Black Hawk Down (2001)

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Black Hawk Down

Dir. Ridley Scott, 2001

Black Hawk Down is an unusual film. The first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater, Black Hawk Down is an American war movie about a war most Americans didn’t know was happening. It helped turn Jerry Bruckheimer into a household name, it played a pivotal role in film academia, it redefined the image of the American soldier just in time to go to war, and it raised issues about combat readiness and urban warfare that would haunt us in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By the early 1990s, decades of Communism and famine had devastated the Horn of Africa. When the famine ended and Communism fell, the country of Somalia became the poster child for failed states, constantly torn between autonomous warlords who needlessly hoarded food supplies. In response, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force which included Army Rangers, Special Ops pilots, and the not-so-secret Delta Force; all led by General Bill Garrison (played here by Sam Shepard).

One day, a small contingent of American troops were deployed on a routine mission to arrest deputies of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, a particularly brutal warlord with links to Al Qaeda. Underestimating the need for armor, water, and air support, two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down on opposite ends of the city, and a 30-minute mission turns into the deadliest battle in American history since Vietnam.

The most amazing thing about the battle– which is not covered in the movie– is that it went totally unnoticed back home. It only made a seven-inch column on the fourth page of the New York Times. When the Author Mark Bowden did publicity for his book about it, which inspired the movie, most of his readers weren’t aware that American troops had ever been in Somalia.

A few days ago, some friends and I were debating whether director Ridley Scott has an authorial voice that comes through in his films. The best we could agree on is that Scott spares no expense in his films, and Black Hawk Down is a shining example of what that kind of dedication can accomplish. He and producer Jerry Bruckheimer got all the right equipment, thousands of extras, real Army Ranger training, and some of the best talent in Hollywood– though not all, more on that later. Scott even came up with the idea of putting the character’s names on their helmets; a godsend to anyone who enjoys war movies but can’t tell people in uniform apart. The editing is great, the action is great, and while the visuals are dated, it’s only because so many movies, TV shows, and videogames copied this very film. The music is like nothing else in war cinema.

With a cast in the dozens, the film chooses to focus on a few people. Tom Sizemore is the put-upon convoy leader; Jason Isaacs is a tough-as-nails Captain who is nonetheless overwhelmed, but puts on a strong show for the men; Ewan McGregor plays a clerk desperate for action who has the bad luck of being selected for this mission; and Eric Bana is an unpredictable badass. Sam Shepard plays Gen. Garrison as a hands-on general who knows his men and struggles with how to get them out of this mess.

Not all of the cast is great, though. It’s in this film that Orlando Bloom began his career as a decoy protagonist, and Ron Eldard can’t deliver a line believably as one of the Black Hawk pilots. It’s no wonder we didn’t see him after that stupid pilot where he played a blind cop.

And of course, there’s Josh Hartnett. Josh Hartnett was Hollywood’s newest heartthrob that nobody wanted. Whether he was a flat-out bad actor or just constantly given the wrong roles can be debated, but everytime he’s onscreen, the film grinds to a halt. He is given the film’s central story, and it’s the most generic war movie plot ever: sensitive sergeant is reluctantly put in charge, copes with difficulties of leadership. Luckily, there’s so much else in the movie that he can’t ruin it.

Get used to a lot of squinting bewilderment.

The most common criticism of this film is that it manages to glorify battle even as it depicts an American defeat. I understand but disagree. The film came out December 2001, and established the idea that even when Americans oppose the war, they support the troops. The film is pro-soldier: in the heat of battle, the man next to you is more important than politics, and people can be heroes even when the fight should never have happened. In spite of its flaws, Black Hawk Down manages to provide a unique viewing experience; in the pantheon of Hollywood war movies, it’s a must-watch. B+

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Velvet Goldmine (1998)

SPOILER ALERT: As these reviews are of an academic nature, they may contain spoilers. Those that do feature this warning. Future reviews will try to limit spoilers for a public audience, but until then, read at your own risk.

Velvet Goldmine

Dir. Todd Haynes, 1998

Before Todd Haynes acheived mainstream fame with his wonderfully bizarre, allegorical Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There, he made Velvet Goldmine. Originally intended to be a straight-up depiction of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period, David Bowie’s refusal to get involved due to the racy bisexual content resulted in a quick rewrite involving Oscar Wilde, magical alien brooches, a 1980s dystopia, and fictionalized versions of Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and others.

Christian Bale plays Arthur Stewart, a journalist and former rocker who goes on assignment to find Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former Glam rock superstar who disappeared completely after faking his own assassination onstage. Through interviews and flashbacks, we discover Slade’s triumphs and scandals, only to reveal that he has secretly reinvented himself as a Reaganite pop idol with a different identity.

Velvet Goldmine pays glorious homage to Citizen Kane as well as glam itself: though the musicians have been given pseudonyms, all of the songs in the film are genuine contributions from Eno, Brian Ferry, and the like. The brilliant music-video excesses of the film are matched only by the deep, dark lows the characters face, and it feels more like a dream– and a nightmare– than any music film I’ve ever seen. A-