Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:02 pm 
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One of the most impressive bad war movies ever made

Black Hawk Down could indeed have been one of the best war movies of all time - if it weren't so mindless, numbing, and demoralizing. Ridley Scott's new movie about the failed US action in Somalia certainly is one of the most exceptionally vivid and detailed cinematic depictions ever of an extended sequence of combat in all its horror, futility, and suffering. But this depiction unrolls without sufficient context or point of view. As I watched it, I kept thinking of the forgotten German Sixties film, The Bridge (Die Brücke). In The Bridge, a similarly futile and murderous, though smaller scale, combat sequence becomes a devastating indictment of war; but significantly, The Bridge begins with a long background sequence on all the young soldiers' lives before combat. That doesn't happen here, nor does the movie take a position on war. I realize Scott followed Mark Bowden's historical account of the events of 1993 and has sought to represent the events 'accurately.' But is it 'accurate' not to comment on the fact that this was an effort to relieve famine, and all it ultimately did - despite the success of the operation (because it was a success, though people call it 'disastrous') was kill off a thousand men, women, and children of the country as well as eighteen American soldiers? Ridley Scott's visual spectacle with its chaos and accurate war machinery isn't enough. A movie about warfare has to do more than present a spectacle of violent action. It has to provide a context and present a viewpoint that takes sensitive account of the people and events it depicts - which in this case would be a whole lot more than the insane little message, 'we're good guys and we're heroes, even when we lose,' that the movie leaves us with. Since this is the story of a huge snafu, an operation badly botched from above that the soldiers salvaged at great loss to themselves, the movie would also have benefited from some of the brilliant ironies David O. Russell brought to the Gulf War in Three Kings, but Black Hawk Down unfortunately is a film without irony and almost without humor, with its violent close-up action so intense and constant, with its personalities so sketchily dramatized, that it actually becomes boring at times. And that's as cruel to the people depicted as it is to us. To go through 144 minutes of grueling action and learn nothing is deeply depressing. Young actors like Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, and Orlando Bloom do their very best to give soldiering a human face. So do more mature ones like Tom Sizemore and Sam Shepherd. But it seems the camera and the equipment and the special effects are the real stars. This is not entirely surprising coming from Ridley Scott. Scott has done a few great, even classic, films: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise. But he hasn't always scored a win and he has never been noted for subtlety. Last year's Gladiator was much more interesting than this, but still highly overrated. This time he has used a very blunt instrument to dissect an enormously complex subject of contemporary warfare and American foreign policy and he has created a spectacular disappointment.

January 20, 2002

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