Retrospective: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down is possibly not many people’s first choice for a Ridley Scott retrospective – Alien or Blade Runner might have been the first to come to mind. So why choose it? Firstly, it is maybe the first movie that uses the style of cinéma vérité to portray a recent war, which has been replicated by so many movies since. Secondly, it’s a very exciting movie with a fascinating cast of people you wouldn’t expect. Lastly it has a really strong sense of military accuracy (the bane of war movies) from radio chatter to gear –  it has the authenticity that many similar films lack.

Let’s add a little context to this movie. Black Hawk Down is set during the American peacekeeping efforts in Somalia in 1993, which were famous for the incompetence and general shambolic efforts by all. This operation was very controversial as it was an absolute mess up in regards to its planning, ignoring many aspects basic to the success of Special Forces. It was a very complex plan reliant on lots of scattered light forces without suitable back up, constrained by politics and run under a very dodgy command.  The events still hold rancour today because of the accusations and scandals relating to the peacekeeping operation.

Like Band of Brothers, Hurt Locker and pretty much any war movie since (with exceptions), Black Hawk Down shows the importance of characterisation between ranks, particularly placing an emphasis on the rivalry between Delta Force and the United States Rangers. The film introduces you to the major figures, showing the various different groups involved in the Special Forces and the three branches of the military (army, airforce, navy).

Todd Blackburn is played by a young Orlando Bloom, keen to go into action. We also meet the cynical Sergeant Norm “Hoot” Gibson (Eric Bana), the idealist Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), there’s the desk jockey who wants action, John “Grimesey” Grimes played by Ewan McGregor and the comedian SPC Lance Twombly surprisingly played by Tom Hardy (if you look hard you can also spot Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaacs). This cast gives the film real depth and an opportunity to show the old adage that war is 90% crushing boredom and 10% fear, even for the elite forces who get significantly more action. Grimes has a particularly interesting arc as he is initially treated like a child being told what to do and gradually proves himself whilst his constant torrent of swearing adds a nice bit authenticity to the proceedings. The way it is filmed was very innovative, featuring a large amount of jump cuts and steady cam usage. The only issue I have is that it’s very overused these days with so many movies using the steady cam cinéma vérité approach to filming, which when done well can really bring you into the action but done badly it can be disorientating and confusing.

The are many aspects to getting military authenticity correct as it’s more than just having the right outfit – it’s more important that the other basics are done well such as the proper usage of formation and radio commands. The movie does this well as there are two faces to the battle. One is the calm, clear radio informing clearly and simply what’s happening and the other is the hurried orders shouted to squads and individual soldiers who are flagging, fearful, injured, dying. This is done very well as every major skirmish is brought back both the to the command helicopter and also to the base. One particularly effective way this is conveyed is through a long pan shot from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground and up to an airborne view when the colour is then lost and a grid is added, bringing you back to the base.

This is one of those forgotten war movies for no great reason and its pioneering style has been copied to death since. Despite featuring a largely English cast doing their best American accents, it’s also framed in a very patriotic style but with enough of the war and its unpleasant ambiguities to keep things interesting, as the soldiers aren’t entirely sure why they are there. A movie that’s well worth another look.

Dulce decorum est, pro patria mori’

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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