"I don't want to give the audience any answers," Ridley Scott recently told The New York Times about his new movie, Black Hawk Down. A docudrama without the drama, Black Hawk Down feels like a minute-by-minute account of the so-called Battle of the Black Sea, in which some 160 U.S. soldiers ' members of the Army Rangers and elite Delta Force ' spent all day and all night trying to extricate themselves from the bloody streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. They were there as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force, which was trying to stabilize a country sunk into a civil war and famine that had claimed over 300,000 lives. But an attempt to grab two top lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, whose militia was plundering food shipments, had quickly degenerated into a debacle. As the Americans tried to make their way back to base camp, it seemed as if everybody ' man, woman and child ' had AK-47s and were shooting at them.
What exactly went wrong? It's hard to say, because not only does Scott refuse to give us any answers, he's rather stingy when it comes to posing questions. Based on the book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down is less interested in how the Rangers and D-boys got themselves in this jam than in how they got themselves out ' a seat-of-the-pants rescue mission that, in movie if not military terms, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. But is this any way to cover a war? It is, I suppose, if all you really care about is carnage. Scott, who served up a veritable smorgasbord of the stuff in Hannibal, would prefer to believe that he's giving us a whirlybird's-eye-view of modern warfare, his model being the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, perhaps the most harrowing battle scene in the history of cinema. But Steven Spielberg followed up that sequence with a rather conventional war movie. Scott just keeps spraying bullets...for two hours.
"Once the first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit goes right out the window," a battle-scarred veteran tells Josh Hartnett's rookie sergeant right before the first bullet does its thing. The movie's theme, in a nutshell: War is still hell. Which is good to know, considering the fact that we're in the middle of one. (Somalia has even been suggested as the next battlefront.) Actually, that's one of the valuable things about Black Hawk Down, the sense you get of what it's like to go to war in these days of Jihad vs. McWorld. My favorite scenes are the early ones, when the soldiers ' kids, really ' are girding for battle. Equipped with the latest technological marvels, they seem to think that war is just another extreme sport. And they're casually racist, referring to the Somalis as "skinnies" and "sammies." Some of them are afraid, and the movie bends over backwards to understand their fear. Others can't wait to pull the trigger. "I'm here to kick some ass," one of them says.
Instead, we got our ass kicked. Or did we? In strict military terms, the mission was a success: The two lieutenants were taken into custody. And when you check the casualty lists, our side comes out way ahead, losing only 19 men while the Somalis lost over a thousand. The difference is that each American death is given its own little moment, whereas the Somalis die in anonymous waves. Not since Zulu have black warriors hurled themselves at white strongholds with such indiscriminate abandon. And you start to get the feeling that they just don't value human life as much as we do. But can that possibly be true? And is it possible that we value it too much? "No one gets left behind" is the Americans' battle cry, a military policy that turns what was supposed to be a one-hour operation into a 15-hour firefight when a Black Hawk helicopter goes down. I'm not exactly opposed to the policy, but I wish the movie had helped me understand it better.
I also wish it had helped me understand why the Somalis fought so hard. Or, as many of us asked after Sept. 11: Why do "they" hate us so much? This was a humanitarian mission, after all. Alas, by showing us everything from the American point of view, Black Hawk Down sends us into battle as ill-prepared as Sam Shepard's General Garrison, who seems to have lost command and control almost before the operation began. The movie reveals, at the end, that Garrison accepted full responsibility for the debacle. But did he bear full responsibility? Was it all his fault? The filmmakers don't say. They're too busy going house to house, playing war games. What's disappointing is that, even at this level, Scott fails to enlighten us. There must be a million ways to die in battle, but Scott's soldiers bite the dust in ways that are familiar to us from a thousand movies. The soldiers themselves tend toward clichÃ ' the coward who overcomes his fear, the desk jockey who discovers he relishes the smell of battle, etc.
Hartnett's Matt Eversmann, whom we get to know better than we do anyone else (though not that well), is a walking, talking recruitment poster ' a real-live nephew of his Uncle Sam. And possibly a sop to producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose Pearl Harbor also tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. There may be two movies at war with each other in Black Hawk Down, Scott's tell-it-like-it-is movie and Bruckheimer's tell-it-like-it-should-be movie. That would explain why the image that most of us remember from the Somalian episode ' an American soldier's nearly naked corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a crowd of jeering Somalis ' didn't make the final cut. I'd read that there would be a glimpse of it. If so, I must have blinked. Not that I was looking forward to seeing such a horrifying spectacle, but if the whole point of the movie is to show us the brutality of American soldiers trapped in a foreign land, shouldn't it be in there?
Actually, that's a rather small omission compared to the other stuff the movie leaves out ("the politics and shit"). In saluting America's fighting men, Black Hawk Down has violated one of their most cherished principles. It's failed ' hell, it's barely tried ' to be all it can be.