Boots on the Ground: ?Black Hawk Down?

By  · Published on May 29th, 2010

To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:

Black Hawk Down (2001)

The simple words “Based on Actual Events” stand out in plain white text against a black background before dissolving to an African man wrapping a dead loved one in a shroud. The images of the dead continue as the camera pans over scene after scene of desolate human wasteland, and more text informs us that it’s Somalia at the height of a genocide disguised as a civil war. The perpetrator is Mohamed Farah Aidid, who has begun targeting US forces.

The words linger as much as the dead bodies, but they’re both forced to the back of the mind by an opening scene which sees a Blackhawk circling the Red Cross Food Distribution Center. A truck arrives. A mob forms. Many are cut down by heavy casings delivered from Aidid’s men.

Without a doubt, Black Hawk Down is one of the best examples of a modern war film. It doesn’t shy away from the intensity of violence, delivers strong character we can care deeply for, and it’s shot so beautifully that you’ll sweat from the Somali heat.

That first element is thanks to screenwriter Ken Nolan as well as the many other pens that had an effect on the finalized script but weren’t credited. Schindler’s List writer Steve Zaillian, actor Sam Shepard, and Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth all had hands in shaping the final script, but most of the credit is due to author Mark Bowden who delivered a fantastic book recounting the events. That story translates to film brilliantly.

Although some of the characters are flat military types on the page, the cliches disappear under the massive pile of acting talent that was heaved onto this project. Ewan MacGregor, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard, Ioan Gruffud, Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Piven, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner. It’s an unreal list of actors, but all of them pull weight and work together to create the main theme of the film – the value of a team.

This theme pervades the entire movie, whether it’s the character introductions inside the helicopter, the question of what you’ll do when you’re on the 5 yard line, or the ultimate question of what a group of men will do when the unthinkable happens.

If you’re looking for the perfect example of tension building in film, look no further than the build up to the assault on Aidid’s headquarters. Ridley Scott and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak truly shine here.

With intercut scenes of the helicopters taking off as the informant parks his car outside the building and shots of the militia receiving word of the attack and readying themselves, there is a slow and constant ramp up to what promises to be gut wrenching. Hartnett’s Eversmann counts down two minutes. We see the militia vehicles rolling out, loaded heavily with weapons and men. One minute. The helicopters fly over the city in simulated silence as tire fires burn on the ground.

When the action does finally ramp up, it takes its own sweet time. Feet pound the dirt as helicopters land and take off again, civilians are lost in the prop wash, and scattered gunfire strikes and rings out.

There are injuries and casualties, but when the mission’s success seems eminent, the promise delivered by the film’s title is made good on, and the real story begins.

Black Hawk Down works because it’s a blend of calm and chaos. The danger is not only realistic – it’s in your face and threatens to kill the people you’ve most connected with. The situation is dire, and no one seems safe. Both the character development and the action sequences do their parts to create something that’s satisfying and disturbing at the same time. This evocative movie is one of the best damned war films ever made, and after the sand settles, the words “Based on Actual Events” will still be haunting you.

Celebrate more war films by reading more Boots on the Ground.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.