It takes considerable time to churn out a big-budget extravaganza like Black Hawk Down, so Ridley Scott's thundering war movie was in the production pipeline long before the Sept. 11 attacks wrought still-uncertain effects on the entertainment industry.
Public response to the picture is providing clues to what those effects might be, however. If reviewers were grumbling and audiences were staying home, it could mean Americans were starting to rethink their traditional attitudes toward warfare, pondering the World Trade Center tragedy, and asking if violence must always be answered by more violence.
But many critics are crowing, and moviegoers are lining up at the box office. This suggests that Scott's view of international strife cannily mirrors the prevailing public mood.
I find this regrettable, since the film's take on the savageness of combat ranges from simplistic to barbaric - just what you'd expect from the auteur of "Gladiator" and "G.I. Jane." I don't think Oscar insiders will make a big deal out of it, but if major nominations do come its way, mark another substantial downturn in the value of thoughtfulness in today's movies.
"Based on actual events," the story focuses on highly trained American troops sent to Mogadishu, Somalia, in late 1993 to disable a powerful Somali warlord. Their mission is to kidnap high lieutenants who've helped him hijack United Nations food shipments and sustain a rule of terror and starvation. Their obstacles include aggressive enemy soldiers and legions of hostile civilians, plus what they see as inadequate support from US leaders. The nightmare grows worse when two of their high-tech Black Hawk helicopters are shot down in the heat of battle.
In political terms, "Black Hawk Down" falls into the "Rambo" category, refighting the Somali conflict just as earlier epics refought the Vietnam War.
"Sir, do we get to win this time?" asked Sylvester Stallone as John J. Rambo in a much-quoted line of 1985. We know the answer to that question will be "yes," and we watch such movies for one of two reasons: because that's the fantasy we long for, or because we enjoy violent action regardless of the context it's couched in.
The soldiers in "Black Hawk Down" acquit themselves bravely, achieving their goals in some cases, sacrificing their lives or limbs in others. Ken Nolan's screenplay overlooks no opportunity to celebrate the resolute spirits of the real-life troops being commemorated here. Scott displays the action in hard-hitting images that make up in energy what they lack in complexity and perceptiveness.
But you have to ask whether battle and brutality merit more thoughtful treatment. I realize that one person's cliché is another person's time-tested truth, and the touches I perceive as Hollywood hack work - like a speech about the purpose of war being to back up the other guys in the unit - may deeply move the person sitting next to me. But Scott's approach is so mired in convention that half of his images could have been lifted from war-story comic books of the 1950s.
Where is a filmmaker who's willing to explore this urgent material from an original perspective?
And where is a filmmaker willing to depict the victims of catastrophe - like the Mogadishu citizens in "Black Hawk Down" - as full-fledged human beings? Scott portrays them as faceless (black) masses defined entirely by their ignorance of what's good for them and their reliance on (white) saviors to make their world a less wretched place.
"Black Hawk Down" begins with a quotation from Plato stating that only the dead are beyond war. This isn't the first exploitation movie to drape itself with ancient Greek credentials, but it's worth asking why Scott and company chose to start with these words.
Perhaps they truly believe war is an inescapable aspect of human life. If so, why make movies that rub our faces in its horror? If artists have no antidote to war's evil or insight into the suffering it brings, their motive in depicting it must be merely to sensationalize its terrors and make money from the morbid fascination it holds for audiences.
We deserve better.
r Rated R; contains enormous amounts of war-movie violence and occasional vulgar language.