black hawk down, down, down: three perspectives on the film

November 21, 2010

Just to highlight some other rants on the film besides my own… I rather liked Evan Thomas‘ short, vicious review of the film in News Week (2008, vol. 152, iss. 25). Thomas frames Black Hawk Down as one of the latest in a history of “amnesiac” war films that whitewash the horrors of the past to get the next batch of young uns to the recruitment stations. Thomas concludes:

“Director Ridley Scott’s movie, which was released just three months after 9/11, while America was still in thrall over the war in Afghanistan, was a commercial and critical success, grossing more than $100 million and earning an Oscar nomination for Scott. His version of “Black Hawk Down” may have been antiwar on the surface, but I believe it was fundamentally prowar. Though it depicted a shameful defeat, the soldiers were heroes willing to die for their brothers in arms. The movie showed brutal scenes of killing, but also courage, stoicism and honor. The overall effect was stirring, if slightly pornographic, and it seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11.”


Right now I’m working my way through Stephen A. Klien‘s sane, sober-handed approach to the film, called “Public Character and the Simulacrum: The Construction of the Soldier Patriot and Citizen Agency in Black Hawk Down“, from the Vol. 22, No. 5, December 2005 edition of Critical Studies in Media Communication. The abstract reads thus:

“This essay examines how the film Black Hawk Down functions rhetorically to reconstruct the legitimacy of political and military institution and policy, and the possibilities for efficacious, responsible citizen agency within the post-September 11, 2001 context of increasingly unconventional warfare. Black Hawk Down reconstitutes popular perceptions of war and the appropriate response of citizens to it. It continues a pattern of contemporary war films established by Saving Private Ryan in 1998, reducing the patriotic purpose of war to surviving and protecting one’s fellow soldiers. This pattern is developed through a hyperreal spectacle of war that both encourages audiences to empathize with the dominant ‘pro-soldier’ message and discourages critical public discourse concerning justification for and execution of military inventions policy.

Later in the essay, he says, “… Black Hawk Down is a ‘pro-soldier anti-war film,’ one that celebrates the camaraderie, sacrifice, and heroism of the fighting soldier even as it depicts the deplorable brutality and even futility of war. As such, the film seems to invite a paradoxical consequence: The American viewing audience may conflate personal support of American soldiers with support of American military policy, in spite of evidence that the policy itself is misdirected or ineffectively executed.”

And: “While Bowden described it is an anti-war film (Goldberg, 2002, paragraph 17), Black Hawk Down celebrates the culture of soldiers who embody laudable core values in even in the face of harrowing danger and insurmountable odds. These narrative and cinematic elements invite viewers to release any dissonance they might feel at the prospect of supporting what soldiers do (make war when war is terrible). Ironically, such a construction transforms ostentibly ‘anti-war’ films into American pro-war propaganda.”

A review that calls the film what it is – a simulacrum! It’s a refreshingly informed, intelligent, and well-researched re-framing of the film that interrogates Scott’s representation by comparing it to the actual events of October 3rd, 1997. I rejoice in sanity. Hurrah.


A correction: I’ve also been reading James I. Matray‘s review of Black Hawk Down in The American Journal of History (Vol. 89, Iss. 3, Dec. 2002), where he says, “Eighteen Americans died and over 70 were wounded. At least 500 Somalis were killed and over 1,000 wounded, most of them civilians.” My bad, I am horrible with numbers. Matray does make some very good points about the movie (woohoo for other people having the historical context that I lack!) that I just thought I’d quote here for you to digest and ponder.

“… Unfortunately, most viewers of Black Hawk Down will remember little more than what Bowden calls the “tidal wave of gore” at Mogadishu. This is because only a few title crawls and cursory conversations provide historical context. Viewers have no choice but to conclude that Somalis are not only lousy marksmen but crazed “Skinnies” and “Sammies” without any regard for human life. There is no mention of a U.S. raid in July after Aidid’s forces killed twenty-four Pakistani United Nation peacekeepers; it resulted in the death of over fifty civilians and created intense hatred of the Americans. There is only a brief reference to khat, an amphetamine Somalis chewed each afternoon, making them “wired, jumpy, and raring to go.” 

Far worse, the role of the helicopter is inexcusably minimized. Somalis hated the Black Hawks because, Bowden writes in his book, they often “destroyed whole neighborhoods, blew down market stalls, and terrorized cattle. Women walking the streets would have their colorful robes blown off. Some had infants torn from their arms by the powerful updraft.” As for the Americans, they thought the helicopters were invulnerable and were not prepared to react effectively when Somalis used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to down or disable four Black Hawks.

“Black Hawk Down may arouse the curiosity of some viewers who notice that the movie makes no serious attempt to explain the underlying causes of this battle. Certainly they will leave the theater wondering why the United States placed American soldiers in such a highly precarious situation. Most will blame President Bill Clinton, although he was unaware of the mission’s approval. Nor will the movie educate viewers about an appropriate role for the United States to play in current world affairs. Some will conclude that, as in Vietnam, politicians failed to provide the U.S. military with the tools it needed to do its job and then refused to allow Task Force Ranger to avenge its losses and complete its mission. Others will remember most the words of the Somali who held the Black Hawk pilot Michael Durant prisoner: “This is a civil war. This is not yours, it is our war.” 

Both reactions reflect the kind of neo-isolationism that was driving the ethnocentric and unilateralist foreign policy of the current Bush administration before September 11, 2001. Black Hawk Down entertains in presenting a stunningly realistic portrayal of the gruesome carnage of modern warfare, but it falls short in educating viewers on how the United States should behave in modern world affairs.”

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