Black Hawk Down (2 Discs) Review

The Film
I suggest that those of you that love this film should skip to the disc section of this review as to be honest I am not here to change any minds. For those of you that haven’t seen it then here are my views on this decidedly odd film.

After the undeserved negative criticism for Hannibal Ridley Scott took on a very different project in Black Hawk Down. Based on a military operation in Somalia in 1993 it tells the story of a group of Rangers and Delta Force troops who are instructed to take certain Somalis prisoner who they believe to be connected with the warlord Aidid. Aidid had prevented food supplies reaching the general populace and hundreds of thousands were dying of famine. The US military along with the U.N. managed to protect the food convoys but it was felt that removing Aidid might permanently solve the problem (after all killing off a dictator who leads a bunch of fanatics has always succeeded in bringing down a faction hasn’t it?).

The entire film (well a good 2hrs plus of it) simply covers this operation from beginning to end. The troops go in and two black hawks are knocked out by enemy RPG’s. The remainder (over 1hr30 mins) of the film is concerned with the troops protecting the wounded and copters against overwhelming odds whilst they wait for backup. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to tell you that by the end 19 U.S. troops are killed and an estimated 1000 Somalis. Interestingly they choose to list the name of every soldier killed but neglect to mention the name of a single Somali.

Anyone expecting an even-handed and unbiased approach to this film need only know that Jerry Bruckheimer produced it. The Somalis, whether good or bad, get very little screen time as they mostly appear for only as long as it takes to be shot. So we are left with a film about the U.S. viewpoint, which is fair enough I suppose as long as you are not expecting a decent look at the causes and feelings on both sides. It is disappointing to see a modern film that could show so little regard for an enemy and the issues surrounding the conflict. Many times people are coerced into fighting for a faction or they are whipped up into a frenzy by a charismatic leader. To show them as simply bad guys to be used as cannon fodder seems a little disrespectful to say the least.

What we do get is 2 hours of unremitting senseless slaughter committed by both sides. The film is bleak looking and gritty to the nth degree. The violence is realistically portrayed and the images are harrowing. This is no blockbuster action film and it shows. Scott directs the action superbly as bullets whizz past us constantly and explosions fire off in all directions. If his intention was to shock and numb his audience by the sheer brutality of war then he has succeeded admirably and I take my hat off to him. The only downside to this is that by the second hour you are so shell-shocked you can’t take anymore in.

Unfortunately if you peek under this admittedly technically impressive façade you will find very little of substance. As the film does not even attempt to assess the rights and wrongs of the situation all we are left with is the soldiers and their lives. Sadly Scott is so intent on showing us the madness of war that he forgets to let us know who the people are. The 30-minute set-up introduces us to all the main characters in the base but their dialogue is so asinine that after 30 minutes of action I had trouble distinguishing between the different troops… As a result I had no real clue as to who had died by the end, which sort of negates the whole point.

There were only four main characters that stood out for me in this and one of them for all the wrong reasons. Eric Bana (Hoot) is superlative as the Delta Force man who seems to fear nothing. Ewan McGregor (Grimes) convincingly plays a Ranger who is more used to a desk than a gun… his humour and McGregor’s acting help to make him stand out from the rest. William Fichtner (Sanderson) also stands out with an excellent performance as the tough but pretty decent Delta Force man. Josh Hartnett however is an atrocious piece of casting and he failed to convince me on every level. I am truly sorry but the rest of the cast simply blurred into one for me, which is the fault of the director rather than the actors.

So what do we really have here? Well the film is a technical tour de force but it is ultimately empty. By the end all I had learnt is that war is hell and let’s face it we all know that and many films have done it far better than this one. The fact that it covers such a recent conflict gives it a stronger emotional resonance especially after September the 11th. I suspect however that this film will be lost in the annals of history and if it is remembered at all in 50 years time it will be as a purely technical piece of filmmaking and I will say again that in this regard it is fantastic.

The Disc
Well here we have the R2 SE, which seems on the surface to be a cracking two-disc affair. Being a review disc I do not have any packaging to comment on but the menus are appropriate and are very well done and there are 28 chapters.

Well this is an absolutely outstanding transfer presented in its correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1 anamorphic. The varied film stock gives the film a distinctive look throughout and this has been transferred over to DVD perfectly. The print is clean and sharp and there are no noticeable artefacts. There are numerous grainy/gritty scenes but these are obviously for effect and they work perfectly. The use of colour is inventive and any lack of shadow detail adds to the oppressive atmosphere. I have no real substantial criticisms to offer as the dark and gritty nature of the film lends itself to a grim and depressing looking picture and it reproduces that faithfully.

As for the sound… well there is nothing to fault here either. The 5.1 track is absolutely outstanding with the subwoofer in danger of blowing a whole in the wall with the number of explosions going off. The helicopter sounds and general battlefield sounds fill the other 5 channels perfectly so that you are almost completely immersed. I have rarely heard a track as good as this as my final marks will show.

There are over 3 hours worth of extras here not including the commentaries (and there are three of those!) so most of my descriptions below will be factual to help to keep the review down to a manageable length. Suffice to say that I found the extras here far more interesting than the actual film. Watching the film with commentary by Ridley Scott was actually more enjoyable than watching the film itself. The documentaries on the second disc are a superb piece of work. Rather than pad the disc out with meaningless featurettes we have one long making of documentary (over two hours) as well as a load of ancillary information from members of the crew that are usually underrepresented on DVD.

