Still riding high off the success of GLADIATOR (2000), director Ridley Scott found his filmmaking services more in demand than ever, jumping from one production to the next with barely a beat between them to catch his breath. His name had become synonymous with both awards prestige and financial success, so naturally every producer in town wanted to work with him. One such producer was Jerry Bruckheimer, the industry titan whose big-budget displays of massive pyrotechnics had informed some of the cultural character of both the 80’s and 90’s. Bruckheimer was already something of a family friend, having produced TOP GUN (1986) and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) for Scott’s brother, Tony. During the production of HANNIBAL, Bruckheimer had approached Scott with a project he had previously been developing as a directing vehicle for action director Simon West (1)— an adaption of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book “Black Hawk Down”. Originally published in 1999, the book recounts the events that have come to be known as The Battle of Mogadishu: an operation undertaken by the US Military against the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, in which the loss of eighteen US lives and and the deaths of countless Somali citizens marked one of the most consequential firefights since Vietnam. West had initiated the project, bringing it to Bruckheimer’s attention with the request that he purchase the film rights. After the option was secured, screenwriter Ken Nolan was brought on board to adapt the book into a script, which then went through several uncredited rewrites from the likes of Stephen Gaghan, Steven Zaillian, Edna Sands, and even Bowden himself (2). Nolan ultimately had the last laugh, receiving sole credit as well as the opportunity to rewrite the rewrites on set (2). Certainly no stranger to large budgets, Scott would effortlessly navigate the $92 million production of BLACK HAWK DOWN, coasting off his resurgent creative momentum to deliver another run at Oscar glory with an unrivaled portrait of modern urban warfare.
It was supposed to be a quick mission: apprehend and extract two advisers to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who in 1993 was waging war against UN peacekeeping forces inside Mogadishu following a bloody civil war and the dissolution of the local government. Having declared himself the new leader of Somalia, Aidid was commanding a large, heavily-armed civilian militia who routinely seized Red Cross food shipments as a way to exert his power over the populace. Starvation was no way to lead a nation, so the U.S. Army had deployed several special ops units into Mogadishu with the aim of taking Aidid out. For all their training and might, the troops had failed to heed the central lesson of Vietnam: that a well-funded military and superior weaponry were no match for passionate locals with nothing left to lose. The mission is quickly compromised, leaving the troops marooned in the middle of pure urban anarchy when they lose their superiority over the air— the consequential event that gives the film its title. The remainder of BLACK HAWK DOWN follows the ensemble as they fight to escape Mogadishu in one piece, blending fact with the fiction of various character composites to create a riveting exercise in sustained suspense and adrenaline.
Despite production occurring far before the calamitous events of September 11, 2001, the spectre of that fateful day nevertheless colors the experience of BLACK HAWK DOWN, becoming a rallying cry for those desperate to conquer the sense of profound helplessness felt in the face of terrorism’s inherent anarchy. It was a reflection of our new normal, where our enemies didn’t come at us wearing the uniform or colors of any recognizable nation or creed; where the only certainty was the uncertainty of our collective security. Scott’s vision would strike a strange tone, being both anti-war and pro-military simultaneously. Indeed, the film strings along several such contradictions— attempts to portray the ugliness of combat and the visceral horror of a human body exploding into a crimson mist are subverted by the propagandistic jingoism of the soldiers’ enthusiasm; a prologue spotlighting the horrific suffering of starving Somalis gives way to their dehumanization as enemy combatants. Indeed, with very few exceptions (a rich Somali arms dealer and one of Aidid’s lieutenants), BLACK HAWK DOWN roots itself almost exclusively within the American perspective. In this light, Scott’s large cast of Hollywood stars and unknowns alike finds itself tasked not with projecting character development in the conventional sense, but rather with quickly establishing multiple viewpoints for the audience to track as the operation goes from bad to worse. Having spent a week in hardcore military training as part of their prep, the cast proudly sacrifices their vanity and any concerted efforts at individualization so as to better gel together into a single organism. Even when they splinter into smaller groups, they move through the city as one, aided by the omniscience of the one helicopter flying out of RPG range above. Playing a soldier named Eversmann, Josh Hartnett might as well as named “Everyman”, anchoring the film (and its marketing materials) as something of a cypher through which the audience can implant themselves into the action. Ewan McGregor plays Grimes, the coffee boy/desk jockey itching to get in on the fight. Eric Bana and William Fichtner are the cool, composed members of an elite sub-unit of soldiers called Delta Force. Orlando Bloom is Blackburn, the boyish new guy. Tom Sizemore’s character is named McKnight, but he is essentially the same “unstoppable son-of-a-bitch with a heart of gold” stock character he played in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and seemingly every other war movie made since. Jason Isaacs and Tom Hardy are almost unrecognizable in their roles as Steele and Twombly respectively— Isaacs’ shaved head gives his facial features a harder, mean-looking edge, while Hardy (in his very first feature film role) is still so boyish and scrawny here that one might miss his presence entirely. Jeremy Piven pops up as well, embodying his usual cocksure, smart-mouth shtick in the guise of a helicopter pilot. The late Sam Shepard lords over all as the no-nonsense commander, Garrison, swaggering around in dark aviators and chomping cigars like the living embodiment of the Bush Doctrine. The lengthy roster of names listed above are only a fraction of the thirty or so characters featured in the film— themselves a fraction of the hundred characters that Bowden’s original book tracks as the conflict spirals out of control.
BLACK HAWK DOWN immediately distinguishes itself amidst Scott’s lengthy filmography with its searing, hyper-kinetic aesthetic; understandably, this is quite the feat, considering the highly visual nature of Scott’s work. Working for the first time with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, Scott takes a page out of brother Tony’s filmmaking playbook, whereby the style becomes the substance. Every Super35mm film frame of Idziak’s Oscar-nominated work here is geared to project pure adrenaline, prioritizing chaotic handheld photography that drops the audience in the middle of the action. Shot spherically but presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s unique look is all the more notable due to its creation in a time before digital intermediates and powerful coloring tools were in widespread use— meaning the exceedingly high contrast, crushed blacks, exaggerated grain structure, and greenish-yellow highlights that imbue an arid, sun-scorched color palette with a poisonous or acidic edge were all achieved via painstaking photochemical processes in the film lab. In an oblique way, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s approach to color is very similar to the stylized neon hues found in BLADE RUNNER (1982)— they both aim to convey a bustling alien landscape meant to overwhelm the viewer’s senses. BLACK HAWK DOWN further achieves this strange atmosphere through the aforementioned prologue, which Scott renders in a dominating cobalt cast, or nocturnal battle sequences that embrace a sickly green tone in the highlights, motivated by a desire for theatrical effect rather than to signal the presence of a conventional light source. Scott and Idziak complement the radical visual aesthetic with an equally frenetic approach to camerawork, mostly foregoing Scott’s longtime use of classical studio filmmaking techniques in favor of a documentary realism that, again, tosses the audience directly into the crossfire— swooping aerials, chaotic handheld setups, lens flares, 45-degree shutters, rack zooms, and even freeze-frames all go a long way towards conveying the visceral, overwhelming nature of the mission.
While Scott may be working with a new cinematographer, he nevertheless falls back on his latter-day dream team of department heads like production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (who won the Oscar for his work here) and composer Hans Zimmer. A former production designer himself, Scott has always possessed an unparalleled eye towards art design in his films— that is, until his recent collaborations with Max. More than just an equal in this regard, Scott and Max seem to thrive off each other’s tastes, cultivating a symbiotic relationship that has pushed both men towards ever-loftier heights. Far beyond the familiarity of signature atmospheric effects like silhouettes, smoke, and gradient skies, Scott and Max populate the frame by essentially building out a teeming city from scratch. To recreate Mogadishu as it was in the early 90’s, production took over the Moroccan cities of Rabat and Salé, repurposing their various buildings and public spaces as Scott and Max saw fit. Resembling a small occupation force themselves, the crew populated these cities with era-appropriate equipment on loan from the US military and commandeered their citizens as background extras. The logistical intricacies of such an endeavor are simply mind-boggling, with the result standing as a testament to Scott’s cigar-chomping, David Lean-style confidence in grand-scale filmmaking. The phrase “the art of war” comes to mind, suggesting that even a military general can be an artist; he creates a kind of beauty, expression, and meaning through tactical maneuvering and logistical precision. This is the root of Scott’s artistry as a filmmaker— the art of quick decisions, of marshaling his collaborators towards a common goal.
The sentiment likening filmmaking to war-making has become a trite trivialization of either endeavor, expressed more often by amateurs than seasoned veterans, but it is demonstrably true in Scott’s case. He knows that a general is only as good as his officers, so he surrounds himself with the best of the best. Like his collaborations with Max, Scott’s longstanding relationship with composer Hans Zimmer frequently brings out the best in either man. In the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, Zimmer seeks to find an oblique harmony in the clash between western and eastern musical traditions. Representing the American side, a bed of militaristic brass and percussion drives electronic orchestration inspired by techno and heavy metal rock, creating a sound that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a contemporary recruitment ad. The Somali side of Zimmer’s score adopts more of an organic approach, using regional instruments and East African rhythms to create an exotic sound punctuated by the recurring use of haunting vocalizations that evoke the danger of an unknown landscape. Regrettably, this sound — one could call it the “scary Muslim wail” — has, like a cancer, managed to seep into nearly every post-9/11 film set in the Middle East. To Zimmer’s credit as an influential composer, he may have started this trend with BLACK HAWK DOWN, but it has nonetheless aged about as well as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” rally. Ironically, Scott’s use of dated popular music helps BLACK HAWK DOWN achieve a degree of timelessness— the film boasts an eclectic mix of sourced cues ranging from Elvis Presley to House of Pain, reflecting the wide variety of backgrounds that the troops are coming from. Scott’s use of Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is a particularly pointed inclusion, linking The Battle of Mogadishu — a tactical loss — to the quagmire of Vietnam via a shared association with rock-and-roll music.
It’s easy to see why the prospect of directing BLACK HAWK DOWN held such appeal for Scott— its various aesthetic and thematic opportunities touch on the very cornerstones of his artistry. From a technical standpoint, the ability to transform an entire small city into his personal backlot was irresistible to a renowned cinematic worldbuilder like him. As such, BLACK HAWK DOWN conveys a harrowing immersiveness, rendering the chaotic war zone of Mogadishu and the teeming tactical activity of the American base camp so fully that it might as well be virtual reality. The project’s worldbuilding opportunities were doubly appealing in that they also represented a return to Morocco, a favorite shooting locale of Scott’s. A shoot in modern-day Mogadishu was out of the question — it was still far too dangerous for the American military, let alone a civilian film crew, to step foot inside. Scott’s familiarity with the Moroccan film community, having shot scenes for both GLADIATOR and G.I. JANE (1998) in the country, allowed the production to take full advantage of the local resources and pull off what could very well have been a logistical impossibility in other, more-developed countries. In light of BLACK HAWK DOWN’s making, G.I. JANE actually becomes more significant in the context of Scott’s filmography; it now stands as a trial run for the former, allowing Scott to develop his skills in the depiction of military precision and tactical maneuvers. This would be particularly important in the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, as a key narrative and thematic tenet of the film is the marked contrast in combat styles on display: the disciplined precision and technological superiority of American forces against the wildly unpredictable anarchy of the Somali militia. Finally, BLACK HAWK DOWN affords Scott the opportunity to further explore his career-long fascination with the theme of xenophobia, although the opportunity is somewhat squandered by his overriding sympathies for the American experience. The film was met with a fair degree of controversy upon release for its dehumanizing depiction of the Somalis, and understandably so— a significant bulk of the story adopts the American imperialist perspective only to relegate the Somalis into the background as distant figures; ferocious “savages” with little more to their humanity than rage and bloodlust. We’re only afforded fleeting glimpses of the Somalis’ humanity (a brief interlude of Somali children taking shelter inside a bullet-riddled school comes to mind). Far from a knee-jerk, reactionary development, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s controversy is rightly justified in questioning whether Scott’s earnest embrace of a pro-military stance came at the expense of an anti-war sentiment that would’ve been better conveyed through a more-balanced depiction of the Somalis.
BLACK HAWK DOWN’s success, while obviously bolstered by positive critical reviews, was largely propelled by a pro-military sentiment that swelled in the months directly following 9/11– in these new, uncertain, terrifying times, the American people needed a “win”; a reminder that their government and their military still had the ability to keep them secure. BLACK HAWK DOWN was in a position to provide this small comfort, with the fact that the real-life event was actually a tactical failure ironically salving the psychological wounds of the audience. It’s strange to think of right-wing entertainment as being “good”; Hollywood’s broad liberal slant leaves very little air for conservative voices to produce quality content. As such, the loudest and most reactionary efforts usually get the most air-time: the idea of “right-wing filmmaking” conjures up sickly visions of Dinesh D’Souza’s paranoid conspiracy “documentaries” or treacly faith-based and congregation-funded melodramas that unspool with all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a window. BLACK HAWK DOWN is none of these, but yet it is the very definition of right-wing entertainment— that it stands as one of President George W. Bush’s favorite films (1) says a lot about its legacy as a cultural touchstone for conservative viewpoints. How one feels about that fact is up to one’s own personal politics, but the pedigree of Scott’s craft here is nonetheless undeniable. Scott is nothing if not a prolific filmmaker, but even he had not managed to break the “two films in one year” barrier that younger cohorts like Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh had done— until now. BLACK HAWK DOWN followed HANNIBAL’s 2001 release by only several months, coming in just under the wire for Oscar eligibility with a limited theatrical release before the year was out; a sound strategy, considering the aforementioned nominations (including Scott’s third nod for Best Director) and the sound mixing team’s win at the 2002 Academy Awards. A wider release would follow in mid-January 2002, where it proved a financial success with a worldwide total of $172 million in box office receipts (3). For all its controversy, and despite his artistic stumble with HANNIBAL, Scott’s efforts on BLACK HAWK DOWN would serve as a doubling-down on claims that he was in the grips of a newfound artistic prime. Indeed, his voice was actively shaping the cultural zeitgeist of a tumultuous decade. It would be quite some time until he experienced these lofty heights once more, but he could rest assured that BLACK HAWK DOWN had laid yet another cornsterone to an-already monumental legacy.
BLACK HAWK DOWN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures.
Written by: Ken Nolan
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer
Director of Photography: Slawomir Idziak
Production Design by: Arthur Max
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music by: Hans Zimmer
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: “Text of the decision from USCourts.gov”. Retrieved 2011-02-21.
- Via Wikipedia: “Black Hawk Down (2001)”. Box Office Mojo. Amazon.com. Retrieved 2007-10-26.