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Black Hawk Down

Supercharged action film or war propaganda?

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One of the most anticipated films of the year arrived in town last Friday. What's different about this one is that Black Hawk Down was probably looked forward to by people who had read the original book by Mark Bowden more than by film fans per se. It's no wonder. The print version of Black Hawk Down was a masterpiece of reportage in which Bowden did the near-impossible, creating a taut, page-turning narrative out of an event (a deadly 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia) that was completely chaotic at best. Observers of the national political scene have been chomping at the bit over this one, too, because of the natural emotional links, in these post-9/11 times, to soldiers currently in Afghanistan -- and to those who, if White House hints are reliable, may be going back in to Somalia in the future. The early film reviews have been mixed. Some critics, including CL's Matt Brunson, say the film is too much techno-action and too little character development. Others say it's a brilliant, if grueling, depiction of heroism. Bowden's book certainly emphasized the many true tales of individual heroism that took place in Mogadishu rather than the immediate military or political implications of the battle. Above all, it was a story of men in a desperate situation trying to help each other get out of it. But considering our changed worldwide political situation, as well as the very real possibility of a return to Mogadishu, moviegoers' reactions can't be the same as readers' were a couple of years ago. Some may leave the theater teary-eyed with patriotism, others just as teary-eyed over the futile waste of it all. What's needed more than anything else is context. Why were these soldiers in Somalia to begin with? Why did much of the city stand up in a violent rebellion against them? Critics disagree whether the filmmakers provide enough context to lift the movie above the level of an intense shoot-em-up. Below, we give two different views of Black Hawk Down: Matt Brunson's review of the film, and journalist Danny Schechter's view that the movie serves as a recruitment film for future Third World engagements.

-- John Grooms

 


Under Fire

Fact-based film bombards viewers into submission
By Matt Brunson

While September's terrorist attacks forced studios to hold a couple of fall releases until this year -- Collateral Damage for its terrorism plotline, Big Trouble for its climax involving a bomb on a plane -- a few entrepreneurial filmmakers saw the tragedy as an opportunity to move up the release dates of select pictures in order to make some money off the jingoistic fervor. First up was November's Behind Enemy Lines, basically a cheerleader rally set in Bosnia and so inconsequential a film that even 1942's all-but-forgotten WWII comedy Star Spangled Rhythm will have a more robust shelflife in the long run. And now comes Black Hawk Down, which, given its limited-release pattern (it opened in NY and LA in December) and "For Your Consideration" Oscar ads in the trade publications, is gunning for award glory as well as box office riches.
I suppose it's possible this adaptation of Mark Bowden's best-selling novel could score a Best Picture nomination -- the critics at Time, Newsweek and USA Today are among its most ardent supporters -- but more likely it will be overlooked for motion pictures that come closer to expanding the parameters of their respective genres, be it the musical (Moulin Rouge), the murder-mystery (Mulholland Drive), or something else. Black Hawk Down, by comparison, adds precious little to the long line of Hollywood war pictures -- on the contrary, the movie seems to exist in a vacuum or bubble, hermetically sealed off from the emotional pull that helped define most of the great war flicks.

As in Bowen's fact-based book, the movie centers on the 1993 mission of a crack team of US soldiers to enter the civil-war-torn city of Mogadishu, Somalia, and snatch a pair of key aides to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. But what initially appeared to the soldiers to be an in-and-out assignment quickly turned disastrous, resulting in two downed Black Hawk helicopters and scores of US soldiers doing their best to remain alive long enough for their comrades to rescue them.

Aside from the obligatory opening scrawl, the movie fails to provide much in the way of context, either the country's politics or recent history (including US involvement in the region); that may not sound like a big deal -- after all, WWII yarns like Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen didn't exactly spend any of their running times tracing Adolf Hitler's ascendancy -- but the unfamiliarity of this conflict to most Americans would dictate that this material at least be placed in some sort of barebones context (compare this to 1999's looking-better-every-day Three Kings, the Gulf War drama that repeatedly addressed difficult issues in the middle of its gold heist plotline).

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