- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

It has become a great season for combat spectacle, medieval or modern. Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" was the opening salvo. Now Ridley Scott's stunning distillation of "Black Hawk Down," Mark Bowden's nonfiction best seller of 1999, exemplifies state-of-the-art war simulation in a contemporary context.
Mr. Bowden supplied almost a blow-by-blow account of the October 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, that engulfed about 150 U.S. Army Rangers, Delta Force commandos and helicopter crewmen involved in an ultimately booby-trapped mission of mercy. American troops were there to enforce a United Nations humanitarian and peacekeeping expedition, meant to alleviate the mass starvation caused by political corruption and anarchy.
Embarked on what was planned as the swift and stealthy daylight abduction of a local warlord in the center of the city, the raiders lost the element of surprise and found themselves surrounded by thousands of armed militia spoiling for a fight.
Two Black Hawk helicopters used to ferry troops to the target were disabled by rocket-propelled grenades and crashed in the streets, a mile or two apart. They became magnets for both Somali mobs and American rescue efforts that continued into the next morning, with one crash site a kind of "Alamo" defended by surviving Rangers and Special Forces operatives.
The battle was chalked up prematurely as an American debacle, especially after President Clinton withdrew American troops from Somalia in the immediate aftermath. In retrospect, it has acquired considerable patriotic vindication. The turnaround was hastened by Mr. Bowden's book, which clarified how gallantly the Rangers and Deltas fought when tested. This process is likely to be confirmed anew by the dynamism of the movie, which inserts its audience vicariously into the violence of a war zone in exceptionally gripping ways. "Black Hawk Down"approximates total immersion in a baptism by fire.
Moreover, the calamity of September 11 gives the movie a resonance that belongs to a committed war against terrorism. Osama bin Laden took some credit for the marksmanship that brought down the Black Hawks in Mogadishu. In retrospect, the struggle on that day can be seen as the first battle of the war that literally hit home September 11. Part of the film's impact will reflect that awareness and a sense of gratitude for soldiers who responded as bravely and astutely as they could.
The movie neglects certain aspects of the battle, so devoted readers may regret some of the practical sacrifices of eminently cinematic material. The movie fails, for example, to depict a crucial resupply run by a Black Hawk that brought water and ammunition to the "Alamo" holdouts during a long night.
The scenario sustains a handful of central characters without spending much time on introductions. The audience is treated a bit like invisible replacements, joining the outfit on the eve of a mission that turns deadlier than anyone expected. This status becomes ominous when the replacement in the story itself, a character portrayed by Orlando Bloom of the "Lord of the Rings" cast, becomes the first casualty.
As an earnest Ranger sergeant pressed into command on short notice, Josh Hartnett's Matt Eversmann seeks reassurance from a Delta lone wolf played by Eric Bana as Gibson, the movie's most flamboyant role. In a similar respect, Ewan McGregor's mostly fictional clerk Grimes is associated with William Fichtner as Sanderson, the second-most-resourceful-and-inspirational Delta. The rivalry and distance between the men is meant to evaporate in battle. This bonding mechanism, repeated with other sets of comrades, serves as the movie's human-interest adhesive. It more than suffices.
The filmmakers make no effort to cover the battle from the point of view of Washington. "Black Hawk Down" is a ground-zero classic, content to identify with soldiers and pilots obliged to fight for their lives in a hostile urban setting, brilliantly constructed by production designer Arthur Max and his associates in the Moroccan city of Sale. The ensemble is admirable, and the stirring context of "Black Hawk Down" dignifies every performer.
Considering the superiority of "Black Hawk Down" to last year's Oscar-winning "Gladiator," also directed by Mr. Scott, what compromise will be suitable this year? Perhaps best director instead of best movie. One almost forgets that Mr. Scott was morbidly represented by "Hannibal" at the start of 2001. He makes amends, awesomely, with "Black Hawk Down."
TITLE: "Black Hawk Down"
RATING: R (Systematic depiction of military combat, with frequent episodes of graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mr. Scott. Screenplay by Ken Nolan, based on the book "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" by Mark Bowden.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes

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