Thursday, May 24, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.14: Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 85 (A-)

Ridley Scott had a major critical and commercial comeback with 2000’s rousing popcorn epic Gladiator, a film which won 5 Oscars (including Picture and Actor for Crowe) and garnered him his second Best Director nomination (he lost to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic). Scott’s 2001 war film Black Hawk Down would get him a third nomination and be another considerable hit alongside Gladiator and Hannibal, but the film has met a number of criticisms over the years. It’s a film about a major military and foreign-policy screw up almost completely devoid of politics (Scott is mostly an apolitical director), it was produced by dreckmeister Jerry Bruckheimer (more famous for his teamwork with Michael Bay), and the film was notably pro-military film released shortly after 9/11, no doubt gaining popularity from a more gung-ho public. But Black Hawk Down isn’t just a mindless jingoistic exercise a la Bruckheimer and Bay’s Pearl Harbor from the same year, nor can it really be blamed for its release months after 9/11. Ridley Scott’s intelligent war movie is rather one of his finest, alongside Thelma & Louise as his strongest post-Blade Runner film.

The film relates the 1993 story of the Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as “Black Hawk Down”. The Somalian city is the setting for mass famine and genocide under brutal leader Mohammed Farrah Aidid, and after war is declared on peacekeeping UN officials, the United States send Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the U.S. Airborne into Somalia to capture Aidid and his men. The men include:
General William Garrison (Sam Shepard), commander of the mission; Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), an idealist put in charge of the Rangers when his CO has a seizure; Specialist John “Grimesy” Grimes (Ewan McGregor), a desk clerk put into combat after another soldier breaks his hand; gruff Lieutenant Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore); cynical Delta Force sergeant Norm “Hoot” Gibson (Eric Bana); Delta Force leader Jeff Sanderson (William Fichtner); humorless Captain Mike Steele (Jason Isaacs); rookie Private Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom); and homesick U.S. Airborne pilot Michael Durant (Ron Eldard). During the mission, two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, and the soldiers are pinned down in a seemingly endless battle with the Somali militia.

Black Hawk Down is perhaps Scott’s least character-driven film. Hartnett has the largest role, and several other actors have choice moments, but it’s largely an ensemble film more focused on the event than the characters. That’s not to say that it’s a drawback, but rather a purposeful choice that’s a virtue of the film. Scott assembles a likable ensemble- effortlessly charming McGregor; likably goofy Hartnett; gifted character actors Shepard, Fichtner, and Sizemore; future stars Bana and Tom Hardy- and gives them just enough to work with to be distinguishable from each other. The film isn’t about individuals, but rather a collective force of men working together in an impossible situation. Giving them more would likely detract from the experience.

And what an experience it is. Black Hawk Down is the most viscerally punishing modern war film since Saving Private Ryan. Scott might have gone all-out on the gore in Gladiator (and the risible Hannibal), but he uses realistic violence in Black Hawk Down to put the audience in the shoes of the soldiers. From the moment the battle begins, we are in hell: bullets and grenades fly everywhere, and men are dropping like flies. Buildings are blown apart, and Scott uses his love of matter hitting shafts of light well: crumbling wall, dust, sand, and smoke fly everywhere, often accompanied by bits of gore. It’s about as realistic as ground level depictions of combat can get, with a queasy blow-by-blow verisimilitude that’s only aided by the realistic military garb, the crumbling city, Scott’s dense compositions, and a dense layer of sweat and grime that seems to pulsate off of the actor’s body.

Scott makes his heaviest use of shakycam yet in Black Hawk Down, but it’s more purposeful and effective than ever. It’s never too obtrusive, we can always tell what’s going on, and the sense of confusion and disorientation is just enough to put us in the soldiers’ shoes without going too over-the-top. Bruckheimer, his other directors (Bay, Scott’s own less talented brother Tony), and others who have made incomprehensible action scenes as of late (Gary Ross with The Hunger Games) might want to take note: this is how you use the shakycam well. It’s comparable to Paul Greengrass’ use of the technique in his Jason Bourne films or United 93, while Scott’s focus on the minutiae of the incident mirrors what Greengrass did for the latter film. It keeps the film ultra-specific and non-exploitative.

It should be noted, however, that it’s not all relentless explosions and destruction. Scott balances the film with well-placed moments of quiet that only increases the existential dread of the situation. One effective sequence shows Tom Hardy and Ewen Bremmer all alone, forgotten by their team, trying to navigate a broken city. Scott’s love of blue light, smoke, fans, and haze is easily parodied, but damned if it isn’t effective at building a mood in the early-going. Better still is the hypnotic build-up to the battle- all helicopters flying over a beautiful ocean that contrasts the desert heat- and the moodier final third, in which the lights go out and the men have to deal with saving the wounded more often than they do with combat. Scott’s depiction of darkening skies is in part chronological (they were bogged down for quite a while), but more importantly it sells just how desperate their situation is as it’s clear they’re not going home as quickly as they thought they would. By the time they reach the end and they’re brought glasses of water (shimmering in the desert light), the importance of that moisture is a simple yet highly effective touch.

Scott brings in plenty of his old influences- Orson Welles’ atmospheric touches, Stanley Kubrick’s perfectionist detail- along with references to his past films (Blade Runner’s crumbling city, G.I. Jane’s militaristic viewpoint, White Squall’s focus on teamwork, Gladiator’s primal fury). More notable still is the influence of modern war films- the hypnotic beginnings, with their focus on a heavy haze and stench of death over Somalia, is reminiscent of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The depiction of desert heat is no doubt influenced by David O. Russell’s Three Kings. The punishing modern warfare is in debt to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But perhaps the most important and least heralded influence is that of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Scott juggles the gigantic cast with expert efficiency (Malick’s characters are more well-defined, but what works for him would be distracting for Scott), but more importantly he sells the absolute existential horrors of a war situation, complete with total destruction of the environment and unsentimental death scenes. The fact that Hans Zimmer’s excellent, moody, melancholy, Middle Eastern-tinged score recalls his career-best work on The Thin Red Line doesn’t hurt the comparison.

Ridley Scott’s career-wide obsession with mortality is viscerally present in Black Hawk Down.  The weight of death hangs over the film from the beginning: people are dying of genocide by starvation, and it’s an absolute mass slaughter. It becomes even more tangible later as bodies are blown apart, vehicles are caked with gore, and helicopters are shot down. Each soldier’s death is a blow (ultimately 19 men died), and the sense of camaraderie is felt as the men determine that they’ll leave nobody behind: not even the dead. When family-man Durant is captured, they make it their mission to save him (Durant was ultimately saved after 11 days). When Blackburn breaks his back, they rush him back to base. In the film’s most memorable and brutal scene, a soldier’s artery has been severed, and two men try to save him. It’s no use, and he bleeds out, but the scene’s importance is felt. It is all-important that as many of these men as possible survive.

Black Hawk Down isn’t the first Ridley Scott film focused on military themes (The Duellists, White Squall, G.I. Jane and Gladiator join it), but it is the best of the bunch. The film is uninterested in the politics behind the war- only the military perspective and the professionalism of the men. They work as a collective (which is why the thin characterizations are a virtue rather than a hindrance), and they do the best that they can. They’re not fully prepared for the situation: two major players are replaced by less experienced officers, they go out without supplies thinking it’ll be a short mission, and their planning ultimately doesn’t help much. But they’re stuck in an impossible situation, fighting a questionable battle (taking out bad men but doing little good), and they’re finally put in an absolute clusterfuck. It doesn’t help that the warlords have trained women and children and the men are reluctant to shoot them. It’s a tribute to the men, not the war. It isn’t the same kind of gung-ho garbage as, say, We Were Soldiers. A late speech by Bana hits the “no one else would understand…it’s about the men next to you” hits the point on the nose way too hard (the dialogue is better terse than florid), but Hartnett’s final speech, delivered to a dead comrade, is more effective- “Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way”.

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