One look at director Ridley Scott’s resume shows that this is a man who understands the power of film as a medium. But film as an art, that’s another story.
Scott’s latest film, “Black Hawk Down,” demonstrates the unique ability of film to capture war in all its horror. Based on a true story, “Black Hawk Down” at once amazes and assaults the viewer with its dedicated realism and technical bravado. Scott’s eye for visual effects — developed during his early years as a set designer — has nary a blind spot; every moment is a masterpiece.
The other components of the film, however, are often lacking. Characters are rough-hewn and sometimes boring, while poignant moments trudge too heavily. Nonetheless, “Black Hawk Down” certainly accomplishes what it set out to do: recreate a confusing battle in a mishandled peacekeeping effort.
The 15-hour ambush known as the Battle of Mogadishu began as an hour-long mission to capture two Somali lieutenants. An elite force of U.S. soldiers, numbering only 123 men, has to fight its way out of the capital city and through hundreds of armed militia. After a quick setup, the rest of the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time is dedicated to portraying the battle in jarring detail.
Scott has a knack for the details — few films can rival “Black Hawk Down” in honesty of depiction. Scott seems unafraid to allow his film to swell with battle alone. He eliminates all hints of exposition and allows only the gruffest of commands and the most tense of whispers to be voiced on-screen. After this, it is attack after attack, and the audience feels surrounded by the chaos.
But “Black Hawk Down” gets carried away with itself. The audience quickly feels bombarded. For over an hour there are but moments of silence, and the film suffers from lack of contrast during the battle stretch. The moments that do slow the action are regrettably rough and without emotional texture.
The sheer chaos and confusion of battle in itself elicits emotional response, particularly against the backdrop of the senseless original mission. While the film is not a political one, it does touch on issues of U.S. political isolation versus intervention. The soldiers argue with each other and almost seem to question the effectiveness of command, while Sergeant Matt Eversmann (the empathetic Josh Hartnett) questions his idealistic view of U.S. involvement.
“Black Hawk Down” is at its best when it combines these feelings of uncertainty with the confusion of battle. The audience can’t help but go through the motions with the characters. While Scott does occasionally break the stringent pace of realism, most of these pauses only heighten the impact and make the battle tangible. During these breaks Scott lets the camera linger grotesquely over dying or mutilated soldiers, like the tense slow-motion fights in the D-Day depictions in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Unlike Scott’s previous films, which deal more in metaphor and fantasy, “Black Hawk Down” uses a different tone — realism — but maintains the same visual style.
As in his previous film “Gladiator,” Scott bookends “Black Hawk Down,” with slow, ghostly images that float lightly despite their historical and symbolic weight. He contrasts the quiet of the skeletal Somali capital at dawn with deafening sound and glaring color of battle.
The night scenes particularly demonstrate Scott’s flare for color. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak blends an unusual palette of pale green, orange, and black into a hot, loaded scene of war, where night-vision goggles and actual perception vary only slightly.
Where Scott excels most is in creating a world for “Black Hawk Down” — a dusty, ruinous city enshrouded in the smoke of war. Scott has previously displayed this accuracy and creativity in a number of his films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” and even the fantasy debacle “Legend.”
Despite this step into new territory, Scott repeats a mistake from his past. “Black Hawk Down” is emotionally engaging only by accident of its realism and immediacy. Nonetheless, whatever the film lacks in emotional content and however much it ignores its actors (particularly Ewan McGregor and “man’s man” Tom Sizemore), “Black Hawk Down” is a taut and engaging war film.