Collounsbury Review of “Blackhawk Down”

Note, I wrote this some time ago, and recently ran across on my laptop. I post it now for its potential interest.

Collounsbury’s Review of “Blackhawk Down”

Well, I resisted seeing this film, never having seen a single American film on the region that I thought merited even contempt. I rather liked the book of the same name. As I suspected, the sophistication of the book, which included interviews of Somali participation – that is the Somali POV that explained the why and how of Moqadishu turning on the Americans – was absent. Why was that important? Because in order to understand one has to know not only one’s own POV but also that of the other. The book described rather well how the disaster that was the chase for Aidid came to be, the Somali understanding (e.g. the American effort for its lack of understanding of local enemies and local culture, made * unnecessary enemies * – rather than playing the Clan angles as it might have been.

I should note that I have many Somili connections and have a POV colored by that. Let me also say that having lived better than a third of my life in this part of the world (if we include MENA as this part of the world) I thought it was well shot and in a general manner (for a film ) well done.

However, it missed opportunities. It was, in the end, an “American” film. Perhaps post 11 September that was inevitable. Let me note for the inevitable complaints which will follow, I have personal connections, so save your cheap outrance.

A minor note, I would note in the music the utilization of Baba Maal (a super guy I may add, just super as both Islamic vocalist and as a person. ) was brilliant, although again I could not shake the sense, as in * Siege * the Islamic angle was badly played as only the enemy angle.

I will not focus on the details; it was in the end a cinematic interpretation of a book. To look to this as history is to be a fool.

However, I do submit that many will look to this as history. For that the lack of the Somali perspective, the easy dismissal of the Pakistani concerns et al. problems with the (badly conceived) American obsession with Mohammed Farah Aidid, this is piss poor history and inferior film making.

The film’s usage of the very Somali who guided the Americans to Aidid – a faint echo of the information, IIRC, that the text supplied in re how Somalis who initially supported the American (International) effort turned on the same. – is weak and unexplained indeed the only impression the uninformed viewer can take is that the Sand Nigs and their allied co-religionists the Darkies are just congenitally opposed to Freedom (The text might have been more powerful if it had included information on the larger context and other interventions, such as the much more successful Aussie intervention farther north.)

Returning to the movie, again the weakest point is the lack of context for the Somali context. Excuses and understanding, two different things. There is nothing in the film to tell American audiences the why of what happened (contra the book which did give such an angle). Frankly I found it typical, an interior effort to something like * la Bataille d’Alger[ /I] which did not bother with the cheap sentimentality of this film with its black hat, white hat orientation. Rather, it (la Bataille d’Alger) unmasked the inherent brutality of this genre of conflict.

In sum, the film displays rather typical Hollywood style weaknesses. It does a full job of actually describing the physical action, but a mediocre, at best, job of understanding and displaying the real world in which this kind of action must occur. Again, the point of reference is * la Bataille d’Alger* in which one can understand and see the dynamic of conflict w/o simplistic sentimentality. I look forward to at least some subset of our readership actually viewing and reflecting on this film (and I a may add reflecting on the flimographic power.)

[*: Did not bother with credits, relying on own ear; point of trivia – Baqaara market means the cow herders’ market.]

It’s interesting you mention the Aussies Coll.

I remember when this film came out. I recall hearing “pseudo experts” from within the USA on various messageboards I was visiting at the time making statements along the lines of “at last, a film which explains what TRULY happened…”

And I thought to myself, crikeys… just like in Vietnam, the Aussies served there too and yet, if you were to listen to the “Average American”… you would never know Vietnam was originally a French matter, and that forces OTHER than the USA were involved.

It’s an interesting syndrome to be sure… this “selective amnesia”. I don’t think it would matter so much if it weren’t for the ability for US made films to be so popular the world over. The lines between “made for local audience” and the actual truth get really blurred on these matters I find.

Look at the bright side however Collonsbury - at least “Black Hawk Down” didn’t star Steven Seagal in the lead role. Can you imagine how THAT would have turned out?

Please do not give me nightmares.

I mentioned the Aussies as I read several analyses, by Strat experts and regional experts praising the Aussie approach to the situation, which they all described as arising from Aussie military expertise in handling clan based conflicts and in peace keeping opps versus war making.

Conflict management.

