Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down (15)

SECRET wars are often staples of the blockbuster, presenting scriptwriters, actors and directors with amazing opportunities to concoct outrageous tales of derring-do that, in reality, have very little to do with what really happened.

Black Hawk Down changes all of that. Taken directly from the book of the same name by Mark Bowden, it takes a gritty, ultra-fastidious approach to a real-life disaster that would become, over the course of 18 long hours, the singlemost largest ‘action’ conducted by American troops since Vietnam.

Set in Somalia in 1993, the movie – the latest from Ridley Scott after the double whammy of Gladiator and Hannibal – chronicles how the straightforward snatch of a Somalian warlord becomes a protracted battle when first one and then two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down by enemy fire.

With the unthinkable rapidly becoming reality – American troops trapped in the midst of the Somalian capital Mogadishu, surrounded by hostile, gun-toting guerrillas and likely to be shot, lynched or eviscerated when captured – US commanders send in even more troops to get them out alive.

Lost in the city, under siege, overwhelmed and outnumbered, the 100 or so Rangers launch a fightback. Small pockets of men, scattered all over the city, dig in in the shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets around the crash site, praying for rescue but aware that it may never come.

“We have stirred up a hornet’s nest, and we are fighting the entire city,” says commanding officer Sam Shepard at one point. He’s right. Men are dead, two helicopters are in flames and more men are in the enemy’s hands. But even he can have no idea of the scale of the battle going on a few miles away, and of the relentless onslaught of the Somalis against the beleaguered, out-gunned Rangers.

In the space of two hours a routine mission has turned into a disaster-in-the-making – a scramble to get out alive. Suddenly Mogadishu has turned into Saigon, and Somalia into Vietnam. America is having its backside kicked in a way it never believed was possible…

Black Hawk Down is a relentless action movie. Reminiscent in many ways of Zulu (small force stands firm against overwhelming odds) and, in its visceral setpiece war scenes, Saving Private Ryan, it benefits from an excellent all-male cast that includes Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, and Brits Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs, Ewen Bremner and Matthew Marsden among the ‘grunts’.

Much of the military jargon will be lost on the casual viewer, as will the vague politics of the mission at hand. Still, Scott has delivered a staggeringly effective war movie – more a movie about men in war than the action itself – that, more than anything else, waves the Stars and Stripes proudly as a piece of US-sanctioned propaganda.

While many of those involved – including Australian discovery Eric Bana, Fichtner and our own McGregor – are lost within the sea of camouflage, helmets, severe haircuts and dust it is the sheer scale of the battle that impresses, and the closeness in time (just nine short years ago) that causes a sharp intake of breath.

This is a spectacular, epic war movie. All the ingredients of the classic war movies of the past – chaos, madness, anger, violence, courage, cowardice, terror and confusion – are present in abundance.

One scene alone, a desperate and gruesome battlefield operation will make audiences squirm; yet it is for the sheer audacity of its presentation that Black Hawk Down will be remembered.

It represents another box office monster for Ridley Scott, and something to cling to for Americans traumatised by the attacks of September 11 last year. In the movies at least, the United States always wins one way or another.

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