could be taken seriously as a G.I. after appearing, like Hartnett, as a Teen People cover boy.
Yet Down's raison d'괲e is combat, and in this respect Scott succeeds brilliantly. Unlike Behind Enemy Lines or Navy Diver or other recent de facto military recruiting commercials at the multiplex, Down ought to have potential enlistees pissing in their pants with fear. Undeclared war isn't just hell—it's fucking hell in the chaotic onslaught of RPGs and AK-47s that overwhelms our boys.
What's most offensive, however, isn't the violence—nor the gratuitous mention of "300,000" famine victims to justify our intervention, loss, and retaliation. Instead, what galls is how legions of faceless, anonymous black men die with less cinematic regard than any film I can recall since Zulu Dawn. Down isn't racist, per se, but it sets a premium value on Caucasian flesh of approximately one white hide to 1,000 African ones. If you Somali "skinnies" touch a single blond hair on our sons' heads, the movie says, expect to die wholesale. And they do. And where's the glory in that?