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Empty nest
turns tragedy into spectacle. By David Fear

Black Hawk Down

THOSE LOOKING FOR a barometer reading of our culture's attitude about entering the fray need only examine any era's respective war-film output. In today's age of CNN and Sega, they can try checking the Nielsen ratings, game sales, and Monday-morning box-office returns. How the horrors of military aggression translate into fodder for vicarious excitement, or info-speak, or propaganda, speaks volumes about the communal processing of the unprocessible. After a while, the potential for reflection and insight is merely a subtext drowned out by eternal escapism. When it's tragedy, it cuts. When it's writ large on a screen, it's entertainment.

Of course, it's merely a coincidence that Black Hawk Down, the adaptation of journalist Mark Bowden's painful, painstakingly detailed war reporting on a failed operation in Somalia, hits screens just as we're neck-deep in another campaign over yonder. For many Americans, the U.S. military's African peacekeeping mission circa October 1993 was just another sound bite that barely resonated through the static of endless media white noise until Bowden's best-seller, and current events, gave it a context. Suddenly those faraway places few people could have found on a primary school globe have become the hot topics du jour. The "holiday from history" having ended, to paraphrase George Will, Americans are connecting the dots, slowly remembering that events happening all over this big blue marble don't just happen on TV or in the movies.

The filmmakers insist that they don't mean to stir up a fervor or put out fires but simply wish to document. Detailing the true story of a routine Special Forces mission that resulted in two Black Hawk helicopters being felled, 18 soldiers dying, and a FUBAR (military speak for, ahem, a less than ideal situation) of monumental proportions, Black Hawk Down is committed to the book's factual accounts rather than right-versus-wrong debates. The movie's form, however, says a lot about its content. Selling tragedy by using the vocabulary of the blockbuster action thriller reveals more about your stance, as well as your perceived audience's perception of modern combat, than you might think.

Hitting the ground like a somber but standard-issue action flick, this Hawk is less concerned with narrative coherence than with reaching its peak moments of flight as soon as possible. After a quick rundown of the why, what, and where (the U.N. peacekeeping forces have pulled out, Somalia is under the thumb of tyrannical warlords, the United States is the last democracy-loving gun in town), we get only a brief, semaphore introduction to the main players-cum-composites: the outfit's soulful magnet for disillusionment (Josh Hartnett), the desk clerk who'll prove himself in battle (Ewan McGregor), and the bad-ass (Eric Bana). Of course, they're joined by the young kid eager for action and the guy who fatefully calls his wife before his mission – for a film so eager to disavow traditional genre tropes, Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian's script is surprisingly cliché-prone. The viewer is thrust into two hours of gritty, grueling battle scenes designed to re-create the historical horrors of one day (Oct. 3, 1993, to be exact). The problem is, by downplaying the who and why, the film strands its audience in a shrapnel-filled vacuum that values mayhem and stimulation over reason and emotion; all this Dolby-ready carnage feels stylistically sound but strangely empty.

The temptation is to point at director Ridley Scott, who has always valued imagery over storytelling. Even his most celebrated films (Alien, the overrated Gladiator, the future-fetishist urban wet dream Blade Runner) suggest that he's a top-notch set designer stuck in a mediocre director's body. But it's the agenda of the real auteur behind Black Hawk Down – legendary über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer – that infects every frame like an adrenal-seeking virus. In his hands, simple dialogue exchanges suddenly turn into verbal rugby scrimmages, amped for masculine chest-thumping ("C'mon, let's roll!" Cue guitar squealing). A stock Middle Eastern score designed for generic exoticism occasionally morphs into jock-friendly rock tunes. Many of the shoot-outs seem lifted straight from a video game (one can only thank the cinematic gods that Bruckheimer's original choice for director, Tomb Raider's Simon West, was otherwise occupied).

There is a certain art to churning out visceral thrill rides that will fill cineplex seats from Peoria to Peru, but to trivialize life and death via populist entertainment tricks and then claim you're providing a significant, solemn, "artful" eulogy is both delusional and downright obscene. The most notable nonfiction image of that October day is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a soldier's corpse being dragged naked and bound through the streets by an angry mob. Asked about the shot and its corresponding incident in a recent New York Times interview, Scott talks of cutting the event's representation short for sensitivity's sake: "I didn't think you needed to see any more [than we showed].... those men had families.... I didn't want anyone to go through that again." Bravo to that, sir, but you may be missing the point. Black Hawk Down's self-important jingoism doesn't even register as state-of-the-nation propaganda, much less humanistic story; it's just combat for combat's sake, more sound and fury loudly signifying nothing. Welcome, once again, to human tragedy as empty spectacle.

'Black Hawk Down' opens Fri/18 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, page 82, for show times.