On Oct. 3, 1993, a team of Delta Force commandos and elite Army Rangers were engaged in the biggest firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War. The Battle Of The Black Sea, as it came to be known, was intended to be a lightning-quick 30-minute mission into downtown Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture two key lieutenants of Mohamed Farah Aidid, a ruthless warlord who, among other crimes, seized food shipments intended for the starving citizenry. When the dust finally cleared a few days later, 18 American soldiers were killed to more than 500 Somalis, yet the mission was labeled a crushing embarrassment and the remaining forces pulled out of Somalia shortly thereafter. There's a lot to be said about U.S. foreign and military policy and the tangled politics surrounding its humanitarian presence in Somalia, but it won't be found in Black Hawk Down, a viscerally punishing, you-are-there account of modern warfare. Based on the best-selling book by Mark Bowden, a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the film leaves the context for the opening and closing titles and plunges straight into the action, detailing only the nuts-and-bolts of the operation from the American military's point of view. This limited perspective is made potentially dubious by action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose Pearl Harbor turned human tragedy into a beer commercial directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Though Black Hawk Down toes a fine line between ground-level history and odious spectacle, director Ridley Scott focuses so intently on the blow-by-blow logistics of the battle that he sidesteps charges of mere exploitation. With impressive scale and verisimilitude, Scott spends nearly all of his two-and-a-half-hour run time making sense of the horrific chaos in Mogadishu, leaving all moral and political questions to be sorted out off-screen. In a feat of democratic casting, a strapping platoon of B-list stars—including Sam Shepard, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, and Jeremy Piven—fills out minor roles, but no one individual is favored over another. Shortly after departing on their mission from the Mogadishu airport, only three miles from the targeted neighborhood downtown, the troops run into trouble when an enemy rocket launcher downs a Black Hawk helicopter. Within 20 minutes, another helicopter gets clipped and the mishaps snowball from there, as unexpectedly heavy resistance thwarts rescue attempts and the entire city turns against them. Compiled from extensive interviews on both sides of the battle, Bowden's book contains passages from the Somali perspective, but the film holds rigorously to American tactical maneuvers, with only the most perfunctory characterization. Despite its inherent narrowness, Black Hawk Down surveys the scene with remarkable clarity, sorting out the broad stratagems in a messy conflict while still capturing the close-up brutality of combat. Scott cares only about the battle; perhaps someday there'll be a great film about the war.
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