I agree very much with your review Coll. I’m actually fond of the film, but only because shit blows up so well in it, but from the bit of knowledge I’ve gained on the event and circumstances leading up to it that movie wasn’t too much more than an farce (had to write a paper on it actually).

I saw the movie before reading the book, and while reading the book one of the bits that jumped out at me was when one of the Delta’s commented on that battle being one of the most lopsided victories in U.S. history, which is true to a limited extent, and his being upset that it wasn’t recognized as such. Thinking about the movie that seems to be very much the way it was presented, as a simple minded view of events: we’re there to do good and we do it, and the only reason we left is because we didn’t do the completely perfect job people expected us to do. Which completely glosses over how we thought that we could use force to override tribal leaders and cultural norms to enforce peace and order, and arguably even how we took the people and their goodwill towards us for granted with our suddenly flying helicopters over the city, blowing the roofs off their houses, sending our troops every which way with disregard to the effect to the populace and other high handed tactics, all of which ultimately contributed to the events depicted in the book and movie.

I have to admit that ultimately I found the whole experience kind of disturbing, seeing how an American made movie can spend all sorts of money on special effects and weapons experts so that things “look right” without bothering to check if the final product is a reasonably accurate depiction of what the reality was.

I would just add that there is a documentary that surfaces on the cable networks (something like “The True Story of Blackhawk Down”) which does go into a little more detail about the “Somali angle” that led to the fiasco.

You’re right in one sense (though not in any other): Blawckhawk Down didn’t tell the complete story. It neglected to show the heavy-handed nature of the UN in its dealings in Somalia. It didn’t show the fact that the UN had decided to get rid of Aidid and instructed the US to use one of its Sea Cobras to bomb a hotel where they thought Aidid was having a meeting, which resulted in the deaths of 50 mostly innocent civilians and turned the city against the US and the UN. And it neglected to show how the planners of the mission had requested armor and AC130 gunships for the mission but had been turned down by the Clinton administration.
The film did indeed fail to show these things.
Other than that, it was an excellent film.

I think the film was about the battle and nothing more. I don’t think it set out to be anything more than that. If it had then we wouldn’t have been on the streets shooting shit up in the first 15 minutes like we were.

I think it is one of the best battles put to film and there are some scenes that are tear jerkers.

But I think it is foolish to expect a hollywood movie about the battle, and specifically the events that happened when the black hawks went down, to scatter political and historical info in it when it is not needed in the context of the film.

The movie is called Black Hawk Down. It is about the fighting in the streets that occured when the black hawks went down. Nothing more.

Collounsbury said:

Coll - thank you for not writing another kneejerk…

My brother was there in Somalia, not in the fight but in country when the rescue was taking place. The book documents some of the details, but still reacts poorly to the voice of Americans in the region. To me the movie was bogus, then again I had a commentary direct from the mouth of thieves if you will. Having spent the better part of his adult career in the Special Forces, my brother was in the middle east for roughly 6 years before the Somali incident took place. Retired now, he teached survival systems training to different groups around the country. I may also mention he refuses to watch the current Iraqi war on TV. I must say I don’t blame him.

I am always amazed at the ignorance I see here.

Oh pray tell, do enlighten me

If you had bothered to read closely and for understanding you would have noted, although perhaps this is optimistic, I was drawing a specific comparision between Bowden’s book, upon which the film was based and the film. As such, in filming the book, there was material that could easily have been entered into the movie. Easily.

Now this beautiful piece of newspeak:

UN? UN? My dear lad, the “UN” commander was an American, Admiral as memory serves, and the policy of “going after 'Aidid” was an American policy that other actors, such as the Aussies, were opposed to.

Let us not play the little blame shifting game.

As if AC130 Gunships and Armor would have changed the political equation that had arisen throuhg the hamfistedness of the American approach?

The book upon which this was based had a nice, balanced, situational overview of the battle and had this been entered into, the battle scene movie would have been richer for it, to allow an understanding of the motivations of all the actors.

Ignorance ad nauseum.

If you are disappointed the film didn’t show the “other” side and their feelings on the matter, then for God’s sakes, don’t play the game of the same name. In the single player missions you get to kill some 1500 bad guys and you get to pass each mission if you keep civilian casualties below about 5.
As far as the movie goes, I read the book first so I knew the story going in. The 'splosions were pretty cool, but you are correct that it was filmed by Americans for Americans. Also I’m pretty sure it was filmed pre-9/11. I believe I recall hearing that the film was first delayed to be released in the spring of 2002 because of 9/11. Then they changed it back to late Dec '01 so that it could be nominated for the Oscars.

