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The Straight Story

"Black Hawk Down" comes full of blood-and-guts realism, and mercifully devoid of Hollywood preening.

11:01 PM, Jan 17, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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MOST veteran newspaper journalists live by a simple rule when they cover a truly dramatic event: Tell the story and get out of the way.

It's an axiom that served Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden well when, in 1996, he began the work that would become his best-selling book "Black Hawk Down." And it seems to have guided director Ridley Scott in his brilliant crafting of the film by the same name. Scott's approach to the battle mirrors Bowden's--a straightforward, less-is-more re-creation of the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, that killed 18 Americans and more than one thousand Somalis--and his laissez-faire approach is the reason that the film is so compelling. The vanity that oozes from the projects of other above-the-title directors is nowhere to be found in "Black Hawk Down."

The movie opens as U.S. troops prepare for yet another attempt to capture higher-ups in Habr Gidr, a Somali clan ruled by brutal warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Most Americans will remember that the fighting among rival warlords threatened U.N. efforts to feed starving Somalis. Aidid was the most powerful and cruel of these mini-tyrants, claiming U.N. food shipments for himself and shooting anyone who tried to thwart his efforts.

The American plan, as outlined by Major Gen. William Garrison (played by Sam Shepard), sounded simple. Elite Delta Force operators would enter a hotel where some of Aidid's deputies were believed to be meeting, while Army Rangers in four Black Hawk helicopters secured a perimeter around the site. There were risks, of course. The hotel was in the crowded Bakara market section of Mogadishu. There would be shooting, and the bigwigs at the Defense Department had denied the additional air support Garrison had requested. Still, he confidently reminds his troops, the op should take thirty minutes, start to finish.

But things get complicated almost immediately. One young Ranger falls as he attempts to rappel from the Black Hawk to the ground. His injuries are serious and draw the attentions of several comrades who would have otherwise concentrated on guarding the area surrounding the hotel. Moments later, one of the Black Hawks is shot down by an RPG--a Rocket-Propelled Grenade--the marketplace erupts in chaos, and the gruesome conflict begins in earnest.

Scott devotes most of the 144-minute film, which opens nationwide today, to re-creating the 14-hour firefight between U.S. soldiers and Somalis on October 3-4, 1993. He does so in masterful fashion.

The combat scenes move quickly and almost randomly, just as did the fighting itself; the battle pauses at bizarre and unpredictable moments. And through it all, the audience is gripped with the same thought that seizes the soldiers: This was not supposed to happen this way.

On the rare occasions when Scott chooses to dramatize the action, he does so simply by slowing it down. At one point, when a Ranger darts from the safety of his cover to aid a buddy, his eyes settle on a hand lying in the middle of the road. Scott artfully brings the frenzied pace of the fight to a stop--my God, that's a hand!--before resuming the clash.

In telling this story, Scott faces a problem familiar to directors of other recent war films--from the HBO series "Band of Brothers" to "Saving Private Ryan" to "Platoon." How do you develop characters in a fast-paced depiction of battle that features dozens of look-alike twenty-something soldiers? Scott gets around the problem by ignoring it, giving us glimpses of characters, but putting his emphasis on the action, instead of the men.

The best performances come from Tom Sizemore, who convincingly plays a fearless, forthright Ranger commander who at times seems invincible, and Eric Bana, who portrays a tough-guy Delta Force soldier, wise beyond his fighting years. The most disappointing performance comes from Ewan McGregor, who never completely loses his Scottish accent and oversells his part as the wide-eyed company go-fer thrown unexpectedly into battle.

Finally, a word about the charges of racism leveled against the movie by critics from Entertainment Weekly, Newsday, and the New York Times. Most of the U.S. soldiers were white. The Somalis were black. All of the editorializing in the world will not change that reality. And while the film doesn't purport to be a documentary, the notion that it is somehow racist to reflect that reality is silly.

With "Black Hawk Down," Scott and his collaborators have produced one of the best war films of the past decade precisely because they avoided Hollywood temptations of both the political and artistic variety.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.