Karen’s art show went off beautifully. We had excellent crowds both nights and much fun. I missed the slide show of photographs from the Mongolia trip on Saturday night, unfortunately–even more unfortunately, it’s because I was in a theater watching Blackhawk Down.
Ridley Scott knows his way around an image, but he needs a strong actor to get emotion into the frame. There are some good actors in Blackhawk Down, but it’s an ensemble film and no one ever gets to shine. The result is a technically strong work that never connected with me.
As for the events, I read Mark Bowden’s book–the source of the film–last year and it’s an amazing piece of journalism. The film makes the interesting choice of cutting the story down not so much to avoid narrative complexity, but moral complexity. Where Bowden really told the story from all sides, thanks to interviews with Somalis in Mogadishu, the film drops the Somali perspective entirely. It hunkers down and just watches the specific actions of the Rangers and Deltas involved that day, keeping blinders on the rest. There are only two Somalis who get to speak. One is a captured arms dealer who has a meaningless confrontation with the American general, swirling his cigar and making dire proclamations. The other is a soldier who briefly questions a captured Ranger. Both are narrative shorthand, stopgaps put in the screenplay to justify the excision of so much more.
There’s even an incredibly silly moment with the arms dealer, still in captivity: right after the first helicopter goes down in flames and screams, we inexplicably cut to a shot of this guy, sitting in his cell on the Army base, smoking a cigar and grinning maniacally. He doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the chopper going down–except, perhaps, having sold the rocket that did the job–and doesn’t even know it’s happened. But because he’s the only Somali character we’ve seen who isn’t dead within three seconds, the filmmakers show him to us so we have someone to blame. “Look, a chopper went down! Look, this guy is laughing! You can blame him!” It’s a cinematic trick that goes back a century to the Lumiere brothers, who discovered they could show a shot of a firing squad and a shot of a woman clutching her body and falling over, and audiences would connect the two events. But here it’s employed to no purpose whatsoever because there is no meaningful connection between the two images.
The troops on the ground did good work in a bad situation. They responded to bad orders, bad planning, bad intelligence, and bad strategy with good tactics. But even the film’s portrayal of the soldiers’ work and the challenges they faced is undercut by the insistence on only presenting a simplistic heroic perspective. The truth is far more interesting, and makes their actions that day all the more worthy of our respect–yet the film denies us that truth for the sake of easy money. If you really want to know just how smart and talented and brave and passionate our soldiers were that day, even when they made mistakes or got lost or yelled at each other, read the book.
The film is hackwork. Calling it trite suggests it tries for something better and fails, but the truth is sadder: Blackhawk Down aims so low that even a crash landing is a heroic triumph.