*. There’s a scene near the beginning of Black Hawk Down where one of the vets (played by Eric Bana) has to explain to the idealistic Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) how war (and, incidentally, war movies) work. “Y’know what I think?” he says when Eversmann tries to draw him out on the U.S. mission in Somalia. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”
*. This is an important, and telling, act of elision. The swerve it indicates is typical of how Hollywood handled the War on Terror and America’s adventures abroad during this period. And by “handled” I’m referring to their attempts to avoid being political. Black Hawk Down is not an anti-war movie, or even a movie that is critical of war. Once the bullets start to fly that shit just goes right out the window. The reasons for this are obvious but may be worth going over.
*. To begin with there is the line, usually attributed to François Truffaut, that there is no such thing as an anti-war film because war is by its very nature an exciting experience highlighted by individual moments of heroism and comradeship. Actually, I think a lot of military service is very dull, but movies cut those parts out. Politics is dull too, and complicated. In cases like Somalia or Yugoslavia or Libya or Syria I doubt any movie could hope to sort the various American missions out.
*. Hollywood is in the business of putting bums in seats, and you don’t fill theatres by making people think too much about where these soldiers are or what they’re doing there. Indeed, aside from Eversmann the characters in the film don’t seem that interested in such matters themselves.
*. Then there is the business of actually making the movie. At least since Top Gun (1986) the U.S. military has played a major role in such productions, and you don’t get the kind of logistical support they can deliver without surrendering some editorial control. These have to be stories the military wants told, in the way they want them told. For Top Gun the U.S. Navy played a crucial role in producing the film and had input on the script throughout. They later claimed it had been an extremely effective recruiting tool. For Black Hawk Down all the materiel was supplied by the U.S. Army, which also provided helicopter pilots and helped with the training of the actors. You couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made today without such assistance. So there was no way this was going to be an anti-war movie.
*. And finally there was the whole shift in the media after the Gulf War of 1991, which was seen as kicking what had been dubbed the Vietnam Syndrome. Part of the Vietnam Syndrome was the representation of that conflict in the media, so it was a Vietnam War Movie Syndrome too. Hollywood was expected to get in line, and in order to do this without compromising themselves too much they avoided politics like the plague. Instead they went with the tide, which meant creating action films drawing heavily on the look of comic books and video games.
*. Ten years after the Gulf War there was 9/11, which made things even simpler. American involvement abroad, anywhere, was seen through the lens of a response to Islamic terrorism. It didn’t matter that the events of Black Hawk Down didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but then neither did the invasion of Iraq (despite the efforts of American Sniper to draw a direct link), and even less Libya in 13 Hours. Each of these films could be absorbed into the narrative of “America fighting back.”
*. All of this is just setting the scene, and isn’t meant as a fierce criticism of these films (which can be criticized on other grounds). Over the last hundred years most war movies, indeed the vast majority, have been openly propagandistic if not downright war-porn. The Vietnam-era war films (which would include movies like Patton) were the exception, and they tended to peter out around the time Top Gun took off (Platoon came out in 1986, and the anti-imperialist biopic Walker in 1987). I just want to underline that these were very political movies, and very effectively political, despite on their surface eschewing politics altogether.
*. Now on to the film itself.
*. I had a curious and telling experience watching it recently on DVD. I couldn’t watch it all at once and so I made a note of the chapter I was on and came back and watched the rest of it the next day. It seemed I had written the wrong chapter number down as I was a bit lost as to what was going on. But then I scanned around and figured I probably had it right. The thing is, I couldn’t be completely sure. The reason I couldn’t be sure is because “once that first bullet goes past your head” this movie is all the same. We see men running through streets or driving through streets being shot at by faceless natives from rooftops or doorways. After a while I even started to wonder if the streets themselves were different or if they were just being filmed from different directions or with different lighting. And it goes on for two-and-half hours!
*. Still, given how much of it is all the same I was surprised at how lively it all played. The action is chaotic and lots of times I had no idea where we were or what was going on, but such is the fog of war. You do feel caught up in the excitement of the events. None of the terror or pain, mind you, but plenty of excitement.
*. It’s also very beautiful to look at. The helicopters flying over the beach are lovingly photographed in a way that recalls the ride of the air cavalry in Apocalypse Now, albeit without any of that film’s operatic sense of parody. War never looked so good.
*. As for the enemy, I’ve referred to them as faceless. There are a couple of actors who get lines but for the most part they may as well be the Zulu hoards launching themselves in human waves against the frontier outposts of Western Civ. Despite the fact that the actual event being portrayed was a raid, it quickly turns into the familiar siege paradigm. That is to say, the Americans are on the defensive against the barbarians. If only the natives would leave them alone! This is another motif that is returned to time and again in the films of this period, presumably representing the idea of America being surrounded by enemies. I don’t think this is an accurate reflection of reality, but it obviously expresses some kind of widely-held perception.
*. The enemy also seem to be very poor shots. Given that they’re firing down on the grunts from the rooftops shouldn’t that be like shooting fish in a barrel? Instead everybody just seems to be ripping off rounds without even aiming.
*. The battle scenes are done in such a way that we’re meant to cheer when the bad guys get shot or blown up. This is cathartic if nothing else but it also made me think more of a narrative that was following a certain entertainment paradigm rather than attempting to do anything new.
*. Given that this is a movie that doesn’t really want to say anything I had a hard time relating to it or extracting any kind of a point. Eversmann ends up a sadder but I don’t think a wiser man. Poor Sam Shepard is left to suffer vicariously watching the events on TV but there is no sense of his character traveling any kind of arc or coming to a fuller understanding about what has happened. Perhaps no such understanding is possible. Perhaps he’s never quite sure whether he is an actor in the film or part of the audience. Or is there a difference? In this world we’re either shooters or targets. Once it gets going nearly every “shot” in the movie is composed in this way. But the roles are finally interchangeable. That may be the most apolitical thing about Black Hawk Down: its reduction of everything to a line of sight that goes both ways. Who needs politics in such a world? It’s all very simple.