The war film is the one cinematic genre that can exploit massively homicidal violence while professing to make a moral statement about it. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down , from a screenplay by Ken Nolan, based on the book by Mark Bowden, is a spectacular case in point, with its nearly two-hour orgy of killing in the streets and rooftops of Mogadishu, Somalia, over the day and night of Oct. 3, 1993. The story, based on a real battle, became newsworthy in its aftermath by the publication of Paul Watson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of a dead American soldier, stripped of his clothing, being dragged through the streets of the city. The impact of this photo, and the reported 18 military fatalities, on American public opinion led President Clinton a few months later to order the withdrawal of American forces from Somalia.
Black Hawk Down is mostly concentrated on the battle itself, with very little information on the political issues involved. A recent documentary on the Discovery Channel was more forthcoming on the decision-making in Washington that contributed to what was later perceived as a military disaster. The documentary’s battle scenes, however, tend to confirm the extraordinary realism of the spectacle concocted by Mr. Scott and his colleagues. For one thing, Black Hawk Down provides the most impressive screen account of helicopter-gunship warfare since Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Then, the hot-rod recklessness of Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore implied a disapproving attitude toward our involvement in the Vietnam War. In Black Hawk Down , the viewer is made to root for the home team to survive what is a hopelessly botched-up operation from the word go. Yet despite the vague words in print about 300,000 starving Somalis, and the American-U.N. joint efforts to break a warlord’s food blockade, one’s emotions are never engaged in anything resembling a cause. The elite troops involved are simply doing their duty, as they have been trained.
The casting of Sam Shepard as their commander concentrates most of the charisma in the film at the helm, with the result that the almost indistinguishable grunts in the field are never given the luxury of questioning the capability or even the sanity of the man in charge. Amid all the chaos and confusion, there is never any outlet for the darkly absurdist humor of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). There are tears instead for good, brave men coming up short, much like the uniformed heroes of 9/11. That may be why the producers of Black Hawk Down decided to rush it into release. But first, they removed the film-ending crawl that claimed that our “retreat” from Somalia set the stage for terrorists to demolish the World Trade Center.
I must confess at this point that I happened to see Black Hawk Down after some of my esteemed colleagues had praised it to the skies for its unremitting realism and its refusal to indulge in Hollywood-style movie-star heroics. The enemy didn’t always just miss hitting the hero; indeed, there was no single hero to hit or miss. This was what war was really, really like. Well and good, but there is a downside to all this realism, admirably simulated as it is, though I would be the first to congratulate Mr. Scott and his colleagues for their skill and resourcefulness in reconstructing a day and night in history with such visceral force and fury.
Nonetheless, something is lost in emotional power with a collective, almost abstract hero with whom one cannot make eye contact in the way one does with single-hero narratives. When all the faces of “our guys” tend to blur together, the viewer tends to become more of a voyeur gazing at the sheer horror of war. As the late Robert Warshow once observed, the distinguishable variety of actors’ faces serves the same function as stylistic tropes in literature. When a studied anonymity is imposed on a group of fighting men, as in Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Black Hawk Down , what is gained in authenticity is lost in existential identification.
As to what Mr. Scott’s movie “means,” your guess is as good as mine. If the reconstruction of the event is at all accurate-and I imagine it is-I must say it shapes up as much less of a defeat for our side than I had assumed solely on the evidence of the aforementioned photo. People talk about “post-Vietnam syndrome” in our foreign policy making us timid and isolationist enough to encourage foreign terrorists to attack us on our soil. But what about the post–Gulf War syndrome making us overconfident about the ability of our advanced technology to overcome all our Third World adversaries?
Mind you, I am not suggesting that Black Hawk Down add a series of talking heads in Washington all the way up to President Clinton to explain what we were doing in Mogadishu in the first place. Yet it should be remembered that we have a two-party system and that Republicans are always heckling Democratic administrations, as Democrats heckle their Republican counterparts. And then there are the media, ready to pounce on a President at the first smell of blood. There are also the public-opinion polls, which would make for ignoble cinema in this context. Still, the complete absence of reverberations from the outside world makes Black Hawk Down seem somewhat isolated from any larger reality.
Hence, when the U.N. peacekeepers intervene with their shiny helmets and armored vehicles to carry away the American wounded, one is baffled and enraged to see them refuse to give cover to the surviving American soldiers. I wanted to boo out loud at the U.N. peacekeepers, but then I realized that the U.N.’s callous behavior served to set up the last brave dash of the American soldiers through the perilous streets of Mogadishu-ultimately past cheering crowds of Somalis on the opposite side of the civil war, which seems to be raging uninterruptedly to this day, as such wars all over the world seem to do. Black Hawk Down comes down, then, to an epic of bravery and futility.
An Endless Standoff
Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land , from his own screenplay, treats the recent genocidal conflict between Bosnians and Serbs first as allegory, then as satire, and finally as biting absurdism. The action transpires mostly in a trench halfway between lightly manned Bosnian and Serbian outposts engaged in desultory sniper fire to pass the time. After a Serbian patrol is ambushed in the fog by a Bosnian patrol, the sole Serbian survivor finds refuge in the abandoned trench. He, in turn, ambushes a two-man Bosnian patrol, killing one and wounding the other. Before this encounter, the ill-fated Bosnian had mischievously placed a “dead” Serb from a previous battle over a mine primed to explode if the “dead” man is lifted. As it turns out, the “dead” Serb was merely sleeping, though dangerously weakened from his wounds.
The situation feels like an endgame in chess, with an armed Serb holding an unarmed Bosnian at bay, but somehow declining to kill him. Instead, the two antagonists exchange ethnic insults while debating which group fired the first shot and committed the first genocidal atrocity. Both men are wounded and bleeding, which only seems to fuel their anger. This is no parable of awakening brotherhood, though the two men occasionally collaborate on waving their underwear as signs of surrender for whatever camp may be watching. The Bosnian survivor has already warned the Serbian survivor about the bomb treacherously placed under his comrade. At one point, the Bosnian turns the tables on the Serb and holds a gun on him, but nothing has really changed, except that now the Bosnian has the last word on which ethnic group is more responsible for all the carnage. This standoff begins to take on the contours of a Samuel Beckett play, except that death is lurking behind every outburst of verbal abuse, and the wounds are palpable and not metaphorical. Also, the stage is a killing field of inexorable hatreds.
In this atmosphere, a genuinely funny bit of business-like a Bosnian in one of those outposts reading a newspaper and marveling out loud about what a mess there is in Rwanda-doesn’t elicit a laugh either onscreen or off. But wait. All bets are off when the U.N. peacekeepers get into the act. Yes, the U.N. peacekeepers are back again, as the butt of even greater ridicule than they earned in Black Hawk Down . They are accompanied here by media star Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), an acid takeoff on CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and to top it off, Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), the media-savvy but otherwise idiotically pompous commander of the hapless U.N. peacekeepers.
No Man’s Land is a strange and disturbing film, but it is not without a stirringly humanist compassion even at its most outlandish and outrageous. In the old days, we could say “That’s Eastern Europe for you,” but not any more. It is not that we are all brothers-far from it. But the time has come to respect and understand each other’s prejudices until push comes to shove, and then we send in the Air Force. As a child of Balkan extraction, I could understand the Bosnian, Ciki (Branco Djuric), and the Serb, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), even though I don’t speak their language. My late father, who fought in two Balkan wars, would understand them even better.