The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I join up for another round in the parallel post series of ours. For this, we will examine two timely and remarkable works. I selected this non-fiction book and film tandem specifically because this duo post would land near the twenty year anniversary of a significant battle. Perhaps, the epoch-making event of the post-Cold War.
Known by the men who fought in it as the Battle of the Black Sea, it shocked nations worldwide when it splashed across news networks in early Fall of ’93. Just as quickly, once the dust settled and the bodies buried, it was put aside by the U.S. government and public, destined as forgotten history. That is, until the details many weren’t aware (or cared to know) were resurrected a few years later in the writings of one journalist.
I speak of the book written by Mark Bowden that was published in 1999, Black Hawk Down. Its title instantly became synonymous to its generation for the distinct clash of men on an ancient land. A battle seen by some as wholly frustrated as Gallipoli, a Rork’s Drift substantiation by others. My colleague will appraise Mr. Bowden’s harrowing, bullet-by-bullet narrative, which was the New York Times Notable Book of the year. I’ll examine its 2001 film adaptation that landed in the epochal aftermath of 9/11. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: October 3, 1993, Taskforce Ranger, consisting of various highly skilled Spec-Op teams, launch an operation to capture two of the self-proclaimed president-to-be Mohamed Farrah Aidid‘s high-echelon lieutenants during a meeting in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia. The rare daylight mission is to chopper in Delta Force operators near the Bakara Market stronghold of the warlord, seize their prizes from a nearby hotel, and return to base. Accompanied by Army Rangers providing perimeter cover, it was supposed to take an hour. Instead, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters are shot down by RPGs, and the operators and Rangers are pinned down through a long and terrible night, fighting against thousands of heavily armed Somalis.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
Matthews: “What’s the matter Danny? Something you don’t like?”
McKnight: “No Spectre gunships, daylight instead of night, late afternoon when they’re all fucked up on Khat, only part of the city Aidid can mount a serious counter-attack on short notice…[chuckles] What’s not to like?”
Harell: “Life’s imperfect.”
McKnight: “Yeah, for you two, circling above it at five hundred feet it’s imperfect. Down in the street, it’s unforgiving.”
It’s one of those real-life moments that just slapped you with an unbridled shock. Leaving you aghast with horror. Something that came out of nowhere and set you back on your heels with the question of “How the Hell did this happen?!?” passing audibly out your lips. The sheer bloody anger that soon followed over what you watched, now on continuous replay. That which I’ve just described befell most Americans in the early autumn of ’93 when news networks began broadcasting the dead, bloodied serviceman being dragged across a Somali street to the cheers of countrymen.
“Nothing takes 5 minutes.”
I will say it in the most clear, straightforward terms I can muster. Black Hawk Down was simply a tour-de-force of filmmaking. Director Ridley Scott, screenwriter Ken Nolan, and executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer achieved what I thought would have been a next to an impossible feat: the film adaptation of an acclaimed, highly detailed historical book on what happened during the course of one tragic, furious event. The key U.S./Somali battle that occurred over an eighteen-hour period.
“My duty, as a director, try and bring this as close to a documentary credibility, accuracy as possible. That’s what I was there to do.”, stated Sir Ridley many times in interviews upon its release. “It’s not the conventional drama which has backstory, talk about mum, dad, brothers and sisters all back home. All that stuff that could part of every formula in every war movie, I didn’t want to do that.”
Quite an undertaking, no matter how you cut it. While Mark Bowden’s tome was a bestseller, it was based on real people, fighting and dying on the streets of ‘The Mog’ at the tail end of a relief operation. One that bookended what many believed was a noble effort. The sending of food supplies to halt Somalis starving in their own country. Famine used as tactic and byproduct in the civil war raging between clans and factions fighting over the land almost lost by the virtue of the cause. Reality is rarely denied.
Lest we forget, the incident detailed was to have later, tragically consequential, implications — a stung U.S. got nowhere near another African nation and its genocidal problem (Rwanda) less than a year later.
In the years since this film’s theatrical first-run, I’ve read many a reviewer’s take of it. High praise in most. Some gave lesser marks in their examination of the film for glorifying this or that. A few attempting to compare the movie with its source in their reviews. The former subjective, but the latter… I think Rachel and I, through this series, have found that books and films are at opposite ends of the same see-saw. Each of us trying to experience both, placing the teeter-totter’s pivot in favor of one or the other. A rare thing when the mix balances.
