In 1993, the situation in Somalia was desperate, as years of civil war and drought had decimated the country's population. Though Operation Restore Hope, a US-led United Nations humanitarian mission, had begun in late 1992, relief efforts were being hampered by Somali warlords, who seized food shipments and used them to line their own coffers. And during the summer of that year, the situation continued to escalate as one of the country's most powerful warlords, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, ambushed a contingent of Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers, killing 24 of them.
In response, the United States initiated a campaign to take Aidid out, which reached its nadir on October 2nd when squads of Delta Force and Army Rangers were sent into the heart of Mogadishu in helicopters and humvees to capture two of Aidid's top advisors. However, instead of a simple fifty-minute 'snatch and grab' operation, the raid turned into a fifteen-hour ordeal after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket fire. The situation quickly fell apart as the humvees were kept pinned down by snipers, while the vastly outnumbered ground troops became embroiled in bitter street battles against mobs of well-armed militia and angry civilians. By the next morning, 1000 Somalis and 18 Americans were dead, and another 70 Americans were wounded, and the American public had the indelible image of dead American soldiers, their bodies naked and mutilated, being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, forever burned into their memories. Not only did this event sound a death knell for US involvement in Somalia, but it also limited the involvement of a 'casualty averse' US in peacekeeping efforts in the years to come (most notably in Bosnia-Hercegovina).
"Black Hawk Down", based on the best-selling tome by Mark Bowden, re-enacts the events of that catastrophe in chilling detail. Like another recent war film of note, "Saving Private Ryan", director Ridley Scott ("Hannibal", "Gladiator") and his accomplished cinematographer Slavomir Idziak (who lensed "Proof of Life") give "Black Hawk Down" a 'you are there' verisimilitude, placing the audience knee-deep in the soldier's perspective. As a result, "Black Hawk Down" is an intense edge-of-your-seat experience that makes the two-and-a-half hour running time almost unnoticeable.
The film opens up on October 2nd, as Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard of "Swordfish"), head of the U.S. military presence in Somalia, begins planning the raid after receiving intelligence about an imminent meeting of Aidid's top brass. A team of top-notch soldiers is quickly assembled, including newly-promoted Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett of "Pearl Harbor"), paper-pusher John Grimes (Ewan McGregor of "Moulin Rouge"), the unfazed veteran Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore, also of "Pearl Harbor"), and the argumentative Master Sargeant Paul Howe (William Fichtner of "Armageddon"). Unfortunately, Garrison has grossly underestimated the resistance of the Somali militia, and the raid quickly degenerates into a battle for survival as roadblocks cut off ground reinforcements, rocket fire bars the further use of helicopters, and the isolated ground forces become surrounded by mobs of militia and civilians. And so begins a story about the courage of the outnumbered American soldiers who struggled in the face of overwhelming odds, driven not by politics or idealism, but by their compassion for the man right next to them.
Like "Behind Enemy Lines", "Black Hawk Down" had its release date pushed up because of the events of September 11th, riding the wave of newfound patriotism gripping the country. However, unlike "Behind Enemy Lines", some of the ideas found in "Black Hawk Down" are directly relevant to recent events. Like the recent terrorist attacks, the events in Mogadishu were a wake-up call to the United States, which had recently come off a relatively bloodless victory in Kuwait only a couple of years prior. Despite superior firepower, technology, and training, the US forces found themselves humbled not only by the logistics of navigating an urban landscape, but also by the sheer numbers and determination of Aidid's supporters... a hatred so deep that it would convince even women and children to bear arms and join the battle, not unlike the religious zeal displayed by Osama Bin Laden's terrorist cells as they carried out their 'low tech' attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Also, near the end of the film, one character ponders the merits of 'fighting someone else's war', something that the American public had little stomach for following the events in Mogadishu. Unfortunately, America's reluctance to send troops to distant lands on dangerous missions not only had a significant impact on peacekeeping during the Nineties, but may have also allowed the terrorist network of Bin Laden to grow unchecked.
Performance-wise, the cast is top-notch. Harnett, as a leader who receives his training under fire, redeems himself for his bland work in "Pearl Harbor", while McGregor is likable as a stand-in for the audience, a 'new guy' being thrust into combat for the first time. Sizemore, no stranger to war films, makes a strong impression as a tough-talking veteran who is not easily shaken, even when bullets are whizzing by his head. Finally, Shepard is the film's convincing 'villain', the ineffective commanding officer who can only sit in the command center and watch as his poor judgement takes its toll on his troops.
With its talented cast, polished production, and Scott's fast-paced direction, "Black Hawk Down" is a gritty, violent, and ugly look at the soldier's experience in war, one that is not easily forgotten after one leaves the theater. However, in addition to the expected 'war is hell' theme, "Black Hawk Down" is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency and the need for eternal vigilance, lessons that, unfortunately, came too late for the thousands who perished on September 11th.