While many history-based films struggle to recreate the past because of the sheer lack of available record, films that focus on more recent history have a distinct advantage. Such is the case with Ridley Scott’s BLACK HAWK DOWN, based largely on Mark Bowden’s book of the same name. Ken Nolan’s script, substitutes incredibly detailed action and firefight sequences for story and character development, but is still known for its accurate retelling of the horrors at the Battle of Mogadishu. Critically acclaimed at the time of its release, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s gritty realism blended with beautifully vivid color tones has been heralded as a visually brilliant urban warfare masterpiece. Where it lacks a well-paced narrative, it succeeds in capturing the fits and starts of a real story with a rigorous attention to detail.
History tells us that their mission was a simple one—routine even. They were 160 highly trained men, elite U.S. Army Rangers and an even more elite Delta Force. In 19 helicopters and 12 vehicles, the group was approaching a swarm of Habr Gidr leaders, a dangerous Islamic clan, both unannounced and unwelcome. Somalia was in the midst of a civil war—General Mohamed Farrah Aidid had been withholding U.N.-sent food from civilians, instead rationing it to gunrunning warlords. The date was October 3, 1993. “Today’s targets,” Bowden writes, “were two of Aidid’s lieutenants. They would be arrested and imprisoned with a growing number of the belligerent clan’s bosses on an island off the southern Somali coast city of Kismayo.” They had rehearsed this routine dozens of times prior to October 3, and never with difficulty. But as we soon discover in the film, difficulty found them before they reached the ground.
In Scott’s film, Josh Hartnett portrays Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann. Eversmann had never led a unit into combat before, but today he was the guy that replaced the guy…that replaced the guy. Eversmann’s platoon sergeant had been sent home due to an illness in his family. His substitute succumbed to an epileptic seizure, as the film depicts. That left Eversmann in charge of Chalk Four, a position he was ready to accept, but not necessarily prepared for. In the film, Eversmann is idealistic, loyal to the Army, loyal to this mission. Most of these Rangers were. They were itching for a real fight with these Somalis, Bowden tells us, and only few found compassion for the “Skinnies” (a slang term used for military forces in impoverished countries). Scott’s Eversmann was one of those few.
Many of the details recalled in Bowden’s book found their way onto the screen. We see Major General William F. Garrison, played by Sam Shepard, deliver a send-off as the Rangers head out. Interestingly, this was something Garrison had never done before, but he did on this day. Garrison later watches the action from the Joint Operations Center from video cameras mounted on the observation birds. This was also accurate, as was the rivalry between the Delta Force (D-Boys) and the Rangers. Almost every character in the film portrays a real person (and the film uses the real names). The film, shot in Morocco, was able to capture an authentic landscape quite similar to Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean’s coast. As the helicopters travel to the heart of the city, we get a sense of the actual flight—the blue waters, the hot sun. Had it not been for the egregious bloodshed bordering on genocide, the locale could have been a lovely getaway, Bowden comments, a common belief that was worked into the film. When the helicopters arrived at their drop points, everything changed. Scott and company introduce the chaos of the first casualty just as it happened.
Private First Class Todd Blackburn was the youngest member of Eversmann’s operation. Played by Orlando Bloom, this kid was fresh out of high school and eager to see some action. Action, it seemed, got to him first, in the form of a botched repel from the helicopter. Blackburn somehow missed his rope and plunged some seventy feet to the ground. He was tended to and carried to safety, but the injury certainly served as an omen that nothing that day would go as planned. The Rangers were bombarded with gunfire as the Delta Force moved in to successfully make their arrests (though the film does not focus on this).
Though the battle was most certainly an American victory as far as casualties are concerned (roughly 1,000 Somalis dead, compared to only 18 U.S. soldiers), the film centers on the madness in the streets, as wild and possessed Somali militiamen and civilians launch an unending assault on the two downed Black Hawks with the Rangers and Deltas creating perimeters around them. The film is essentially 90 minutes of non-stop combat once the helicopters touch down in Mogadishu, effectively recreating the fog of war.
Bowden compiled his material through hundreds of interviews, official reports, and radio transcripts that capture the actual dialogues of the day. From the terrified Somali informant marking the location of Aidid’s men, to Captain Mike Steele’s football analogies, to the very specific manner in which CW3 Mike Durant was defended after his helicopter went down and then carried away by the mob, very few details went unnoticed. The film was also sure to include Specialist Grimes (based on John Stebbins) precipitous involvement in the battlefield after years of desk and coffee work, Specialist Nelson’s sudden loss of hearing, and the tragic, difficult death of Corporal Jamie Smith.
Yes, the film hits the mark more often than not, but there were bound to be errors, or at least bits of significant information ignored. If there is a protagonist in Scott’s film, Sgt. Eversmann fills that role, by default. Josh Hartnett’s screen time is slightly greater than that of Tom Sizemore and Eric Bana. In the film, Eversmann is placed in the center of the melee more often than was the case. Eversmann spends a good portion of the second and third act trapped in a courtyard with the men he’s leading. He assists in Corporal Smith’s emergency surgery, defends the area, and is left to run back to safer ground at the U.S. and UN-held stadium alongside the other headliners when the convoy declares itself full. As Bowden recounts, Eversmann headed back on an earlier Humvee convoy, and though his involvement in establishing a perimeter early in the afternoon is drawn accurately, he was largely absent from the action as day became night, and night turned to dawn. If anyone had a diminished role in the film, it was Captain Steele (Jason Isaacs). His presence in Bowden’s book is larger than most, and his arc quite evident. Steele finds himself on the verge of weeping when he reaches the stadium and learns of how many of his men lost their lives. Steele’s humanity is made palpable by Bowden—a humanity put on hold in the face of battle. While he is featured heavily in the film’s first act, Steele gets lost in the disarray at Mogadishu.
Those familiar with the affair may take issue with the fact that the politics of the event hardly play a role in the film—the Clinton administration was already unpopular with the military establishment, as Bowden notes, and this incident made the President appear even more disinterested in the lives of American soldiers. The Somalis and their politics were also largely ignored in the film. Bowden makes a point, to some degree, of at least profiling a number of clan leaders of the Habr Gidr. Scott’s film portrays them just as the soldiers saw them—a feral band of “skinny black guys with dusty bushes of hair, long baggy pants, and loose, oversized shirts,” says Bowden. The film provides no motivation for why they attack so ferociously (the Americans were a symbol of UN power and Somali helplessness), and they come off more like a ruthless herd of Danny Boyle-brand zombies than human beings. When the film premiered in Somalia, many in Mogadishu were outraged at their portrayal.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer made it his personal mission to honor the men that lost their lives that day. The actors didn’t take the task lightly either. They each went through a military training program prior to filming, and when principle photography began, Task Force 160—the actual force involved that day—assisted in the authenticity of recreating the action. Additionally, the 75th Ranger Regiment provided a platoon of Rangers to conduct “fast-rope insertions” from the Black Hawks. Director Ridley Scott noted, “We were trying to find the philosophy for these guys. As Eric Bana’s ‘Hoot’ (a character based on a number of actual Deltas) says, “It’s about the man next to you. And that’s just what the film captured.
“Most of the fighter pilots in the movie were involved in the actual battle.”