Combat movies, more than any other genre, are reflexively read through a prism of the time in which they’re seen. The light in which those pictures were made casts shadows, too — the darn-clear stakes of World War II informed beacon-of-hope GI sagas in the ’40s and ’50s, the damn-muddy jungles of Vietnam produced equally furious pictures in the ’70s and ’80s. And if every generation gets the ”Apocalypse Now” — and ”The Best Years of Our Lives” — it needs, then the generation defined by 9/11/01 is seeing a very different Black Hawk Down from the one it might have seen on 9/10/01.
I say this even though what’s on the screen wasn’t reedited after U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan, only released sooner than had been intended. Certainly those who troop to theaters for Ridley Scott’s square- jawed, gung-ho-istic combat saga about a real-life 1993 U.S. military mission gone horribly wrong in Somalia now watch this story, about American soldiers fighting and dying in a land they may not understand, with reformatted hearts and minds. But even an audience moved to tender patriotism might wonder how Scott, a proven master of ”Gladiator”-size visual showmanship, could have bombed away the personality of every man fighting until he’s left with nothing more than pure combat.
”Black Hawk Down” is driven by scenes of gripping, unflinching battle, touched by the director’s talent for communicating through the colors he chooses, even in the spray of mud on a wounded man’s face. It’s powered by extended stretches of pummeling, adrenalized battle that are perhaps the stylistic contributions of Scott’s Delta Force of a producing colleague, Jerry Bruckheimer. But no one deserves censure, even in conservative times, for asking, Who are these guys with guns? And for requesting more from a war drama than images of blood and guts.
”Black Hawk Down” is based on Mark Bowden’s intense newspaper reportage, ultimately part of his best-selling book, about the U.S. military’s single most costly firefight since Vietnam, in which 18 Americans died. (In the course of the siege, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.) Bowden had more space, of course, to explain who the Somali fighters were, and why even women and children were willing to attack the stranded Americans. (More than 500 Somalians died by battle’s end.) But in all the 143 minutes of Scott’s movie and Ken Nolan’s screenplay, the black enemy remains virtually faceless.
The handsome fighting Americans are white, meanwhile, but for the most part interchangeable themselves. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Ron Eldard — they load their ammo, they blast away. As a man, each matters little in Scott’s war; only as a man-shaped mass that shoots, shouts, and survives do they register. At a time when almost 2,000 of The New York Times’ daily thumbnail profiles of the Sept. 11 dead have moved readers to tears over the months, a little recognition of individual souls — Somali, Afghan, American — may be what a war movie needs most to win.