Black Hawk Down
by Chris Wood
Leave no man behind…
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Starving. For the average American, the word is used in reference to missing a meal. In Somalia in 1992, the word was used in the sense that is only too real. Three hundred thousand Somalians (just under the metropolitan population of Miami, Florida) starved to death and nearly a million others were cut off from their food supply by Mohamed Farrah Aidid. American forces, on location, were the first to supply food to the country in the middle of its civil war. However, on October 3, 1993, in an effort to stop the genocide proportioned death and starvation, a mission was constructed to capture two of Mohammad Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants so that transportation of food to the oppressed would be an easier task. The plan was to take only an hour, but surpassing that mark by fourteen made the Battle of Mogadishu (a city in Somalia) the longest sustained ground battle to date involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War. This new, post-modern warfare has been brought to life in Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Aliens, Legend), from Ken Nolan’s adaptation of Mark Bowden’s 1999 book.
“I have a necessary skill,” Company Clerk John Grimes (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting) explains to Private Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom, Lord of the Rings), as Grimes punches Blackburn’s d.o.b., 1975, into his PC. Grimes, who didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk but was because he could type, later gets to go on the mission because one of the other men breaks his wrist. (Grimes is a fictitious name created because some of the men involved in the battle did not want their real names used.)
The city of Mogadishu’s location, right next to beautiful sandy beaches and blue water, contrasts this serene landscape with the thick plumes of black smoke from burning tires that are a warning signal to alert the “skinnies” — as U.S. troops referred to Aidid’s clan — that the Americans are coming.
This mission, an assumed “in-and-out-operation,” is put into action by Major General William Garrision (Sam Shepard, Purgatory), leaving an uneasy feeling in the pit of Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann’s (Josh Hartnett, Pearl Harbor) stomach as the Major General wishes the men “good luck” on the mission — something Eversmann had never heard Garrison say before. And so a hundred and twenty of our country’s bravest close in on the target, capture the men in question and are all set to move out when a Black Hawk Super 61 helicopter is hit by an RPG. Without its tail rudder, the Hawk spins in circles as pilot Cliff Wolcott (Jeremy Piven, Grosse Pointe Blank), calls to base on the radio, “We’re going down!” The second chopper, Black Hawk Super 64, piloted by Mike Durant (Ron Eldard, Sleepers), is also hit in the tail, and it spirals down into the grid-like dilapidated ghetto below.
Durant, the only survivor of the Super 64 crash, lies unconscious and helpless as the streets fill with Aidid’s men. The third of four Hawks, carrying snipers Sergeant Randy Shugart (Johnny Strong, The Fast and the Furious) and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Enigma), requests permission to drop on the site to fend off the vicious foes on the mean streets below. Both men pull Durant from the wreck and fire back on the angry mob until they are both overcome and killed. (Shugart and Gordon won the Medal of Honor for their heroic efforts. Durant was captured and taken prisoner, only to be released two weeks later.)
From the war room, Garrison watches on monitors and listens to radio communications telling of his men’s seriously fatal dilemma. “Leave no man behind,” these soldiers’ war cry, becomes the rest of the mission as U.S. ground troops scamper to get to the two crash sites, rescue their injured cohorts and retrieve the dead.
The convoy of “Hummers,” as they are nicknamed, and other army trucks, which had been taking prisoners back to the base, must now race down the perilous narrow roads between the three- and five-story buildings as screaming bullets and rockets come from all angles, trying to get to the crash sites to secure a perimeter. Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore, Saving Private Ryan) is in charge of the convoy, which has to stop several times when one of their own would get hit or fall out of a vehicle. The fifty-caliber guns on top of the vehicles prove a powerful remedy against the positioned “skinnies” in the ramshackle buildings as the troops drive by. However, a gunner manning this weapon is an easy target and several men are hit and killed by enemy fire. Eventually, the convoy has to evacuate the area because of the number of injuries it has sustained.
Scott puts viewers into the movie by using lots of handheld cameras and long shots from the point of view of the U.S. helicopters hovering above. It is very hard not to clench one’s hands tightly during a highly intense scene, or sigh in relief when an American solider puts his life on the line to pick up a wounded “brother” and race him to safety. Other scenes can bring tears to the viewer’s eyes, as when a young Ranger who is bleeding to death from a bullet wound to a major artery in his leg bravely exclaims, “Tell my parents that I fought well today!”
Also, Scott brings the elements into effect by having showers of scorched earth and rubble rain down from the sides of buildings after an explosion. At one point, Grimes is nearly buried after an RPG crashes into a small mound of rubble behind which he ducks.
The firefight continues throughout the night, while Garrision rushes a rescue operation to get the trapped, wounded and dead Rangers out. Two of the U.S. “Little Bird” helicopters fly by twice and hit a number of enemies positioned on a roof near where the remaining troops are dug in. Eversmann, in a daring sprint, laces the target for the copters’ night vision to see. During the morning light, about 5:45 a.m., the rescue party arrives and maintains a perimeter until all the wounded and dead are accounted for. Nineteen U.S. soldiers lost their lives and over seventy were wounded, while more than five hundred Somalians were killed and over one thousand injured.
On a personal note: on October 3, 1993, I was seventeen years old, in my senior year of high school, but had been unaware of U.S. involvement in Somalia until this movie. Upon further investigation, I learned that Corporal Jamie Smith, killed that day at the age of twenty-one, grew up in Long Valley, a suburban Northwestern New Jersey town not more than ten miles from where I grew up. The telling of this event is important to those of us in a younger generation who, until now, had to look back at Vietnam and World War II movies to identify with American soldiers’ hardships and heroics in battle. Although Black Hawk Down may not follow the true story as the book does, it successfully shows that, no matter what generation and no matter on which country’s soil, the American people should be proud and eternally thankful to the troops that put themselves in harms’ way to further our way of life, and help those in need of a better one.
Chris Wood is not a syndicated film critic, but he plays one on TV.
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