Jerry Bruckheimer, co-producer of the new movie “Black Hawk Down,” is relishing an appreciative note from one of the widows of U.S. soldiers killed during a mission in Somalia. “We just got a letter from one of the wives,” says Mr. Bruckheimer, co-producer of Ridley Scott’s formidable movie.The film, which opens today, concentrates on a firefight that killed 18 U.S. servicemen. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during the battle on Oct. 3 and 4, 1993, and the mutilated body of a crew member was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That led to an outcry at home and the U.S. withdrawal from the multinational U.N. mission.
Mark Bowden, the author of the book on which the movie is based, joins Mr. Bruckheimer at the Washington press luncheon. The writer was raised in Baltimore and prepped for his best-selling breakthrough in 1999 while a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also at the session is actor William Fichtner, who has an enviably dashing role as a Delta Force noncom named Sanderson, one of the more fictionalized combatants in the screenplay distilled by Ken Nolan.
The widow’s appreciative note seems to help reassure the trio, part of a “Black Hawk Down” contingent in town to attend an advance invitational screening at the Cineplex Odeon Uptown Theatre.
Mr. Bowden expresses dismay about negative reviews in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. The film has been accused by some of racist tendencies for siding with the American soldiers and neglecting their Somali antagonists while simulating the explosive events recalled in the book.
Mr. Bruckheimer shrugs. “You’re bound to get some detractors,” he says. “So far, there have only been a handful of critics who didn’t get the movie. The story was certainly told from the point of view of the American soldiers who ended up fighting for their lives during a particular mission, but Mark never ignored the Somali perspective. We tried to reflect it with some fidelity in two scenes created for the movie.”
Mr. Bowden insists that charges of racism never surfaced in any reviews of the book. “No one has ever leveled the charge of racism, not even the Somalis I interviewed in Mogadishu. It’s a judgment based solely on a superficial viewing of the film,” he says. “The Somalis are black. Almost all the American soldiers are white. Case closed.
“The American intervention at that time was strictly to save African lives threatened by continuing starvation, provoked by Somali warlords and political anarchy,” he continues. “It occurred at a time when the U.S. was often criticized as racist for not intervening in African tragedies and disasters. The U.S. went into Somalia to enforce a United Nations humanitarian effort. Over 40 American lives were lost during the entire history of that intervention. Then, because we did pull our troops out of Somalia soon after the battle of Mogadishu, we don’t intervene when Rwanda boils over a bit later. So then you’re guilty again of not being actively involved in preventing African calamities. What do you do?”
Mr. Bowden does not look back on the events with complete approval. He recalls the dubious aspects of mounting a daylight raid, intended to capture associates of the clan warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed, in the center of his urban stronghold. The raid, assigned to U.S. Army Rangers, Special Forces commandos and helicopter crews and meant to be a lightning operation, bogged down and resulted in counterattacks by thousands of Aideed militia.
Nevertheless, the besieged Americans held on while forming defensive perimeters around two Black Hawk helicopters that crashed in the streets after being disabled by rocket-propelled grenades. They were rescued by an armored column about 18 hours after the battle began.
Mr. Bowden published a newspaper series that anticipated his book, which then was embraced instantly by both the reading public and military professionals.
The timing of the movie was hostage to a certain amount of indecision in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. This March 1 was the original opening date.
“That began to shift gradually in October,” Mr. Bruckheimer says. “We screened the picture first for Joe Roth, whose company had financed it. They thought it might be too strong for any period too close to September 11, but they weren’t sure and welcomed other opinions. So we screened it for Sony, which was releasing the film. They thought it was really powerful, but they weren’t sure it was wise to release it earlier, either. So we decided to show it some more, to critics and other journalists. That round of screenings increased our confidence that the reaction from the press would be positive.”
Mr. Bruckheimer wanted the movie in a competitive position for awards consideration, but not a lot of time was left to secure bookings during the Christmas rush. “We managed to get qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles, right before the year ended,” he says. “We opened in a couple of other cities, but this four-city platform was very risky. If no one shows up, you’re kind of damaged goods before the movie has a chance to go wide to the whole country. If you go wide immediately, backed up with a big ad campaign, at least you’ll get some money back the opening weekend. Sony [took] the risk, and it’s paid off.”
Mr. Bowden spent considerable time participating in early phases of the movie adaptation but concedes that the credited screenwriter, Mr. Nolan, “deserves the lion’s share of the credit.” While doing the first draft, Mr. Bowden was “acutely sensitive to the accusation that writers are too sensitive about losing any material from their books.”
He observes, “I took more liberties than Ken did. He pulled the screenplay back toward the book. His script, in addition to being better, was much more faithful.”
He doubts whether some necessary telescoping and combining of real identities will be much of a problem for the participants when they see the movie. “They understand,” Mr. Bowden says. “The battle involved hundreds of soldiers. It took place over 18 hours. Battles aren’t fought by two or three soldiers, but these guys are sophisticated enough to know that compression and tightening will be necessary in any dramatic re-enactment. Our central character, the Sgt. Matt Eversmann played by Josh Hartnett, is a combination of the real Matt and a couple of lieutenants, Tom DiTomasso and Larry Perino. What gets Tom a little bit is that, technically, he was Matt’s commanding officer. In the movie at one point, Matt seems to be barking orders to him over the radio. That bugged him more than anything else.”
Mr. Bowden believes the price of being singled out as the central character among the Rangers will earn Sgt. Eversmann, now a civilian, plenty of friendly mockery. “Matt will be teased endlessly,” the author says. “The real Matt is tall, like Josh Hartnett, but bald, unlike Josh Hartnett and he’s extremely amused at the idea of being impersonated by a heartthrob.”
The movie enjoyed considerable cooperation from the Department of Defense. Mr. Bruckheimereven arranged for the arrival of a group of actual Rangers and Black Hawk crews to re-enact the earliest stages of the ill-fated mission, which was reconstructed in Sale, a town that neighbors Rabat, Morocco. The movie’s imaginary Rangers spent a couple of weeks at Fort Benning before production began. A Delta Force trio got a more intimate briefing at the Special Forces Command Center at Fort Bragg.
“We had a great guy with us every step of the way Lee Van Arsdale, a retired colonel,” Mr. Fichtner says. “He led the convoy that ultimately rescued the soldiers who remained at the first crash site. He had a fund of information.”