Sir Ridley Scott has achieved quite an illustrious career. From science-fiction epics to road films and even recreating the worlds that have been long lost to the past, his vision is undeniable. In 2021 alone, he released two films: House of Gucci and The Last Duel. Looking over his long career that has spanned nearly five decades, his record speaks for itself. This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of his best films, Black Hawk Down. A war movie that perfectly captures the chaos and confusion encountered by American forces when combating Somali militia during one day in 1993.
Black Hawk Down was released on December 28, 2001, just in time to be considered to be nominated for the Academy Awards. It had a limited release in theaters and was later widely released on January 18, 2002. Under the direction of Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down is a war film with a singular purpose; to recreate the events of a raid that went disastrously wrong in the blink of an eye. This isn’t one of those war movies that feature compelling themes, a deep character development, or even a story that involves both sides of a conversation. This is merely a movie designed to showcase how violent, scary, and intense war can be.
So, now that the film is twenty years old, how has it aged? How does it compare to other films in the war genre? What makes it such a standout film concerning Ridley Scott’s filmography?
The plot of the movie is inspired by the real-life incident that unfolded on a fateful Sunday in 1993. The date was October 3. Journalist Mark Bowden reported on the story in a series of twenty-nine articles published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and afterward collected them and put them into a book titled Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War published in 1999. Notable film producer Jerry Bruckheimer bought the rights to the story before publication and was interested in adapting the story in a feature-length film.
Although the book greatly details the events of the so-called Battle of Mogadishu, the movie largely condenses the characters, the battles, and the sequence of events into a brisk two-and-a-half-hour movie. Originally, the script would include scenes where the soldiers would engage in conversations questioning if war was the right choice, but that was ultimately cut. Instead, the film shows us the planning of the raid, the execution, and the disastrous fallout, putting the soldiers at grave risk. The events leading up to the raid are omitted in the film, and the movie decided to give us placards to read.
The main goal was to recreate the battle and the situations that the American forces were up against. Out of the entire runtime, the battle scenes are two hours in length. The movie hardly lets up from start to finish and is an intense ride that grabs our attention and doesn’t let go.
The movie takes place in Somalia, located on the Eastern side of Africa. The country has been in a brutal Civil War for the past two years. Over three hundred thousand civilians are dead from starvation. The warlord who has declared himself President, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, has since declared war on U.N. Peacekeepers prompting a response from the United States Military. President Bill Clinton deploys the Task Force Rangers, consisting of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Delta Force Operators, and the 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment Airborne), to forcibly remove Aidid from power and restore order to the country. The mission was to take less than a month, but six weeks later, Aidid had not been located, captured, or killed.
We see early on that Rangers are eager for a fight and don’t consider the Somali militia to be such a threat. Meanwhile, the Delta Force are a group of men who take their jobs seriously and even help apprehend a local businessman named Mr. Ato into custody. Mr. Ato has worked closely with Aidid’s militia, and now the pressure is starting to squeeze the General who has become so elusive.
While the soldiers spend their time at their base, we learn that Aidid’s top military advisors are having a meeting in the hostile Bakara Market. Sources confirm the meeting, and the word is given that a raid will take place to apprehend these men. This will result in Aidid’s power weakening giving more leverage towards the Americans in capturing this warlord.
After this, we are introduced to a few major characters that we follow for the rest of the film. We have Staff Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), who commands the Ranger Chalk Four. His unit will set up ground operations once the raid gets underway. Delta Force Operators Hoot (Eric Bana), Sanderson (William Fichtner), and their unit will arrest the military advisors while Lieutenant Colonel McKnight (Tom Sizemore) will lead the Humvee extraction of the prisoners. Major General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) will oversee the operation from his command post. The mission was estimated to have taken only thirty minutes.
Once everything gets started, it appears that the mission is going smoothly. Being in the Bakara Market, which is considered a hostile zone, some shooting is expected. After all the helicopters take off from the base, the Somali militia is fully aware of their impending arrival. It sets up roadblocks and is armed with assault rifles and RPGs to stage an aggressive counterattack. This leads to the heart of the movie, in which the Somali militia shoots down two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. What turns into a simple raid and extraction turns into a fight for survival. The raid is over, and the prisoners are caught, but now Major Colonel William Garrison has a much bigger problem. He has to not only deliver the prisoners back to base, but now he has to send his troops to save the soldiers who were onboard those helicopters.
We see the struggles of the soldiers trying to locate each crash site, secure the area, and rescue any survivors. It’s a confusing moment for these young men, most of which have never been in combat or even the Bakara Market itself. They are turned around all while being shot at, and they have to keep sharp; otherwise, more people will get killed. There are two key fascinating moments in the movie. One is seeing McKnight’s convoy get heavily assaulted by the enemy. They have the prisoners but are now moving to locate the crash site. They have to protect the prisoners as well as themselves. It’s a harrowing situation because McKnight and his team don’t know the ins and outs of the city as he’s getting directions from JOC (Joint Operations Center), who then has to relay the directions to the military officials who are circling the city overhead.
The other key moment in the movie is a sequence in which two Delta Force Operators willingly ask to secure the second crash site without reinforcements at the ready. Together these two men, Shughart and Gordon, gave the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of one man, Michael Durant, the pilot of the second downed helicopter. Both Shughart and Gordon received the Medal of Honor Award posthumously for their actions, the first since the Vietnam war. As said before, once the raid starts, the battle lasts the entire movie, and from beginning to end, the movie holds our attention, terrifies us, and wishes that these men weren’t in the situation they are facing.
What transpires afterward is a series of events determining who will live or die. Trapped behind enemy lines and running short on supplies (something they didn’t take with them), time is of the essence to evacuate the soldiers out of the hostile zone and into the safe zone.
Director Ridley Scott is best known for creating unique worlds, and his visual style is certainly a high mark in his career. Taking us onto the streets of Mogadishu, we follow the troops as the battle unfolds. A total of nineteen American soldiers were killed in this battle, and Scott seems to show us every one of those casualties. Aside from the visuals and breathtaking battle sequences, another important feature is the sound. Hearing the blades of the helicopter, the constant and relentless gunfire, and even the radio chatter all make the movie feel all too real. While watching Major General Garrison oversee the operation, some of the radio chatter that we hear is the actual chatter from the real-life battle.
Even the film suffers from a distinct lack of character development; it’s forgivable because we are watching a movie about these men’s situations. We are given the bare minimum, but it’s enough for us to remember them and feel for them in hopes that they survive the night. Some critics criticized the film for its treatment of the Somali people accusing the film of making them out to be savage killers. I felt that the film was only representing what happened during the battle. I wasn’t offended by their on-screen representation, but I felt that Scott accurately portrayed these people as the fierce fighters that they are.
I love the scenes at the beginning of the film where the Rangers are so sure that this mission will be easy. They assume that the Somalis don’t have a chance against the Americans, but as Garrison said during the briefing, “don’t underestimate their capabilities.” Just because they appear different or poor by American standards doesn’t mean that they are not capable of putting up a fight.
Comparing Black Hawk Down to other war movies is tricky since most war films emphasize character development and tough issues that come about during combat. Ridley Scott’s unique vision and technical skill put the audience on the streets of the Bakara Market and invited us to experience this kind of war firsthand. On a technical skill, the action is flawless and feels as if we are watching the war itself and not just a movie. The actors trained at actual boot camp in preparation for their roles, and I felt as if they were real soldiers.
Black Hawk Down should not be considered an action movie but instead should be seen as an incisive look at combat and how the soldiers become heroes when that’s the last thing on their minds. It’s about the guy next to you and saving his life. Much like Saving Private Ryan, this movie isn’t shy to show the horrors of war, and we see plenty of horrific stuff in this movie. Considering that the movie was released at the end of 2001, some people consider this a pro-war movie following the events of September 11th. This film was completed long before that terrible day, and I consider this movie an anti-war film for the simple fact that Ridley Scott doesn’t glamorize war. He shows us how brutal it can be and the consequences that follow when somebody decides to pick up a weapon to inflict harm onto someone else.
In terms of Ridley Scott’s other films, I think this is one of his best works. Unfortunately, this movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but Scott was nominated for Best Director, which I think is honorable. Black Hawk Down did win two Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Even though the book offers more details and explanations, the movie adaptation is certainly an impactful war film that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of combat. I love the line that Eversmann gives near the end of the film, “Nobody asks to be a hero; it just sometimes turns out that way.”
Much like Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Platoon, Black Hawk Down is a tremendous film that recaptures an event seldom discussed in history. When I was in High School, I primarily learned about The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, World War II, very briefly Vietnam, but never a mention of Desert Storm. The Battle of Mogadishu was never taught to me, nor did I ever hear of it until I saw this movie. Perhaps, it’s not mentioned because technically, the Americans lost that battle, and the execution of the mission was seen as a catastrophic failure. Whether it’s a win or a loss is irrelevant.
What matters most is the story of what happened and how it all unfolded. Even if Black Hawk Down is 20 years old, it’s a timeless film anchored by an exacting direction from Ridley Scott and tells a story that we should not forget. To this day, Somalia is considered one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. After all these years, the country isn’t even safe to visit.
Watching Black Hawk Down isn’t an exciting experience, but one that shakes us to our very core. I wouldn’t know how to react in that type of ordeal. I think I would be very scared and unsure if I could survive. Ridley Scott brings this disaster to life and perfectly captures the chaos that these men faced that day in 1993. It’s a great movie that involves an event that could’ve been avoided if proper planning had been instituted right from the start. Black Hawk Down is an incredible experience as a war film and serves as a reminder that war is never the answer because the result may be much worse than when you first started.