Those that thought Bowden’s Black Hawk Down eye-opening, so good and so packed with information, history, interviews, and actual transcripts of what took place October 3-4, 1993 (and beyond), but wondered of the film, may have a valid point. However, movies are not books, or vice-versa, and comparing them is not so realistic. Perhaps, they’re not so fair after all. To an extent, disregarding each of the mediums’ strengths to prove one better.
Everyone’s mileage varies.
Personally, this film’s power was that the production team could effectively distill in a 144-minutes (152, if you watched the extended cut) what happened in one afternoon, evening, and night that comprised the very intense firefight on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. The essence of the book, though it comprised multiple levels and perspectives of many involved, the camaraderie of the soldiers placed in a hellish fight for their lives, under circumstances beyond their control, remained intact within Ridley Scott’s film conversion. No mean feat, I reckon.
It transported this viewer, at times uncomfortably too close, to the blunt reality of modern war via a stark, almost documentary style of filmmaking. Making what transpired as close to first-hand. The visuals, superbly shot by director of photography Slawomir Idziak, and sounds were woven into a tangible force. Wielded skillfully so it was hard to forget. No doubt, helped by extraordinary assistance by the Pentagon. The Black Hawks and the Hughes 500 “Little Birds” in the film were flown by 160th SOAR pilots, with actual Rangers roping off of them. Many that flew on the same actual mission two decades earlier.
It should also be noted, the ensemble cast, with a number of them portraying the real men who lived and died in Operation Gothic Serpent, did simply excellent work. Melding themselves into scenes to almost be unrecognizable. Smartly, producers did not cast a big, over-the-title star, which would have changed the entire dynamic of this film. Thankfully so. Hartnett, McGregor, Sizemore, Bana, Fichtener, Bremner, Shepard, and the rest (many of whom were European — British, Dane, etc. — or from Down Under) brought their characters to an extraordinary level. Undoubtably, because history was handed to them with each of their parts.
The internal issues between the young gung-ho Army Rangers, the older highly skilled Delta operators, and command were effectively brought out without becoming a distraction in the larger story of what unfolded. Ken Nolan’s formidable task of adapting Bowden’s narrative into something that gave credence to what happened, warts and all, during the battle cannot be understated. What do you throw out or alter in actual history to make it an effective movie for audiences, and still preserve the memory of those that served? I believe Nolan found the sweet-spot to what shaped up.
The film editing and sound, which won those crews justly deserved Academy Awards, was immersive and stunningly brought about. Scott’s direction, Oscar nominated and yet again ignored by the sods at The Academy, had never been better with this effort. You’ll not convince me Ron Howard was the better director over Ridley that year. But, that’s another story… This testimony of another American military clash on foreign land furthered what my colleague Kevin wrote for another war film of note. That the “One other arena where the Brits do quite well is the war film.” Bruckheimer giving it over to a Brit filmmaker and crew proved that yet again.
Though acclaimed for his science-fiction tales, Ridley Scott was no stranger to filming war. He does it extraordinarily well, as Gladiator proved. Hell, even his problematic films, G.I. Jane, Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood, his staging of men clashing and killing one another was never the issue.
And Black Hawk Down remains influential. I dare anyone to view Battle Los Angeles and say they can’t spot Ridley’s grasp of the Battle of Mogadishu and re-used by those filmmakers. That movie was an undisguised salute to BHD in most estimations. The irony of the 2011 feature, trying to emulate Scott’s achievement ten years later, if you really compare, was the interchanged roles. The U.S. soldiers represented were more like the Somalis in the sci-fi actioner.
Black Hawk Down was the rare film that paid great homage to its source material, and the extraordinary people and circumstances it sought to set down across cinema screens. That it landed a few months after another game-changing tragedy, that of 9/11, was one of those quasi-fateful gestures history is known for. The film and battle may now be mixing in the fog of the two wars that shortly followed. Sideswiped by recent times. Enough to stymie the memory of the tactical victory amid the strategic loss a decade earlier? Shame, if true. Or maybe it’s mileage once more? Another era, perhaps. No matter what conclusions you draw from it, and the questions you ask yourself or of others, meant the film, like Bowden’s chronicle*, did its job and left no one behind.
* It should be noted, Bowden’s work with this battle began as a newspaper series. Bruckheimer acquired the film rights before it was augmented and published as a book.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war” – Plato
Normally, I’d have included the official trailer here. However, it is the earlier teaser version, with the use of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, that remains the most poignant and fitting for the film, I think. Bob Dylan’s song was only used in this instance and was not part of the film soundtrack, scored by Hans Zimmer. Pity.
Parallel Post Series
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
- The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days
- The Constant Gardener
- The Hot Rock
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts