Skip to main content

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down
(2001)

(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depicting  a less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes performing heroic undertakings with the most noble of motives, all the while opposed by the harsh, unyielding, deplorable swarms of faceless foreigners/cannon fodder. It is, in other words, despite its bombast, a not-so-sly propaganda flick (one that came out at a judiciously timely moment, when zeal for a new War on Arab Terror was being rekindled).


It’s only fair to declare upfront that this is a superbly-directed movie. Technically superb, that is. So highlighting the divide between skill and content. Scott knows how to escalate a scene, and there’s never a doubt that he’s in full control of the mayhem. But there’s also little doubt from the first that he’s made a blithely racist war movie, one with pretensions to depth in its stark “non-political” telling (a quote from Plato, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”), whereby the code of the soldier is all you need to know (and by reflection, since all the soldiers are American, and mainly white, the US force abroad is a positive one, whatever misdemeanours may occur along the way). Obfuscation of historical facts isn’t, nor should it be, a determiner of a movie’s overall quality. If it were, many classics would instantly fall out of favour (whither Lawrence of Arabia?) Blackhawk Down’s issue isn’t simply how it turns disgrace into victory; it’s the entirety of its tone and dictates.


Eversmann: Nobody asks to be a hero. It just sometimes turns out that way.

Eric Roth, who also furnished Spielberg with the noble warrior narrative of Munich (also featuring Eric Bana) contributed the particularly stomach-heaving final exchange between Ranger Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett, as bland as he ever was) and Delta Force old hand Sergeant “Hoot” Gibson (Bana). “They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand it’s about the man next to you. And that’s all it is”. That, in other words, is all you need to know (this is essentially the same maudlin method-to-the-madness equivocation of Ang Lee’s recent Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). That’s why the movie gets Pentagon backing. And that’s why, in complete contrast to Scott’s drivel of a statement, it’s actually inherently politically spun.


It’s hard to escape the sensation that Black Hawk Down is playing in the same ballpark as Zulu, just with RPGs instead of spears. The movie, filmed in Morocco, featured no Somali actors or consultants, and when deigning to allow the bad guys to talk, shows them as devious cigar-smoking Machiavellians, in the same arena as Bond villains.


Hans Zimmer has provided some fine scores in his time (most notably for Christopher Nolan), but his contribution to Black Hawk Down is wretchedly racist in design, switching between ethereal, heavenly laments for our armed heroes and sinister Arab beats for the antagonists. This, more than anything, informs the essentially cartoonish, black-and-white positioning of Scott’s movie. The soundtrack further announces its remove from anything approaching reverence to reality with driven, exciting, discordant rock guitar for the scenes under fire (complete with accompanying action movie slow motion) and even the post-Nam movie cliché of ‘60s songs to the whirr of a helicopter montage (Voodoo Chile).



Matthew Alford provides a fine analysis of the deceitfulness of Black Hawk Down in his book Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy. US (and UN) botches and bungling led to the state of affairs nominally portrayed here. While the opening text informs us of the “famine on a biblical scale” caused by warfare between rival clans, and the order restored by the US and UN presence, Alford highlights the contrasting account of Alex de Waal, co-director of African Rights, in which the fighting, barring one province in the south, had ended by the time the US troops arrived (80-90% of aid was getting through). Even the line “The world responds” is a significant mask, since it equates the soldiers in the movie with a global force (Alford sees this reflected in the casting of British and Australian actors, and while I’m a little more sceptical in that regard, there’s no disguising the poverty of some of the US accents on display).


The author speculates on potential actual (illicit) reasons for the US being there (if there’s one thing the War on Terror evidences, it’s that these interventions are never for the greater good), taking in arms sales, political distraction, personal rivalry, and that old favourite, oil. If one were to be charitable to Scott’s movie, one might suggest Hartnett’s character’s naivety of purpose in supporting the idea of genuine humanitarian goals couldn’t possibly be intended to be taken on face value (i.e. as intended to reflect actual military values), but the unremittingly positive depiction of US forces is entirely laughable on every level.


These men obey the mantra “You do not fire unless fired upon” (as opposed to locking women and children into a besieged house with them). They certainly don’t – as referenced in James Bowden’s book, which formed the basis of Black Hawk Down; Bowden vouched for the accuracy of the movie, or was persuaded to – kill people indiscriminately or fire into crowds (although, it’s the UN peace keepers who have to take credit for, in the lead up to events, killing fifty Somali leaders gathered to discuss a peace agreement). We’re firmly in the black hat-white hat territory of the western. As Alford, comments “Black Hawk Down provides a depiction of American suffering and innocence that is extreme even by Hollywood standards, juxtaposed with an evil or otherwise worthless enemy population”.


