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The U.S. troops, too long cooped up, were spoiling for this fight. Most had not been under fire, but no matter. They knew they were good--superbly equipped and well led. And, indeed, the Delta Force quickly and painlessly accomplished the extraction. Subsequently, everything that could go wrong did. One of the first Rangers out of the helicopter missed the rope and free-fell 60 ft. to the ground. The ground convoy got hopelessly lost in the debris-strewn streets of the city. Pinned down, the American soldiers began to attract vast crowds of armed clansmen, often advancing behind human shields of women and children. One Black Hawk helicopter was shot from the sky, then another. The Ranger creed holds that no fallen comrade, even a dead one, can be left behind. The Americans stood by that oath.
The fire fight would extend for an astonishing 15 hours, virtually without a break. Eighteen Americans would die, 73 more would be wounded--well over half our troops on the scene. But you cannot imagine the hot chaos those chilling figures contain.
Ridley Scott, however, could. A bluff, down-to-earth Brit who started out to be a painter (he still does some of his own production sketches), he has become a master of all kinds of moviemaking--the visionary (Blade Runner), the intimate (Thelma & Louise) and the spectacular (Gladiator). He has not, however, done anything quite as grimly realistic as Black Hawk Down. Like most of his subjects here, Scott is from a working-class background, and he says that what he liked about this film was the simplicity of his characters--"they're like highly trained athletes, really." He is also something of an old-fashioned British traveler, the kind of man who relishes harsh conditions in odd corners of the world. Art director Arthur Max's brilliant re-creation of battered Mogadishu (built in Morocco) concentrated Scott's mind, eye and energies most wonderfully. More than anything else, he says, he wanted "to create an anatomy of a war that could be any war," and to that end he stripped away all talk, all thought, of this fight's larger geopolitical implications. Real soldiers don't think much about such matters, and neither do Scott's. Why, he wonders, "do we need such background when we have such a strong foreground?"
Good question, though not one that's comfortably answered by a brutal film that requires us to embrace the same deadly chaos our soldiers encountered eight years ago--a battle without visible turning points, a battle no one could map, a battle in which the hero is the group whose members become so grime smeared and blood spattered that audiences will have trouble identifying the players.
There are powerful incidents--a downed chopper pilot captured by a raging mob, the bloody struggle to save the life of a soldier whose artery has been severed. There's even a presumptive hero, Josh Hartnett's Sergeant Matt Eversmann, leading a Ranger "chalk" (small unit) into combat for the first time. He's a guy who thinks maybe they can eventually "make a difference" in Somalia. But his unit catches much of the movie's hard luck, and by its end he sadly realizes what every soldier finally learns--that the only principle anyone fights for is existential: your own survival and that of your buddies.