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Black Hawk Down

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  • Noel Vera
    War is heck Noel Vera The unholy forces of Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer have come together, and the result is possibly the best film Bruckheimer ( Con
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2002
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      War is heck

      Noel Vera

      The unholy forces of Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer have come together,
      and the result is possibly the best film Bruckheimer ("Con Air," "The Rock")
      has ever produced--which, after all is said and done, isn't saying much.
      "Black Hawk Down," about a military raid by a group of American Rangers and
      Delta Force soldiers gone wrong in Somalia, is a great cartoon-strip tragedy
      of a movie, an anime in live-action where the characters are barely
      distinguishable, their motives not much more complex than the simpleminded
      orders they are given, and the bad guys are etched--literally--in black and

      The film is all of a piece, with some of the prettiest boys in recent cinema
      (Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor) shaved bald for that extra sense of
      vulnerability, then sent off to die in horrifically photogenic ways. The
      film has been lauded for its 'honest' depiction of combat, and Scott, bless
      his soul, partly redeems himself for making "Gladiator" and "Hannibal" by
      getting some of the details right--yes, rocket grenades can fling a body
      some distance like that, yes the sound of a bullet puncturing a man's thigh
      will make a popping sound like that--but on the other hand gets the big
      picture horrendously wrong. As, for example, when he has a holy chorus
      start singing when the Somalis start gunning down helpless Americans--"Music
      to Help You to Heaven," is one way to put it. Add judicious use of slow
      motion, plus some artfully arrange shots of sunlight streaming through
      clouded air (a Ridley Scott trademark), and you have a film that actually
      trivializes what happened in Somalia--all the more terrible because it
      trivializes with (some) subtlety and skill; the gung-ho patriotism and
      propagandizing isn't as baldly apparent as in, say, "Pearl Harbor," an
      earlier Bruckheimer oeuvre.

      The racial mix, incidentally--almost all white soldiers, only one or two
      token blacks, is apparently accurate in reflecting the mix of Ranger and
      Delta Force units. Which begs another unanswered question: how and why did
      they end up that way? Granted the filmmakers were being accurate, would
      they simply show it without regard for how it would look onscreen? When it
      could be the source of some sharp analysis of possible racism in the units
      (another would be the soldiers� casual use of the word �skinnies� to refer
      to Somalians)? I�m not saying they should stop the movie to do an in-depth
      racial sensitivity seminar on the spot, but there could be a scene, a line
      of dialogue, even an image at least suggesting the complexity of the issue.

      It�s not as if such a thing were impossible. Most of the ambivalence we
      feel about the rebels in �Battle of Algiers� come from that single, terrible
      moment--lasting for a few moments, at most--where we see all these veiled
      women pause, after having planted their bombs, to look about them at the
      people they are about to kill. It can be that simple, that momentary, and
      still be able to upset the smooth surface of conviction on display. The
      images they do manage to include--a woman clutching her children, another
      woman running, eventually picking up a gun to fire--are whisked by
      effortlessly, without much emotional weight or conflict (how hard is it to
      pity a poster image of a mother and her children?). It doesn�t help to
      mention the scene where a captured American soldier is interrogated by a
      Somalian officer--the way he�s shot and directed, he could be your
      standard-issue James Bond villain, complete with foreign accent and
      ponderous, portentous dialogue (�Do you theenk you can get away with this,
      Meester Bond�?�).

      And it's more than that; it's the timing of the release, not long after
      September 11. Other producers have put off their projects a little longer
      (Scharzenegger's "Collateral Damage," John Woo's "Windtalkers") and their
      decision to do so may be debatable, but releasing this film at this point of
      time smacks of exploitation. Maybe not for profit--it's possible the
      filmmakers really believe America needs a film like this (a horrifying
      thought of a different kind)--but definitely to catch the zeitgeist, to
      salve the wound that is America's fighting spirit.

      Some critics have defended the film's shallowness, saying it's an act of
      immersion, of dipping you into a slice of authentic combat to show you what
      war is really like, and as I've noted, the film succeeds, partway. But
      showing combat without context is usually done with the battle set in a
      distant period where context is almost irrelevant (Akira Kurosawa's "Seven
      Samurai," set in Japan's feudal past), or some years past, where the context
      is pretty much well-known (John Irvin's "Hamburger Hill," which was set in
      Vietnam). "Black Hawk Down" actually seems to make an effort to soft-pedal
      the fact that the Americans were there for a supposedly humanitarian reason,
      to allow food to be taken to Somalians dying of starvation--that irony
      doesn�t sit well with the suspicion that their present attack on Afghanistan
      is possibly motivated by a simple thirst for vengeance. The film takes an
      obscure episode in American military history and with the producers probably
      knowing the parallels it invokes with the war in Afghanistan--perhaps even
      tailor-fitting the film to point up the parallels--it bangs the drum loudly.

      I think this is a dangerous thing. I think now, especially after September
      11 and the war in Afghanistan, we need more people questioning American
      policy on war and terrorism, not less. We need to realize that civilians
      are being killed in Afghanistan, as much as if not more than died at the
      World Trade Center, and we need to remember that the Afghan terrorists--and
      the man leading them--were in many ways a creation of American foreign
      policy in the first place. "Black Hawk Down" would like us to think
      instead: "things can go wrong in war, Americans can screw up their
      operations, but they are in the right, they are the noble race. And they
      never leave their men behind." That last statement is almost a mantra; it's
      on the movie poster and it's repeated several times throughout the film,
      possibly a reaction to what happened in Vietnam, where they did leave men
      behind. The film is about a tragic event, but a tragic event carefully
      skewed to uplift, not to question. It's a travesty, and an insult to the
      people who actually died in Somalia--for the record: nineteen Americans,
      around a thousand Somalians--because it distorts the reasons why they died.
      The casualty figure, incidentally, tells the story of America's superiority
      in military firepower and fighting tactics; the film, on the other hand,
      tells of the superiority of their cinematic firepower and propaganda

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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