Black Hawk Down

After 9/11, Hollywood panicked. Scared off by films that depicted terrorism and war, the major studios tucked their violent children under their skirts. Warners sent Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage into hiding until February. MGM delayed its World War II drama, Windtalkers, until June. Disney put two comic takes on terrorism — Big Trouble and Bad Company — in a holding pattern. In case you're laboring under the delusion that this was done out of sensitivity, let me remind you that it's not heart that drives the film business — it's the bottom line. Studio chiefs feared that audiences, bombarded with images of war on CNN, would be in no mood to pay admission to see war onscreen.

Then Fox took a chance that renewed patriotic fervor would spark the box office instead of dampen it. The studio moved Behind Enemy Lines — a sort of Top Gun Goes to Bosnia with Owen Wilson playing a shot-down Navy pilot — off its 2002 schedule and into a November 2001 berth. The film opened big. Universal considered postponing Spy Game — with Brad Pitt and Robert Redford playing CIA operatives in Vietnam, Berlin and Beirut — but stuck with its November release date and reaped profits.

Now the floodgates are open. Stallone is planning a new Rambo flick, and in March, braveheart Mel Gibson will tackle Vietnam in We Were Soldiers. But the first movies out of the box this year strike closer to home, although with varying degrees of success.

Black Hawk Down, about the botched 1993 U.S. incursion into Mogadishu, Somalia, opened in limited release in December (the official wide opening date is January 18th) to qualify for year-end awards. The fact that the film failed to collect a single Golden Globe nomination from the hooeyheads of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association should suggest how good it is. Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) takes a documentary approach to the factual material in Mark Bowden's justly acclaimed best seller, which makes this war epic as gut-wrenching as any ever filmed. The afternoon operation was supposed to last an hour, in and out. As part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, more than 100 of America's elite Delta Force and Task Force Rangers were ordered to enter Mogadishu in Humvees, trucks and Black Hawk choppers, kidnap two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord and get the hell out. Fifteen hours later, with two Black Hawks down, eighteen soldiers killed and seventy-three injured, the chaos that left several hundred Somalis dead could hardly be imagined. But Scott, working from Ken Nolan's richly detailed script, does just that, making the parallels to the current situation in Afghanistan striking and horrific.

Playing real-life heroes, the actors — from Josh Hartnett and Tom Sizemore as Rangers and Eric Bana and William Fichtner as Deltas to Sam Shepard as the American commanding officer — acquit themselves admirably. Controversy has swirled around the Ranger played by Ewan McGregor, a desk jockey who gets his chance to fight, since the character is based on John Stebbins — now serving a thirty-year prison term for rape and child molestation. But the film isn't concerned with offering psychological profiles of its soldiers or chances for star grandstanding. Save for a few cornball speeches, Black Hawk Down ignores politics to pitch audiences into the pitiless heat of battle. This huge $90 million undertaking is a personal best for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a triumph for Scott and a war film of prodigious power. You will be shaken.

From The Archives Issue 335: January 22, 1981