My dear Stinkpalm.

Yes, the movie is called “Black Hawk Down” – now here is the surprising part… wait for it… it is based on a book by the very same name.

The book by the very same name, while flawed, included interviews with Somali participants, and presented an even handed view of the motivations and the like of both sides.

A highly useful work for actually understanding… what happened in the battle.

Now I think we all can note I made direct reference to this in the OP. This was not “history” – it was the context of the actual events as they unfolded. As such I find your thinking to be somewhat missing my OP’s point, now yes?

Should you like to try again with something of observation actually approaching relevant, please do.

As for the video game issue raised, I don’t play computer games so I shall thankfully not see that.

I am not sure I follow Philsopher’s comments.

Slight quibble: The film was made before 9-11-01.

Quite right, I was wrong when I wrote that. Knew it when posting but decided not to edit the old text.

On that matter, mea culpa,

Books and film are different mediums, with different advantages and disadvantages. It is a mistake to expect the film to include every angle that Bowden utilized in his book. I mean, really – how would you, director Collounsbury, add the things you want to the film without fucking up the pacing of the movie?

Surprisingly enough, many movies are significantly modified from the book versions for two big reasons:

-A movies has a limited amount of time to tell its story

-Some written text does not translate well to a visual medium
The movie Black hawk Down was not created as a historical documentary. Because of that, we do not see every perspective of every person on the battlefield.

The story is told from the perspective of the US soldiers. I, for one, think that makes for a more effective movie than if the viewer is watching the battle as a third party.

I’m sorry that I have not read all of the posts in this thread. But I want to say that I agree with the OP. Having read the book, I was hoping for a film that had similar depth. (I should know better by now.) When I saw the film it seemed to be “just another shoot-em up”. Not to belittle the sacrifices made by the U.S. forces; I just thought that so much more could have been done with it.

I am curious to know how much more could have been done with it? As msmith537 mentioned, this wasn’t a documentary;it was, if anything, a re-enactment of the battle. And I don’t think it even pretended to be anything more. And, as far as the battle goes, from what I’ve read / heard, the battle is portrayed fairly accurately.

While a documentary could well have been made from the book, we wouldn’t have seen it at the theatres - we’d be seeing it on PBS or the History Channel or something.

Is that the title of your autobiography?

I’d just add that BHD has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard - it truly is fabulous and is the best aspect of the film by far for me.

Not a fan of Hans Zimmer either - upto now he seems to make ‘standard film music’ - but this is great!

That said - ignore the patriotism and the ‘gung ho’ attitude of the film and you have a decent enough action film as well - technically speaking anyway.

You can’t really point a ‘political finger’ at films really - it’s just going to wear you down eventually - they’re entertainment and they’re never ‘real’ regardless of the work put in by the writers or even (as in this case) where the technical advisors were actually there…

Full Metal Jacket didn’t have much to do with Vietnam ‘reality’ but it’s entertaining :slight_smile:



Well, I wonder if I could advance the observation that attentive reading of my OP might well have removed several of the complaint-observations here.

However let me not be peevish and take this in stride. I am of course well aware the film was neither documentary nor a book, that it was a popular movie and as such obeys its own rules so to speak.

On the last point, however, the attentive and perhaps somewhat worldly reader would have noted my direct reference to a perennial favorite of mine, * la bataille d’Alger * aka The Battle of Algiers as the cinematic point of comparision. In that film, although we are seeing the fictional retelling of the years long ‘Battle’ for Algiers, capital of Algeria, we see in typical movie viewing time, both sides of the story. Excellent and efficient use of imagery conveys in little time what might take a book pages.

Now, of course those of you who have not seen this film are at something of a handicap. I should once more suggest all see this film, for it is brilliant and yet also timely – the story of urban guerrilla warfare in a country fully occupied is perhaps not without some interest in these times. A warning, however, it is not a Hollywood film, the scenes of torture are not for the weak stomached, nor do the deaths have the video game quality of the typical action film.

This aside, as a filmmaker there were clearly choices available to convey more clearly the whys of the Somali side, an important and useful theme in the book, and ones that would have made the film stronger, yet not depart terribly from the war film genre.