You can see this repeatedly in those characters who actually manage to leave an impression. General Garrison (Sam Shepard, who I can only guess needed the money), who helped run Operation Phoenix in Vietnam – “a sterile, depersonalised murder program” – wasn’t so much the nice guy he’s shown to be here. Ewan McGregor, hard-pressed to cope with his accent, is given perhaps the corniest and simultaneously most classically heroic arc – the notion this doesn’t glamorise warfare, despite the occasionally dismemberment or unstaunchable artery, is ridiculous –  as the desk jockey who proves his mettle when called upon (so much so, he earns hardened Delta Force guy William Fichtner’s undying respect). Grimes was based on John Stebbins, later sentenced to thirty years for raping and sodomising his six-year-old daughter. Unsurprising that his real name wasn’t used; it wouldn’t exactly vie with the Pentagon-sanctioned whitewashing.


The most critical position Hollywood adopts on screen is to say that well-meaning forays into other countries may backfire, with Americans – particularly those representatives of powerful institutions – being the significant victims of such innocence lapses…


Perhaps if Simon West had made the movie rather than departing for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the result would have been of the instantly dismissible gung ho nature of so much Bruckheimer (see also Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, in which the power of machismo cannot be underestimated). As it is, Scott brings (brought) a veneer of respectability – he had after all, just delivered an Oscar winner, even if he followed it up with a decidedly less worthy sequel to an Oscar winner – that’s undone by pretty much every element besides the firefights. Ken Nolan was given the screenplay credit additional contributions came from Stephen Gaghan, Steven Zaillian, Ezna Sands and the aforementioned Roth, none of whom could reshape Black Hawk Down into that long-expired beast, a quality Scott project (and Lindelof still gets all the flack for Prometheus).

 

As such, Alford gives fair comment when he draws attention to its place among frequent projects “that began as intelligent or even progressive books, scripts, or concepts, but demonstrably became reactionary during the development/production phases”. There’s no likelihood you’d come away from the movie with the impression that “the Rangers were to blame for the majority of the battle casualties”.


Scott shoots the movie through with hokey, overly-scripted incidents that entirely undercut his attempts at realism. The soldier who phones home, his wife missing the call, is undoubtedly not going to make it. Young Orlando Bloom, fresh faced and eager for action (not the appropriate demeanour, as the audience won’t swallow it anymore) plummets from a bird and breaks his neck. Ewan Bremner, surely the least likely Ranger ever, gets “comedically” cut off from his unit and must hazardously trek to rejoin them. The Delta Force are a bunch of loose cannons (“undisciplined cowboys”) but boy, do you want them to have your back; Fichtner’s Sanderson pays no heed to Jason Isaacs’ boorish captain and shoots up a load of Somalis. Result! As for Bana’s Gibson, he’s an unstoppable proto-Hulk, heading in on foot, and then heading back for more, come the end.


Still, one thing Black Hawk Down is good value for is playing spot the actor. In particular, the then unknowns who have gone on to greater things. Hartnett was on his, and his agent’s, major bid for stardom at that point, and of course it floundered (Bruckheimer’s Pearl Harbor had come out that summer). Trainspotters McGregor and Bremner almost seemed to be slumming it in bit parts just to get to work with Scott. More British actors (Hugh “Will Graham” Dancy, Ioan “Mr Fantastic” Gruffud and none other than Tom Hardy in his big screen debut) make it seem like Scott was actively going for fellow countrymen. There’s also none other than Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as one of the Delta Force guys.


Elsewhere, Tom Sizemore – unlikely to find work again very quickly – rehearses his world-weary veteran pose from Saving Private Ryan, while Kim Coates (Ridey’s brother’s Last Boy Scout) is treated to a sudden death that is admittedly quite effective. Jeremy Piven – another whose agent won’t be taking his calls for the foreseeable – cracks wise before his demise. And there’s even the Muppets’ favourite co-star, Ty Burrell, on hand to do some pararescuing. Scott was wise to fill the ranks of the ranks this way, as there’s precious little human interest from the screenplay; they’re only really notable as characters in comparison to the oncoming hordes of Somalis (28 Days Later was a few years off, but there’s a not dissimilar treatment of the merciless marauding enemy in both).


Perhaps this should have been seen coming, given G.I. Jane, but Scott had begun his career with a considerably more potent and thoughtful essay on the futility of conflict (The Duellists), so it definitely wasn’t beyond his ken. Rather than a warning of what happens when you intervene in foreign territories (for your own unstated motives), Black Hawk Down becomes simply another endorsement, under the masquerade of a noble objective or higher cause, or as Alford put it, “championing the use of US power for what are presented as humanitarian ends”.


The picture was at least a partial win for the director, garnering him his third best director Oscar nomination and walking off with statuettes in two technical categories. But crucially, in contrast to his previous back-to-back monsters, Black Hawk Down’s strong home side gross was not reflected internationally. It seems foreigners weren’t swallowing what Sir Ridders and the Pentagon were serving up. And who could blame them? Black Hawk Down might not be the most politically dubious film of Scott’s career (that’s probably Body of Lies) but it’s a contender for his most morally unscrupulous one.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.