Collateral damage

Somalia shoot-’em-up Black Hawk Down is nothing but big-bang entertainment

THE POLITICS OF SWISS CHEESE Thomas Guiry stars as Yurek in Columbia Pictures’ contribution to knee-jerk patriotism, the touted war film <i>Black Hawk Down.</i>

THE POLITICS OF SWISS CHEESE Thomas Guiry stars as Yurek in Columbia Pictures’ contribution to knee-jerk patriotism, the touted war film Black Hawk Down.

Starring Josh Hartnett. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Although it’s set during the 1993 UN intervention in Somalia, Black Hawk Down is (of course) not really a movie about history, politics or modern Africa. Indeed, if you’ve seen the ads, you already know the basics—it’s a film about heavy weapons, big explosions, young guys with shaved heads, older guys with shaved heads, helicopters, humvees and wounded flesh.

Most of that wounded flesh belongs to those young males, most of whom are white. But the movie’s staging and some occasional bits of explanatory dialogue assert that politics and social issues are beside the point in this case. The screenplay explicitly invokes the Code of the Warrior. And director Ridley Scott’s direction implicitly celebrates the Politics of the Hunk.

Josh Hartnett, that cinematic veteran and apparent survivor of Pearl Harbor, is only the most conspicuous specimen of hunk-hood in the film, and he is also the prime spokesman for the movie’s token war-is-hell motif. But all of that is shoved into the background by Scott’s ceaselessly energetic approach to the shoot-’em-up excitements of his story. Long before the action withdraws to a sports stadium, it may occur to you that this film is a kind of remake of Scott’s own Gladiator, with characters drafted from the be-all-you-can-be Army of the 1990s.

More than that, it’s the kind of shoot-’em-up that used to be done as a western, with heroic cavalrymen gunning down large numbers of anonymous hostile Indians. The gunfight at the OK Corral is explicitly invoked, and at times the situation looks a little like Custer at the Little Big Horn.

But Black Hawk Down is as cynically indifferent to the myths it mocks as it is to those it exploits.

And the real-life stuff never really goes away. The film’s Americans claim to be fighting against genocide in Somalia, but what the film shows us is an episode in which large numbers of Africans are killed by a small number of American troops. And the mission in question is basically a militarily justified kidnapping that goes disastrously awry. It’s a tragically absurd situation, but the movie insists on portraying it in heroically melodramatic terms.

Knee-jerk patriotism must have something to do with the film’s grieving over 18 dead American soldiers while 50 times as many Somali deaths are treated as a mere statistic. But gruesome sentimentality plays a more obvious role than patriotic fervor in Scott’s “human” touches—a Muslim elder carrying a dead baby, a veiled woman picking up a machine gun even though it means certain death, a child shooting at an American and killing his father instead.

Black Hawk Down works very efficiently as slam-bang entertainment. But even before Sept. 11, it would have been evident that Somalia and recent world history are merely a “novel” pretext for this movie spectacle.

It may not be old-fashioned political propaganda, but it surely is propaganda for the new century’s Entertainment State.