Although cut off in a hostile Mogadishu neighborhood for 17 hours, the American Rangers and Delta Force commandos escaped being slaughtered en masse by displaying extraordinary courage and discipline under fire.
In a remarkable feat of arms, they killed about 55 followers of Aidid for each American who died. Both sides were brave enough to die, but the Americans were also calm enough to kill. Unlike the ill-trained Somalis, the Americans generally took aim before pulling the trigger.
"Black Hawk Down" must be action-movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer's penance for making "Pearl Harbor." Based closely on a meticulously reported best-seller by Mark Bowden and directed by master craftsman Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner" and "Gladiator"), "Black Hawk Down" is honest, intense, austere, and thought-provoking.
Bruckheimer deserves applause for lavishing $90 million on a movie whose only flaw is that it doesn't make for a terribly enjoyable evening out. Despite the heroism of the fighting men, the 100 consecutive minutes of carnage may leave you feeling like the great Civil War general William T. Sherman, who once protested, "I am tired and sick of war. ... War is hell."
The virtues of "Black Hawk Down" include its lack of bogus "diversity" casting. For example, there are no female soldiers on screen. In fact, the film makes calls for women in combat, such as Scott's own 1997 movie "GI Jane," look ignorant. The men humped into battle 40-50 pounds of ammunition alone, yet soon wished they had carried twice that much.
Similarly, only one of the 40 American soldiers depicted is black. (Special Forces tend to be much whiter than the rest of the Army.) That's not good for box office -- African-Americans buy about a quarter of all movie tickets - but the filmmakers were committed to showing it the way it was.
Bruckheimer & Co.'s refusal to make up fictitious "multicultural" characters is especially noteworthy because it blunts the emotional impact of their movie. The dozens of young white male warriors blur together. Perhaps the filmmakers focused on so many different men because they wanted to honor the maximum number of heroes possible. That would be admirable, but I find that in movies I can reliably distinguish no more than five characters of the same sex, race, and age. "Black Hawk Down" violates my rule of thumb by nearly an order of magnitude. Worse, every American wears almost the same uniform, grime, and haircut.
On the other hand, the military buzzcut imposed on Josh Hartnett, who has the largest role as an idealistic sergeant, helps him attain the morose dignity he lacked in "Pearl Harbor" and "O." In those movies, his trademark gnawed-by-rodents hairdo (to the despair of his agent, he normally insists upon cutting his hair himself), combined with his alarmingly low forehead, made him look rather defective.
The slums of Rabat, Morocco, stand in well for Mogadishu, which is all slums. Scott regretted, however, having to use brawny Congolese actors to play Somalis, who are elegantly slender. (David Bowie's Somali supermodel wife Iman is one example.)
Although many film critics have denounced "Black Hawk Down" for "lacking ideas," it is far more valuable than an explicitly "anti-war" or "pro-war" movie would be. It simply shows modern war as it is - which is something that citizens need to understand in their bones.
The realism of "Black Hawk Down" inevitably raises important questions, many of which it respectfully leaves to audiences to work out for themselves.
For instance, the movie's title and its slogan "Leave No Man Behind" point out that most of the American casualties were incurred trying to rescue the wounded and the corpses from the first Black Hawk helicopter downed, and then in trying to rescue the rescuers.
Why didn't we just cut our losses and leave the crew to the tender mercies of the Somali mob? "Black Hawk Down" helps you grasp the answer: Soldiers fight much more daringly if they know they all subscribe to the Ranger Creed - which includes the vow "I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy" - than if they were each pondering whether to abandon their comrades before their comrades abandoned them.
The movie also implicitly asks the numerous proponents of invading Baghdad to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein: If the men of Baghdad prove willing to fight from their own apartment buildings, as Aidid's did, do we follow the Clinton administration's precedent of sending in only light infantry no better armed than the enemy? Or, do we protect our own men by calling in heavy weapons to flatten their residential redoubts, with their women and children in them?
These are just some of the questions posed by this important if taxing movie.
Rated "R" for gore far more sickening than in Scott's "Gladiator."