Disc 1

Commentary By Ridley Scott & Jerry Bruckheimer. This is a great commentary with Ridley Scott providing most of the anecdotes and information. Not only does he give excellent insight into the production, casting and shooting but also into the politics and history surrounding the incident. There are rarely any silences and Scott is on top form here.

Commentary by Author Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan. This piece is less interesting but still holds up well over the 2hr 40 minute running time. Both of these guys give their thoughts behind scenes and certain ideas. Sometimes they tell us of alternative sequences and ideas that were rejected. Unfortunately there are a few silences here, which keeps this commentary from being as good as the first.

Commentary by US Forces Vets ’93. This commentary has four servicemen who served during this op, Tom Matthews, Lee Van Arsdale, Matt Eversmann and Danny McKnight. There is a wealth of information imparted here about the mission and the training/planning that went into the operation. They also point out any inaccuracies that are there for dramatic purposes. There are very few silences but there is one huge flaw here and that is that we are never 100% sure who is speaking at any one time. There are four people with similar voices speaking here and I had trouble telling who was who throughout. A simple caption system would have solved this.

Filmographies. These are basic filmographies of all the cast and crew… there is nothing here that couldn’t be obtained from IMDB however.

Disc 2

The extras here are split into three distinct sections and within those there are several areas.

The main making of documentary, The Essence of Combat, is two and a half hours long. You can watch the whole thing as a single documentary or you can watch the individual sections as follows…

Getting it Right – This 23-minute introduction tells us how the book came about and how the script was developed from it. It includes interviews with the author Mark Bowden and the screenwriter Ken Nolan. There is a lot of preliminary information available here.

Crash Course – this 30-minute piece covers the actor’s military orientation to prepare for their roles. There is extensive footage of the actors at Ranger orientation and Delta training. It starts with them having all their hair shaved off and shows some rather gruelling physical exertions for the Rangers (although they were only there a week). The Delta guys seemed to have more fun as they got to blow things up. This section is complemented by superb on location interviews with most of the main cast.

Battlefield Morocco – this is a 30-minute section covering location shooting in Morocco (which doubled for Mogadishu). It covers the huge efforts and negotiations needed to allow the shoot to happen. The scenes with 1000’s of extras being coordinated with a fly past by US helicopters are an amazing sight to behold.

Hymn to the Fallen – This 18-minute piece is mainly an interview with Hans Zimmer, who explains his thoughts behind the score. His explanation of how he fused ethnic music with militaristic beats and techno is fascinating to watch and listen to.

Digital Warriors – This is a fantastic 25-minute piece, which explains how the amazing CG effects were achieved. Now I thought that there was little CG in this film and this documentary showed how wrong I was. The extensive behind the scenes footage shows how they merged live action with CG elements. The fact that they appear seamless in the final film is quite a feat.

After Action Report – This rather sombre 25-minute piece tries to tie up all the loose ends and show how the real event affected the actors, the crew and the vets. They go to great lengths to explain how not many people knew anything about this mission and how it was their job to bring it to light. This is the nearest the extras get to actually touching on the real life implications of the events shown.

The second major section on the disc is entitled Image & Design and it is split into 7 distinct areas.

Designing Mogadishu. This is a 13-minute piece that details the production design of the city itself. There are interviews with the production designer along with location scouting and an explanation of why it was so difficult to achieve the accuracy necessary.

Production Design Archive. This covers 7 distinct areas… U.S. Base, Howlwaddig Building, Target Building, Graffiti Signage & Urban Art, Crash Sites, Pakistani Stadium and miscellaneous Mogadishu. Each section shows a progression from storyboard designs through to set construction and then the final finished product. There are 100’s of images here so no stone is left unturned.

Storyboards. This 15-minute section is split into two areas, Storyboards and comparisons. Each one is around 7-minutes long and shows either a collection of storyboards or a split screen showing the storyboard on top and the final filmed sequence on the bottom. Each one can be accompanied by a general commentary by Sylvain Despretz who drafted the storyboards. Here he discusses his work with Ridley Scott and how he feels about changes made from storyboard to screen... the same commentary accompanies both pieces. It is a pleasant surprise to hear a storyboarder’s point of view on a disc.

Ridleygrams – This rather cryptic title refers to storyboards drawn by Ridley Scott himself. It has an identical layout and length to the previous storyboards section except this time Despretz talks about how Ridley likes to do his own storyboards to help him achieve his vision.

Jerry Bruckheimer’s Photo Album. Apparently Bruckheimer is a bit of an amateur photographer and on each film he likes to take photos for his own personal album. This 5-minute section has him commenting on pictures he took for Black Hawk Down.

Photo Galleries. This purely static section is divided into 11 areas and contains 100’s of photographs taken on location. The pictures range from cast portraits to location shots, behind the scenes shots and finally to pictures of what the crew wore on location (I’m not kidding)! Comprehensive doesn’t even begin to describe this.

Title Design & Exploration. It is unusual to hear from title sequence designers on DVD so this is yet another little treat. This three and a half minute section simply shows some rather snazzy alternative opening titles with commentary by title designer Flavio Campagna.

The last major section is the Deleted & Alternate scenes. There are 8 scenes overall covering around 20-minutes of footage. Some scenes are short throwaway pieces that run under a minute whereas others are rather meatier 5-minute sections. Each one comes with commentary from Ridley Scott where he explains why things were cut or changed which is always interesting.

This DVD release is definitely one to cherish if you love the film… the picture and sound are practically faultless and the extras are comprehensive and entertaining (if you watch them all it will take you around 12 hours if you don’t look at the photos). I cannot comment on the R1 3-disc edition however so the more cautious amongst you may want to adopt a wait and see on this one.

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