In November of last year, a highly publicized meeting took place in Los Angeles between White House officials and senior members of the American film and television industry. Referred to as “The Beverly Hills Summit,” their agenda involved methods for maintaining a positive image of the U.S. in the war against terrorism. Solutions involved using Hollywood to re-instate old-fashioned family values and elevate spirits that sunk post-September 11. Among the films recruited to carry this out was Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. The movie recounts the Battle of Mogadishu, which took place in Somalia in October of ’93. A force of American Delta units and Ranger infantry were dropped into Mogadishu to loosen Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s stronghold on humanitarian aid and food. The mission went awry, however, following the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters. A one-hour operation ended up taking 15 hours, leaving 18 Americans dead (and hundreds of Somalis, a fact which seems to have eluded Scott) and an ideal setting for promoting old-school American heroism.
The opening scene of Black Hawk Down follows a crowd of starving Somalis running to collect the few food rations they are granted. The camera suddenly zooms in to catch an intimate look at the blast of blood emitted from their bodies as a spray of gunfire cuts through the crowd. Rather than being poignant, the scene seems excessive and is only a prelude to the equally explicit barrage of imagery in the rest of the film. Scott provides a metaphor for his own excess in one of the movie’s concluding scenes. He juxtaposes shots of a fight scene with the image of a waterfall of empty cartridges of ammunition hitting the ground following each firing of the gun. Each individual shot, like each death that follows it, is rendered insignificant as it is just one among many. The indigenous Somalis are presented in a similar light. We are thus left with Somalians in the guise of video game opponents whose deaths are inconsequential.
There is no denying that Ridley Scott is an adept filmmaker, but his films are rather like Russell Crowe—aesthetically pleasing, but volatile and with questionable depth. Black Hawk Down could almost be classified as pornographic due to its similar presentation of images without content. There is something inherently disturbing about filming a war aesthetically without thematically backing up this representation. Scott includes shots such as a slow motion close-up of a character and then freezes the frame followed by the image of a severed hand (hence the pause). However, there is no narration to support the image and one is left thinking perhaps Scott just fell in love with the technical aspect of the shot. The most (inadvertently) important image comes towards the end of the film. As the remaining soldiers limp towards their safe-haven in slow-motion, ahead of them run three or four Somalian children laughing and guiding them towards their base. It’s the visual counterpart to the Somalian “Fuck you, we live here.”
The script does little to give the film profundity, either. The formulaic dialogue makes the lines more appropriate as taglines than actual utterances by soldiers. One can feel the old-fashioned family values hovering over each phrase: “I fought well, I fought hard,” whispers one dying G.I., even in death condoning “the good fight.” The most quoted line of the film, however, is an excerpt from Matt Eversman’s (Josh Hartnett) monologue at the end of the film: “Nobody asks to be a hero. It just sometimes turns out that way.” Hartnett plays the idealistic soldier who believes his job is, first and foremost, to help his fellow man. He’s successful in doing what he can with the character (note his subtly horrified response when another soldier tells him: “People don’t understand, it’s about the man next to you. That’s why I have to go back out [to fight]”). Hartnett’s character winces, alongside the audience, at the fact that most of the soldiers do not even realize their security stems from the values propounded by films such as National Velvet or TV shows like Leave it to Beaver.
At the beginning of the film, a quote by Plato reads: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Unfortunately, remaining true to his profound pretensions, Scott misinterprets the quote, taking it concretely.
Plato believed the soul is eternal and represents the rational component of human beings, while the body is the source of carnal desire.
The rationality of the soul is deplaced by the body in life, but returns to its pure form in death. In Black Hawk Down, however, death brings no such solace.
One recalls a line from Mallick’s The Thin Red Line in which the main character says: “One man looks at a dying bird and sees universal pain. Another sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels somethin’ smiling through it.”
Perhaps if the participants hadn’t been so cynical, the Beverly Hills Summit might have been fruitful in promoting a positive image of the U.S.
But until they can grasp the alternative to universal pain, their attempts are destined to crash-land every time.