Black Hawk Down: one-sided and flimsy, but the battles are dazzling | Ridley Scott | The Guardian

Black Hawk Down: one-sided and flimsy, but the battles are dazzling

Ridley Scott's 2001 dramatisation of the Battle of Mogadishu is too black v white, but warfare has never been so strikingly depicted
Scene from Black Hawk Down
War zone … scene from Black Hawk Down. Photograph: Sidney Baldwin/AP
War zone … scene from Black Hawk Down. Photograph: Sidney Baldwin/AP
Thu 2 Jul 2009 04.00 EDT

Director: Ridley Scott
Entertainment grade: C
History grade: C

The Battle of Mogadishu, fought in Somalia's capital during October 1993, was at the time the biggest US military firefight since the Vietnam war. An attempt by American special forces to kidnap two chief aides of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid went disastrously wrong, triggering an all-out battle. Under the UN banner, American, Pakistani and Malaysian forces fought Aidid's militia.


"This isn't Iraq, you know," says one officer. "Much more complicated than that." Maybe in 2001, when Black Hawk Down was released, you could just about get away with that line. In any case, the conflict in Somalia is indeed complicated. The film opens with a slew of explanatory title cards, revealing it expects its viewers to be a fairly dense bunch. One reads "Somalia, East Africa." As opposed to Somalia, Massachusetts?


Josh Hartnett and Gregory Sporleder in Black Hawk Down
Calling in the cavalry … Josh Hartnett as Eversmann and Gregory Sporleder as Galentine. Photograph: Sidney Baldwin/AP

Since M*A*S*H*, American military bases have tended to be portrayed on film as wild and sleazy places. Not so in Black Hawk Down, where the men use their downtime to play chess, illustrate children's books and debate the rules of Scrabble. One soldier's entire characterisation is that he insists on making proper cafetière coffee. Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) holds forth about how profoundly he respects the Somali people. So does everyone else, apparently, and the troops' nickname for the locals – "skinnies" – is merely a sign of affection, rather than a tasteless slur in a country where 300,000 people have just died of starvation. "Bakara market is the wild west," announces one Ranger. "But be careful what you shoot at because people do live there. Hooah!" In the subsequent fighting, soldiers are shown carefully avoiding shooting at any women or children (two groups inevitably lumped together as helpless victims by the movie, which avoids dealing with Somalia's notoriously large number of child soldiers, and only once shows a woman with a gun). The audience can only conclude that, in real life, the several thousand civilian casualties must all have been hit by bullets ricocheting off genuine, kite-marked warlords.


Scene from Black Hawk Down
Aerial supremacy … scene from Black Hawk Down. Photograph: Sidney Baldwin/AP

Black Hawk Down doesn't hide the fact that the battle was the result of a perennial US military blindspot: underestimating the efficacy of guerrilla warfare. The runtime is almost entirely taken up by visceral battle sequences, in which hi-tech American equipment proves to be little use against determined street fighters. If there's a director who can make war look picturesque, it's Ridley Scott. Showers of sparks glow amid the ruins; market stalls are elegantly swagged with bandoliers; curls of smoke rise from spent bullet casings as they hit the ground; blood spurts forth in graceful fountains. American soldiers die in slow-motion, accompanied by mournful strings or piano music. Somalis just fly into the air, explode and disappear. Though actual data is hard to come by, the historian is pretty sure that it's not like this in real life.


The film was much criticised for pitting noble, civilising white heroes against faceless, savage black villains. It's true that special forces are less racially diverse than the US military overall, but it is still a bit conspicuous that Black Hawk Down chooses an entirely white cast of main characters from among them. It's also a bit conspicuous that the very few Somali speaking characters (mostly played by Brits of west African and Caribbean descent) don't do anything except scheme, gloat, menace and be untrustworthy. Meanwhile, the Pakistani and Malaysian soldiers who fought in the battle have been written out altogether. When American troops return to a Pakistani base after the operation, they are greeted by the film's only visible Asians: three beturbaned waiters, meekly offering glasses of water and fluffy white towels. So irritated was former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf at this slight that he denounced the movie in his autobiography – though, unfortunately, Hollywood was the least of his problems.


Black Hawk Down tiptoes carefully around the facts when it deals with US troops, but its interpretation of history is flimsy, one-sided, and politically questionable.