“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics go right out the window.” This one single line of dialogue represents the entire focus and intent of Ridley Scott’s tour de force combat film, Black Hawk Down, which was released in 2001 in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A tragic anti-war film that manages to celebrate the warrior spirit that only a select few possess while eschewing stodgy and needless politicizing, this film dared to look at a deeply compromised and misguided American military excursion with necessary and unflinching brutality, with sly geopolitical critique peeking through the edges of the presentation. It can never be undersold just how stunning a vision this film was for Scott and his crew of technicians and actors. I’ve see this film so many times it’s almost laughable, but revisiting it just recently, I was struck by just how immersive of an experience this really is, and how it has few rivals.
It’s the gold-standard for “you are in the shit” visceral filmmaking, and Scott’s uncompromising vision of urban warfare set precedents in the early aughts and has been constantly imitated ever since. Borrowing from cinematic touchstones like The Battle of Algiers and Saving Private Ryan, this is easily the finest movie that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been a part of, and I can only imagine the disappointment that must’ve occurred when his name was left off the Best Picture ballot at that year’s Oscar ceremonies. It’s a shame, as this film represents nearly everything that made him into who he has become as a grand showman of filmic adventure.
Black Hawk Down was based on the 1999 book by Mark Bowden, who had based his own work on a 29-part series of articles which were published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Recalling the events of a 1993 raid in Mogadishu, it was supposed to be a relatively simple snatch and grab mission, intended to capture terrorist leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid. But the event would later became known as the Battle of Mogadishu after an insane fire-fight broke out in the streets between American forces and local militia fighters, which left many U.S. soldiers dead or wounded. The filmmakers assembled an amazing ensemble cast, including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard, Orlando Bloom, Ioan Gruffudd, Johnny Strong, Brian Van Holt, Kim Coates, Zeljko Ivanek, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Hugh Dancy, Ron Eldard, Jeremy Piven, Glenn Morhsower, and Tom Hardy in his feature film debut, all of whom brought the rough and tumble goods, disappearing believably into their various roles with honor.
Scott, Bruckheimer, and screenwriter Ken Nolan made sure to stick to the core of Bowden’s riveting and devastating book, and in doing so, created one of the most unforgettable pieces of action filmmaking ever constructed. It’s a physically exhausting movie to sit through, harrowing all throughout, with a constant sense of dread and impending violence, with an exacting sense of you are there verisimilitude that keeps the viewer pinned to their seat. It’s interesting to note that filmmaker Simon West (Con Air, The General’s Daughter) was the one to suggest the project to Bruckheimer for optioning, and was at one point slated to direct, before departing to take on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, while some big heavy-hitters helped to craft the script, including Steven Zaillian, Eric Roth, Ezna Sands, and Steve Gaghan, while the solo-credited Nolan was on-set for four months doing constant re-writes.
With stunning spatial clarity and obsessive technical finesse, Scott and the brilliant cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (a frequent collaborator of Krzysztof Kieślowski and who would re-team with Bruckheimer on Antoine Fuqua’s underrated medieval epic King Arthur ) created a gorgeous yet brutal film that pummeled the audience with a sense of sustained cinematic intensity that few other films have matched; Idziak would receive an Oscar nomination for his harrowing depiction of sustained warfare, with many of his tricks and tendencies become emulated by various filmmakers moving forward, including Peter Berg’s gripping Lone Survivor, Michael Bay’s underrated 13 Hours, and portions of Randall Wallace’s blood-soaked We Were Soldiers and John Woo’s Windtalkers. Pietro Scalia’s Oscar-winning film editing is a lesson in coherence, physical space, and forward momentum, with much of the storytelling relying on the power of the visual image, which needed to be conveyed in a lucid, geographically precise manner. Arthur Max’s superior set design brought the turbulent streets to total life, with the production utilizing Morocco for location shooting, with strong support from the U.S. Army bolstering authenticity levels.
Then there’s the immense sound design that went into this massive production, with Michael Minkler, Chris Munro, and Myron Nettinga taking home the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing; the sound of bullets whizzing past your ears has never been done like it was here. And the film is capped off by prolific and booming composer Hans Zimmer, with one of his most sensational and emotional musical scores, mixing mournful notes with moments of sonic triumph; this glorious soundtrack was devised by Zimmer and various other composers inside of the “war room” at his Media Ventures studio, and represents one of Zimmer’s more experimental and varied efforts. The entire score is available on CD or for download and is very much worth purchasing.
I saw this film 10 times theatrically, a personal record for me for one movie. Granted, I saw it 5 nights in a row at my college campus theater for free, but for me, this is one of the most exciting, most intensely realized portraits of warfare that’s ever been created. I also had the chance to see various aspect of the pre-production process as I was an intern at Jerry Bruckheimer Films during that time period. I’ll never forget the sight of Bruckheimer, Scott, and Joe Roth doing laps around the Santa Monica compound, smoking cigars, talking about their plans for the movie. I had the life-highlight experience of hanging out with production designer Arthur Max quite a bit, and Scott would come into the room and check out all of the models and boards and plans, deciding where the helicopters would land, etc. All of it was exceptionally surreal to observe, and I was just happy to be a fly on the wall, and more than eager to make roughly 1,000 copies of the script in that ridiculous script library at the Santa Monica compound.
Shot for a reported $110 million and grossing $170 million worldwide ($108 million in America after a $33 million Martin Luther King weekend opening) before becoming a massive best-selling item on physical media formats, with various cuts available on both DVD and Blu-ray, Black Hawk Down was well-reviewed by critics (Roger Ebert’s four star review is a beauty), and I think that the Criterion Collection would be wise to release this as a full-platter special edition, remastered in 4K, with all of the previously produced special features included. And if they need someone to write the liner notes, just call me up.