Jan. 27, 2002

"Black Hawk Down"

       Black Hawk Down was recommended highly by two good friends of mine, both of whom have fairly reasonable taste in movies.  Quite frankly, I think they're both so desperate for a good movie that they don't know what they're looking at or saying anymore.  Perhaps Black Hawk Down is the modern equivalent of a good movie, meaning it's expensive and well-produced, but it pretty much has no script, certainly no depth, no decent characterizations, no suspense, no irony, no political point of view, and no resonance.  However, it is realistic, believable, and actually about something, so it's head and shoulders above most recent films.  Nevertheless, Black Hawk Down is still a flat, dull, noisy movie that ultimately isn't very good.
       The United States' involvement in Somalia in 1993 culminated in one single image that we all saw on TV -- the naked body of a dead American soldier being dragged around the streets of Mogadishu being kicked, spit on, and having garbage thrown at it.  This image plays directly into the only running theme, if you can call it that, to be found in the film -- U.S. Marines do not leave their dead or wounded behind.  This is specifically brought up several times during the film, and causes the American soldiers to have to foolishly (it seemed to me) go back for dead bodies several times that ended up getting many more American soldiers killed.  That a soldier's body being left behind became the key image of the whole battle is ironic, and it's not addressed because, God forbid there should be any irony at all in an American movie, American audiences might become so confused that they'd tear down the theater.
       Since the political situation that caused the U.S. to be there in the first place is never brought up or questioned, on some level I never empathized with the mission.  The soldiers are going to kidnap hostages for what reason?  What possible effect will this have on anything?  None.  It meant nothing.  Our being there meant nothing and grabbing those hostages meant nothing.  And after the debacle of this specific battle, the U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia, so it really and truly meant nothing.  Well, okay, there have been plenty of meaningless military actions throughout history, why choose this one?
       This could all be very rich material for a good writer with a sharp sense of irony and intelligent filmmakers, but, alas and alack, that's not what we're dealing with on Black Hawk Down.  We are dealing with Jerry "Pearl Harbor" Bruckheimer, so we are given the least interesting view of this battle, which is: troops go in, things go wrong, soldiers get killed, it's a mess, boom boom, bang bang, the remaining troops come out.  The end.
       Since so little time is given to the soldiers in the first thirty minutes, when they then start to get killed I never knew who any of them were and subsequently didn't care and felt slightly confused.  On an involvement level the only things this film has going for it is that A. it's upsetting watching young men get killed, and B. it's upsetting watching American soldiers get killed (unless you're not American, I suppose).  On a personal level I couldn't even tell the soldiers apart, let alone feel anything when they died, and that I believe is a huge, unforgivable mistake in a war film.  If it doesn't matter when the characters I'm supposed to be empathizing with get killed, then all you've got left is an exercise in expensive film production -- boy oh boy, there sure are a lot of things blowing up, guys running around, and bullets being fired.  Yeah?  So what?
       You can blow up all the things in the world and I won't care; it's only other people we humans really care about.  If you're not giving me a sense of what the humans feel about this battle -- and we certainly never get any point of view of what the Somalis think or feel -- then you've missed the whole point.  Unless I'm a major stockholder in Boeing, I can't really care about helicopters.
       Look, I'll happily go with a pro or con view of war if that's what the filmmakers really believe.  But to take no point of view at all is to fail.  Completely and utterly. 
       When I've brought up my gripe that there's no lead character, and therefore no point of view, I've been informed that the lead character is "the whole platoon."  Sorry, that just another way of saying there's no lead character.  It's a cop-out; a lame excuse.  A platoon can't be your lead character, only a single person can be.  When I've brought up my issue of not being able to tell any of the soldiers apart, the response I get is that they're all dressed the same with short hair, how could you possibly tell them apart?  Well, Oliver Stone did a fine job of differentiating the characters in Platoon and they too are all dressed the same with short hair.  The difference is called good writing as opposed to bad writing.  The response I've gotten to this issue is, "oh, they meant it to be that way."  Am I actually supposed to believe that the filmmakers intended their expensive film to be uninvolving and dull?  I don't think so.  I think they did the best job they could and it simply wasn't very good.
       However, on the bright side, Black Hawk Down is a big improvement over Pearl Harborand Armageddon, so Jerry Bruckheimer may actually be getting better.  Black Hawk Down is also better than all of Ridley Scott's recent films, so that's a positive sign, too.  Sadly though, Scott began his career with two legitimately good movies, The Duellists and Alien, and has been going downhill ever since.  Although he may have momentarily stopped his downward trend, I sincerely doubt he'll ever return to his earlier high standards.  In fact, I find it very difficult to believe that the same man made The Duellists and Black Hawk Down.  Maybe Ridley disappeared after Alien and his hack brother Tony has been pretending to be him for the past twenty years.  It's not a good explanation, I admit, but at least it's some explanation.  Otherwise, what the hell happened?