THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Black Hawk Down tells the true story of the botched 1993 peacekeeping mission in Somalia that left 18 American soldiers dead. The troops were supposed to swoop into Mogadishu, capture two associates of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and swoop back out. The American military didn't expect that the Somalis would be so heavily armed. What was intended to be a 30-minute mission turned into a harrowing 18-hour standoff. The confrontation provided the basis for journalist Mark Bowden's best-selling book, which has been adapted for the screen by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott (Gladiator).

A U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia turns unexpectedly violent in Black Hawk Down
The movie opens with an explanation of the politics behind the situation. Aidid's troops were confiscating food and rations that the United Nations was dropping for civilians in the wartorn country. U.S. troops were sent over to save lives and stop the famine that resulted from Aidid's tyranny. Then we meet Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), a young Ranger given the task of commanding one part of the mission. He and his men are supposed to secure a building where Aidid's associates are meeting. He is accompanied by Spec. Grimes (Ewan McGregor), who has spent his whole career until now making coffee and typing, Delta Sgt. First Class "Hoot" Gibson (Eric Bana), a genuine gung-ho soldier who is the top man in the Special Forces, and Ranger Lt. Col. Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), who leads the Humvees into the midst of battle. Watching the mission unfold on video monitors in his tent is Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard), who laments that the government has not provided his men with the proper equipment to do the job.

Despite insufficient equipment, the mission is supposed to be a piece of cake. However, the troops quickly discover that there are plenty of armed Somalis facing them. One of the Black Hawk helicopters is shot down, and angry Somalis with guns open fire from every direction. Eversmann and his men are trapped in the city with no way out. Garrison tries to send in a rescue squad, but the Somalis set up road blocks to keep backup troops out. The struggle continues on through the night; by the time it's over, 18 Americans and over 1,000 Somalis are dead.

The peacekeeping mission was a classic example of underestimation. No one predicted the response the Rangers and Deltas would receive. Consequently, the men who went in were blindsided; they found themselves fighting for their lives unexpectedly. In fact, the hostility they faced was so great that chaos eventually overtook the whole mission. Another Black Hawk was shot down, there was no escape from Mogadishu, and the military had to seek help from Pakistan to get the troops out.

Black Hawk Down is eerily effective in the way it makes you forget you're watching a movie. Director Scott and his team have recreated combat as realistically as any film ever. That approach is absolutely vital to the success of the film. In every way, you get a strong sense of the confusion the troops experienced and the different ways that snafus put their lives in danger. Combat movies have different purposes: some are intended as acts of bell-ringing patriotism, while others are action machines, and still others have great political overtones. The intent of Black Hawk Down is to show the problems that come with being ill-prepared and overconfident. Underestimating one's enemies can result in too many casualties.

That said, the film also shows some of those other purposes. Although some characters question the appropriateness of America's involvement in Somalia, there is nonetheless a great appreciation for American military present in the movie. The combat scenes are exciting, albeit in a way that communicates real peril. As far as politics, the picture avoids beating you over the head with any particular message. This is not a story that comes down on any particular side of a political issue; instead, it allows the audience to decide what was right and what was wrong.

Producer Bruckheimer also tackled a historical subject in the dreadful Pearl Harbor. This time, he does history justice in a big, big way. By the time the mission is over, all the surviving Deltas and Rangers have been changed by the events they've lived through. There is an exchange between Eversmann and Gibson that speaks volumes about our military. It's an important moment in an important film.

( out of four)

Black Hawk Down is rated R for language and violence. The running time is 2 hours and 22 minutes.

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