With suggestions mounting that Somalia may be the next theater in the war on terrorism, it would be nice to report that "Black Hawk Down" is a world-wise reminder of what happened the last time we went in there. Possessed of a knock-down visual flair, the film does indeed demonstrate what a hassle the Battle of Mogadishu was -- for us. But despite some meek debate in the first act, the consequences our actions had for anyone else barely attain the level of a leitmotif.
Adapted from a nonfiction account by Mark Bowden, the film dramatizes the October 1993 operation in Moga-dishu that became a huge boondoggle for the American armed forces. A coalition of Rangers and Delta Force soldiers was ordered to kidnap the lieutenants of a Somali warlord, but, as shown here, the crash of two U.S. helicopters turned the mission into a 15-hour nightmare in which rescue forces battled mobs of armed Somalis to reach their stranded brethren. Eighteen Americans died -- and about 500 locals, but none of the latter is a major character in this film.
Is there an actual character in "Black Hawk Down?" The story stars a battalion of "our boys," depicted only as stereotypes by screenwriter Ken Nolan. There's the idealistic young staff sergeant (Josh Hartnett), the gung-ho private (Orlando Bloom), the tough mother hen of a major general (Sam Shepard). Yet they're little more than straw men for director Ridley Scott's feats of technical wizardry and Grand Guignol. In one scene, soldiers cut off from medical facilities use their bare hands to operate on an injured comrade's innards. Yes, war is hell: But any audience that hasn't already entertained that notion has problems a movie can't solve. Instead, the unwieldy length of "Black Hawk Down" makes us secretly welcome the more explosive calamities. A shot in which a crippled 'copter spins in the air like a top is sheer movie magic, and the rest of the film shows Scott making expert use of vehicles, weaponry, locations and crowds of extras. When so many resources are yours to command, you have gone beyond mere directing and become a small country yourself.
The nation of Ridley, though, needs to work on its foreign policy. Like most latter-day military dramas ("Rules of Engagement," "Behind Enemy Lines"), Scott's picture toys with liberal soul-searching, only to arrive at the ill-supported conclusion that American soldiers who learn to eighty-six their introspection and watch out for their own asses will be loved and respected by the quaint ethnic types who inhabit other parts of the globe. As a brittle sergeant (Eric Bana) asserts, war is "about the men next to you, and that's it." Oh, is that all?