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Staying Alive 

The fighting man, God bless him, always gets screwed. It's just one of those unspoken rules of engagement. Every battle, just cause or not, starts with a plan, but it inevitably goes FUBAR faster than you can say "Sir, yes, sir." The poor guys out in the field find themselves high and dry, fighting not so much at that particular moment for God and country as for survival.

All protestations and media hype aside, most war movies aren't really about these guys getting the worst of it. Putting war on film is just asking for the sermonizing and sappy, crappy sentimentality to begin. What results is comfortable -- and stale. We are taught to gauge the nobility of the soldier in direct proportion to the overall nobility of the fight. That way, the guys on the ground are either canonized or cannon fodder. They are anything but real.

War is messier than that, and the path to any creative originality (much less truth) lies in capturing its inherent dirt, insanity and absurdity. To do so is difficult and, it can be argued, requires the stripping away of politics and principles, context and casuistry -- and the historical record be damned for just a minute. Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down is a movie whose only script is the script of war: stay alive. And suddenly less is so much more.

Based on the phenomenal book of the same name by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down approximates the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, a vicious 18-hour firefight that claimed the lives of nearly 20 Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers and countless Somalis, injuring hundreds more yet making little impact back in the States. At the time, what registered was the image of the bodies of two American servicemen being carted around by a Somali mob; what we still fail to grasp -- and what Scott captures so brilliantly on film -- is what this one incident demonstrates about the asymmetrical, guerilla nature of modern war.

The script (penned by newcomer Ken Nolan) is straightforward, simplistic almost. Only Terence Malick's phenomenal, resonant The Thin Red Line has played so fast and loose with war film conventions. There is very little orientation: only a few opening paragraphs and a handful of ghostly images loosely outlining the Somalia scenario, followed by a bare-bones introduction to the film's nearly 40 characters. We are thrown into the maelstrom like a new recruit on his first day at the front lines. Let others debate the finer points of why we are here; ultimately, we are here to survive this day. The action hits hard and fast, as Scott rolls out an amazingly choreographed chaos and then allows his actors to stand in the storm and deliver finely nuanced performances.

Scott's battle sequences are second to none. When the once-simple mission veers wildly off course and two mighty Black Hawks go down in the labyrinthine streets of Mogadishu, the screen simply explodes. Scott, well-versed in controlling his action sequences, does not falter, seeking out all the visual hot spots and effortlessly creating an atmosphere of war that somehow works with his actors and not against them. In a movie where the action could easily take center stage -- especially when we know so little of our protagonists -- Scott is never cheap, treating the violence honestly but matter-of-factly and allowing his men their humanity. They cry and they curse and they bleed and they die. And we believe it.

It is a surprise to discover that we don't have to know much about their characters or where they come from to be moved. When you are maximizing the minimal, all it takes is a moment. Josh Hartnett's quiet but astonishingly frank portrayal of almost-main character Ranger Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann is eclipsed only by the ineffable sadness and weary grit of Tom Sizemore's Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight. (When it comes to war, Sizemore can do more with a squint than Tom Hanks can do with a whole script -- as both showed in the nauseatingly overrated Saving Private Ryan.) It helps that, for the most part, these actors are essentially big-talent no-names, recognizable faces without the distraction of mega-star wattage. Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard, the elusive Sam Shepard and youngster Charlie Hofheimer take turns commanding the screen. Perhaps foremost among the newcomers is Australian actor Eric Bana, whose Delta sergeant saunters through this war, the glint in his eye part pain and part predator.

In the final analysis, Black Hawk Down is not going to school audiences in the history of the United Nations' presence in Somalia. It is quite possible to leave the theater knowing little more about the complexities of that conflict than when you went in. It is not at all possible, however, to stop thinking about the men who fight our battles. By replacing tired cliches with vision, technical mastery, atmosphere, and cast members capable of riveting an audience with a barked line or war-weary look, great Scott takes us straight into the heart of war.

click to enlarge If I die in a combat zone: Ranger Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) wonders just how he got stuck in a Somali firefight -- and how he's going to get his men out in alive in Black Hawk Down. - SIDNEY BALDWIN
  • Sidney Baldwin
  • If I die in a combat zone: Ranger Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) wonders just how he got stuck in a Somali firefight -- and how he's going to get his men out in alive in Black Hawk Down.
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