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Black Hawk Down

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Black Hawk Down
from Film Forum, 01/24/02

Director Ridley Scott has proven he can create thought-provoking genre classics (Alien, Blade Runner), mediocre star vehicles (G.I. Jane, White Squall) and perverse commercial products (Hannibal). Black Hawk Down is his latest splashy release, an intense war drama about the 1993 United States raid on Somalia. We watch an Élite American squad of soldiers (including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, and Sam Shepard) plunge into civilian territories to abduct two warlords. The mission goes awry. Some critics believe the movie does too.

Religious press critics find it more exhausting than exhilarating. "War is hell. If you don't believe that, try sitting through this movie," says Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter). "It's a good actioner, with fine performances, but it's just too much. It's not just intense; it assaults the eyes and ears from beginning to end."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic says, "The relentless, raw combat scenes … are strikingly realistic, evoking a deep revulsion for war, but it comes at the expense of character development with the soldiers barely distinguishable from one another."

Ed Crumley (Preview) compliments the film's realistic portrayals of brave U.S. soldiers, which can "make a viewer proud," but then says the film loses its acceptability because it portrays graphic violence and foul language. (How could the film have given audiences an idea of what this war was really like in a way that Crumley would have found acceptable?)

The writer of the synopsis at Hollywood Jesus praises an "outstanding ensemble cast" but cautions that "The violence of the film is brutal and nearly constant. Scott unflinchingly captures the chaos and mayhem of battle with tremendous visual finesse."

Tom Neven (Focus on the Family) remarks, "While the portrayal of heroism and selflessness is a wonderful example for teens and adults alike, Black Hawk Down goes to some lengths to make the grisly battle real onscreen. Families will have to think long and hard before choosing to study this chapter in American history at the local Cineplex."

"There are so many characters that there's no time for us to get to know or care deeply about all of them," says Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight on the Movies). "But I believe the film succeeds at what it sets out to do, and may be destined for a number of awards. I recommend this film to anyone mature enough to handle the content and imagery."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) believes the film is too long and argues, "A man-versus-man movie is only as good as its villain. Clearly, no one in Hollywood wanted to point fingers at President Clinton or at the Muslim extremists, so neither potential villain is developed in the movie to the degree necessary to give the story the jeopardy it needs."

If Ridley Scott had followed a simple good-guy/bad-guy formula, he might have had a crowdpleaser. But if art is to reflect the complicated truth of such conflicts, artists must resist the allure of paraphrase. This kind of war is complex. While its general conflict might seem clear-cut, the specific methods and maneuvers of the day-to-day conflict involve complex decisions in which the "right thing to do" is hard to determine. Soldiers are sent in with specific assignments, and most never come into direct conflict with the head bad guy. I've seen too many films take complicated historical battles and turn them into the equivalent of a street fight between a heroic president and a wicked warlord. Such political cartoons stir our patriotism, but they don't teach us anything about what real soldiers experience on the field.

Some critics in both the religious and mainstream press complain that Black Hawk fails to explain complicated political dilemmas that made this particular conflict so difficult.

Peter T. Chattaway wrote at the OnFilm discussion list: "The film ended up being a non-stop series of bullets, bombs, and missiles … and the very few, fleeting attempts to build character tended to be trite and conventional. We don't get any real sense of the political context in which this fiasco took place. The only detail I knew about this incident … was that an American soldier's body had been dragged through the street … but that most famous of details is left out of the film! That's a little like showing the bombing of Pearl Harbor without the sinking of the Arizona, isn't it?"

Rick Groen (Toronto Globe and Mail) writes, "If this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda—a paean to the triumph of soldierly will. Brave American lads killing dusky foreigners in the name of a cause charged with nobility yet drained of context. Theirs is not to reason why—nor is ours, apparently."

Jamie Russell (BBC News) explains the film is "too close to the current world situation to suit a no-brains action story. [It's] a patriotic airbrushing of what was actually America's worst day of combat since Vietnam. It gets top marks for the action; zero marks for the message."

But a few find realistic blood and guts enough to merit a recommendation. Mike Clark (USA Today) finds realism enough to merit a recommendation: "No war movie I have ever seen so vividly shows battle from differing perspectives."

And Michael Elliott (Christian Critic) argues, "After all the propaganda and political positioning is swept away, the bottom line is that these … soldiers put themselves in harm's way to support, protect, and defend the lives of the men fighting with them. Let others debate the politics of the time. This film instead recognizes and portrays the incredible camaraderie that exists among combat troops. These men were willing to sacrifice their lives, not for some idealistic cause or humanitarian effort … but simply for each other." Elliott cautions those interested in the film: "There is a considerable amount of carnage up there on the screen and it continues throughout the length of the film."

The ever-popular Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) calls it one of the year's best films: "Films like this are more useful than gung-ho capers like Behind Enemy Lines. They help audiences understand and sympathize with the actual experiences of combat troops, instead of trivializing them into entertainments."

But that's not enough for Stanley Kauffman (The New Republic): "Many … war films have had some point other than the visceral excitements of slaughter. What's particularly depressing about Black Hawk Down … is that it doesn't even sense the need for a point. Just slosh a lot of realistic carnage on the screen, it seems to say, and people will come. Roll on, Roman games."

from Film Forum, 06/13/02

Many people responded to media coverage of September 11th by saying, "It was like watching a movie." Apparently, the American countermeasures in Afghanistan had a select few thinking something very different: "Hey, this looks like a great video game!"

A report at Yahoo brings us news of games in development that will give gamers the opportunity to fantasize about firing on Afghan soldiers. But first, they'll get to go through the motions of another military incident, one that turned deadly and disastrous for American soldiers.

Last year, Ridley Scott's movie Black Hawk Down aimed to become a realistic historical document about the American soldiers who risked their lives in a 1993 raid in Somalia. In its striving for realism, the film was relentlessly violent. Yet it gave us a clearer understanding of just what our soldiers face when they go into such situations. Now in the name of "educating the public," a California-based company called NovaLogic is offering a video game follow-up to the film. (It may come as some small comfort that the game will not depict the way two dead U.S. soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.)

Critics are already attacking the venture—count me in—saying that this is "blurring the line between history and entertainment and altering perceptions about the bloodiest firefight in U.S. military history since Vietnam." Mark Bowden, author of the book on which the film was based, says, "To me there's a qualitative difference between making a game and telling a story." He has refrained from involvement in the game.

But Marcus Beer, NovaLogic's spokesman on the game, says the game will avoid depicting the actual fate of the mission "so as not to offend anyone." One has to wonder, if the point is to "educate," then why cover up the troubling fate of the mission and replace it in kids' minds with the impression that such invasions are an entertaining, pulse-pounding recreational activity that ends with "Game Over" instead of loss and life-altering consequences?

NovaLogic is also one company developing a game that places U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Remember when we were content to gobble up ghosts with Pac-Mans? Now your boys and girls can sit down in the den and gun down those pesky Al Qaeda.

Beer assures us, however, that "a part of the proceeds" from the game will be forwarded to military charities, which have yet to be specified.