The Wars on Film: BLACK HAWK DOWN and the Importance of Character

Examining what is lacking in Ridley Scott's war film

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various  tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Black Hawk Down. It was inevitable that I would have to eventually cover this specific film in my series and this week my cheapness (I didn’t want to pay to rent something) finally left me starring down the barrel of Ridley Scott’s one real foray into the military genre. I am going to be really honest here. I’m not a fan of Ridley Scott. That may sound like sacrilege to some, but I have long found myself impervious to the specific charms of his films. Which means that this film presented a very specific challenge for me, to attempt to overcome my preexisting bias against this director’s filmography and to truly examine this film on its own merits. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not I succeeded because in the end my takeaway was that BHD is emblematic of many of the issues I have with Scott’s work. What issues are they you say? Well, let’s dive in and find out together.

For those not familiar with BHD (and as usual I must ask, why are you reading this if you have not seen the film?) it is a film about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which two American helicopters were shot down, and a large group of American special forces where trapped in hostile territory for a day and night as they attempted to fight their way out before finally being rescued by Pakistani forces. Over the course of the battle 17 Americans where killed and 70 were wounded. As a result the film features a sprawling cast of characters as Scott attempts to capture the scale and scope of the battle. Unfortunately this brings us to one of the film’s principle flaws. I have watched BHD at least three times in my life, including yesterday. That being said, I doubt I could successfully name two of the soldiers from this film. By choosing to work with such a large principle cast, Scott inadvertently resigns all of the soldiers to virtual anonymity, with none of them having enough time to shine so that they stand out from the pack. I can name many of the actors involved in this film (Josh Hartnett, Orlando Bloom, Jason Isaacs , Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) but I cannot for the life of me remember the names of the soldiers they were depicting, and as a result, struggle to follow their role in the greater narrative of the film. They are simply nameless soldiers sent to fight and die. It is possible that was supposed to be the point, but the fact that they are always screaming each others names (yet I still cannot remember them) seems to indicate this was not the case. It results in the film feeling overly detached from what it was depicting, and in a manner that, considering the topic, ends up becoming extremely problematic.

Problematic… I HATE that word. I hate how it is so often used to tear down or outright dismiss a film that someone disagrees with. I hate how it has become one of the most often used words in a film critic’s dialogue. I hate how it is the be all and end all of story: “Is this problematic?” I hate the patronizing manner that people often adopt when invoking this criticism. All of that being said, problematic is EXACTLY the word that I would use to describe the narrative and thematics of BHD.  The root of the problem lies in the simple fact that due to the region in which the story is set, all of the film’s antagonists are black. That in and of itself is not a problem, after all, this is a film based on a true story that occurred in Africa, and a story worth telling, so there was no way to dodge it. The problem arises when you compound the fact that every antagonist in the film is black by casting almost every single protagonist with lines as white, and then present the antagonists behaving monstrously and then being mowed down in a fashion more reminiscent of a zombie film than a war movie.  There are three black characters with more than a single line in this film.  One portrays an American soldier, one portrays a character that at best exists in a gray area, while the third is the leader of the Somali fighters attacking and killing the American soldiers. It is at this point, when you examine the almost entirely white protagonists mowing down a faceless, nameless, mob of dehumanized black antagonists that the film starts to become uncomfortable. To be clear, I am not accusing anyone involved in the making of this film, or the soldiers who fought in the actual Battle of Mogadishu, of being racist. I am simply saying that more care could have perhaps have been taken to diversify the protagonists so as to insure that when the shooting started, that the easiest way to differentiate the “good guys” from the “bad guys” wasn’t the color of their skin. It feels more like an oversight than a malicious act, but it is an oversight that adds (hopefully) unintended thematics to the proceedings that the film would have been better off without.

Having gotten this far, I’m sure you are wondering if there is anything that I liked about BHD. The truth is that I actually liked a lot of it. Despite the flaws with character and themes, this is a HIGHLY skillfully made film. Ridley Scott is many things, but technically poor as a filmmaker is not one of them. After some admittedly poorly designed shots at the very beginning of the film (maybe the first 10 minutes or so) the rest of the film is masterfully shot and edited. The combat is visceral and shot in such a way as to really make you fear for the protagonists, even if you couldn’t recite their names if your life depended on it. Whether he is utilizing night vision, satellite footage, hand held, or dolly or crane based photography, Scott is crafting a feast for the eyes. The sets and the actors are dusty and grimy and everything has the lived in quality that ensure the combat never escalates beyond belief. Combined with brilliant editing that masterfully ratchets up the tension in key moments, you constantly have the feeling of being there that only a exceptionally well put together film can provide. Add in the sound design, which adds depth and frames the chaos unfolding on screen and you have a piece of true technical mastery. It’s only the story and character of it all that truly fall short.

Rewatching BHD didn’t change my opinion of Ridley Scott, if anything it reinforced it. I believe him to be one of the five or so most gifted technical filmmakers of his generation, a master with the camera and aesthetics the likes of which few can match or exceed. I just cannot help but feel detached from his work. His characters often leave me cold and the greater ideas of his films often either elude him or exist independent of him. That being said even with it’s flaws, BHD is worth a watch. It serves as both a masterclass in how to design, shoot, and edit a modern military film, while also serving as a stark reminder to constantly be aware of the thematic implications of the art that you are creating. It is a truly fascinating piece of cinema and definitely worth your time.