Let me take the driver who is shown guiding the Americans to a claimed Aidid center. The inattentive viewer may not have noted he is later shown in one of the last firefights firing on the very soldiers he had helped lead into the fight. This is based (loosely) on a real incident, somewhat less dramatic perhaps, in the book.

Now I can compare this with the style of Battle of Algiers bombing scenes – a few seconds before each one sees the victims, women, children…. The pain of both sides is brought out visually and easily in sympathetic contrasts. It would have taken but ten minutes more of film or ten minutes less of battle scenes to illustrate, visually, Somali anger, what drove what otherwise seems inexplicable and perhaps even ‘animalistic’ – in short what plays, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps not, to the usual and hideous stereotypes of the region. I hardly believe that a handful of minutes more or perhaps less of battle would have taken away from the action (I seem to recall complaints that the bloody battle scenes were too intense and long running).

Now of course, I am sure there are going to be the usual blithering about Hollywood and action films. All well and good, but this film in particular was based on a rather more sophisticated book and I hardly think advancing the criticism that given the source material, a better and richer image, more informative but also a more powerful artistic statement (but perhaps less video game like) could have easily emerged. Easily. That it did not, in my opinion, is something of an indictment of the formulaic constraints of modern Hollywood movie making – for this film wasted an occasion to tell a battle story in a rich manner given the rich source material.

Now, this rich piece of rubbish:

Oh wonderous strange, now I am being told Boutros Boutros Ghali was the decision maker on this. Now that is indeed rich.

Now perhaps you can cite to me the source of this wonderous piece of information, for it rather contradicts the actual facts on the motherfucking ground.

Howe, the American commander, not Ghali, was the decision maker on these matters. That is a clear fact, indeed most analyses characterize the problem in terms of Howe having personalized the conflict with Aidid and not understanding clan politics. Ghali hardly ordered Howe on any operational matters (it is indeed rather fantastical to image Ghali giving orders to an American commander given Ghali’s problematic relationship with the US in this time period), quite the contrary, the operation was an American one by command and control, for whatever revisionist black helicopter UN conspiracy whinging that we may engage in post-conflict.

Now when one digs into the history one also comes to understand that the genesis of the “Aidid is the problem” and personalization of the issue was itself American. See : “In many ways, the failure in Somalia was laid at the feet of the UN. As President Kennedy once observed, “In Washington a successful policy has a thousand parents, while an unsuccessful policy is an orphan.” [20] In fact, the ill-conceived proposal to capture the defiant warlord General Aideed, wanted for the ambush that killed twenty-three Pakistani troops, was sponsored by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN [21] and the Mogadishu raid had been an American run operation. But the “unacceptable” Ranger casualties were suffered in pursuit of a UN mission and that fact alone proved to be nothing less than disastrous for the President’s emerging policy.”

Now my dear fellow, before coming running back here, please make sure you have an adequate grasp of the actual history and not the bloody spin and excuse making.

No my dear, it is not that bloody simple. Just as Iraq is not that fucking simple.

The mission still fails, only in this scenario the ”skinnies” die in greater numbers, while the nice little pampered westerners don’t get hurt so badly. The issue set of to be solved, opposition to UN efforts and specifically US driven policy on the matter, had already crystallized such that Aidid was but a symbol of the failure – “taking out” Aidid then misses the bloody point.

The reality of the issue was that the humanitarian project had already gone badly wrong, such that the very population which was supposed to be being saved, had turned against the American presence. Losing hearts and minds.

19 Rangers are soldiers, soldiers die. Statesmen are to achieve objectives, political objectives, with their lives. That’s cold hard realism. No one should die, certainly, and to the extent that avoiding casualties does not undermine achieving the objectives for the mission, which include a meaningful political result, they should be avoided. However it is rather a Pyhric victory to win the battle and lose the war, in terms of what one wishes to achieve. If soldiers are to die, one should be sure that their lives are spent ** wisely ** rather than stupidly.

Now as it happened the entire operation was simply an illustration of the fact that the methods used had turned the population against the American effort, which rather made the entire process a farce.

This was not necessary, the more successful Aussie operation farther North had shown what could be done, where as I mentioned analyses I read by Strat people emphasized the lessons to be learned from the Aussie having used clan politics themselves to isolate and exclude the troublemakers, and gain legitimacy for removing them.

You’re a newcomer, I will let that piece of foolishness pass. If my boy wants to argue with me, he had better get himself some learning.

Some added readings: