by Ed Symkus

A lot of rumors have been preceding the release of this unrelenting look at the hell of war, vigorously and unflinchingly directed by Ridley Scott. Based on Mark Bowden's bestselling account of U.S. involvement in Somalia in the early '90s, and of the subsequent harrowing battle of Mogadishu, the film has been accused of too closely resembling the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan and of lacking in the character development department.

Those two points, however, aren't exactly accurate. Saying that this 150-minute film is simply an expansion of what Spielberg created in the prologue of his World War II opus doesn't do justice to Black Hawk Down. While Spielberg did indeed recreate some of the vicious realities of war, that film pretty much calmed down in intensity after the opening. Black Hawk Down does no such thing.

Back to that in a moment.

As far as the business of "no character development," that statement is ridiculous. The entire first act introduces the major players -- Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner and Sam Shepard, to name a few -- and gives plenty of information about who they are and, in some cases, where they've been and what they're made of. As they all eventually get thrown into some kind of combat situation -- Shepard's Major General Garrison does all of his fighting in the war room -- they go through all sorts of change, some of it emotional, some of it physical.

Take these two points and mix them together, and you've got a powerful piece of cinema that brings not only its characters, but also its viewers, on a long, tough journey. There's nothing fun about Black Hawk Down, but it stands and will remain for some time as a stunning piece of cinema.

The history of Somalia in the early '90s is not a pretty one. Civil war was in progress, the United States was trying to drop food into the country, warlords were stealing it, and by 1993 our government decided to send in the elite Delta Force to assist in the protection of human rights. All of this is explained in words flashed across the screen and in a sequence of philosophical wartime discussions between men on each side of the campaign.

The mission that eventually comes to light is one of assassination, an order to get the bad guy, which requires U.S. soldiers to enter an area regarded as "entirely hostile." Just before the operation, there's a peek at the excitement among the young soldiers. Some of them are there to "kick ass," and they can't wait to get going. But there's also an accompanying fear of what may be laying ahead in this hot, sweaty, unforgiving place. And in the middle of it all, there are questions concerning whether American soldiers should even be involved, since this started as a civil war.

But all of this comes far too late for anyone involved, and very soon there are spectacular camera shots of helicopters flying toward and touching down on already war-torn city streets. Accompanying the men are two orders from on high -- don't shoot unless you're shot at, and don't leave anyone behind. Yet almost immediately there are accidents, injuries, panic and chaos. There are rooftop snipers, a well-armed and very determined militia, people and dogs -- lots of dogs -- running around.

For the next two hours, just after one of the big choppers is knocked out of the sky, the film is one huge assault. There's constant noise, constant fear, more artillery fired than in any film I can recall, and it's the viewers, along with the soldiers, who are placed right in the thick of it.

Experientially, this is far more involving than Saving Private Ryan; there is simply nowhere to hide. The attacks come from every direction, and the gunfire is often broken up by small missiles being fired directly at the soldiers.

Because of the reality of the situation, the actors playing the soldiers are soon caked with dirt and blood and pieces of buildings and who knows what else. It's not long before it's practically impossible to tell the characters apart. This might have something to do with those reports of faulty character development, but whoever is writing that stuff should get out of the business.

This is what great filmmaking is all about -- grab on to the audience and don't let go. It's very hard even to begin thinking about anything else while watching this. You are totally involved. Even if you can't tell the soldiers apart, you both care and fear for them. And when one of those small rockets comes flying, you duck.

Then there's that other group of detractors who claim that the film should have been held off for a while, since we're currently at war. They oppose the timing of Black Hawk's release, especially since history records our involvement in Somalia as a failure. That's an issue people can take sides over, but there's no debate at all about the fact that Ridley Scott has made an anti-war film for the ages. And there's always room for that kind of art.

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