"Black Hawk Down" won Academy Awards for Editing and Sound, and director Ridley Scott and his cinematographer also received Oscar nominations, so obviously this film has some good things going for it. But the new Extended Cut, which tacks on an additional eight minutes, doesn't make the film stronger. Because they don't add back story or character information, only more action, this is one case where less is positively more—except where the bonus features are concerned.
DVD Town's Dean Winkelspecht reviewed the three-disc Deluxe Edition and pronounced it "a captivating thrill ride." I'll agree with that, but unlike Dean and many others (yes, I realize that I'm in the minority here), I did not think the film was a flawless classic. For me, it was a film that did a very good job of making viewers feel what it would have been like to have been one of those 75 U.S. Rangers and 40 Delta Force troops who flew aboard 17 Black Hawk helicopters to execute a daytime raid on the headquarters of a Somali warlord and return with prisoners. After two helicopters were shot down by the defiant Habr Gidr clan who were fighting in the service of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, things got impossibly hairy for soldiers on the ground. And for the most part, Scott covers the action as if his cameramen were war correspondents embedded with the men on the ground, conveying a you-are-there immediacy. That's the film's great strength. But because it's the single focus, it's also the film's chief weakness.
Compared to Mark Bowden's original serialized account of the ill-fated mission, which was published in 1997 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, we get almost nothing in the way of character information—even less than there was in the old WWII films that were produced during wartime to help Americans at home keep their spirits up. It's mostly non-stop action, with interludes only long enough for some of the soldiers to spout canned platitudes like "Nobody asks to be a hero. It sometimes turns out that way." That's bad enough, but Scott turns them into overly obvious Ken Burns moments, spoken against a backdrop of violin music. Throw in a young cast that, without character development, can be hard to distinguish, and command-center interludes ala "Apollo 13" that show Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard) mostly watching monitors like the rest of us and looking concerned, then add stylistic elements that were better suited to "Gladiator" (more on that later) to a single-minded plot, and you've got a film that, in my opinion, doesn't come close to approaching greatness.
It's a tribute, certainly, to the American soldier, but Scott's film will be a painful reminder to soldiers returning from Iraq that the U.S. intelligence network has been underestimating the enemy for at least a decade. In this case, what was to be a supposed have been so simple a mission that many soldiers didn't even board those helicopters with full packs—leaving things like canteens and night vision devices behind—quickly turned into an ordeal on the order of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans met their end. After this battle, 1000 Somalis and 19 U.S. soldiers would be dead.
The cast is solid, but with the focus on action and very few lines included which allow the actors to individualize their characters, the soldiers tend to blur as much as the fighting. The soldiers are instructed to shoot only if fired upon, but as one of them puts it, "How can you tell?" When you can hear the hiss of the bullet as it whizzes past, comes the reply. That doesn't give them much of a chance, and the screenplay by first-timer Ken Nolan doesn't give us much of a chance to care about these guys as individuals—only as human beings whom we're told via the film's point of view are the good guys. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Jason Isaacs, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, and Eric Bana are all talented actors who run with the realism, but after watching the film I honestly couldn't tell you which one played Spec. John Grimes, Capt. Mike Steele, Lt. Col. Danny McKnight, Sfc. Jeff Sanderson, or Sfc. Norm Hooten. I could only tell you that Hartnett played Sgt. Matt Eversmann, and that's only because he's the point-of-view character.
So while I was caught up in the hyper-reality of this ill-fated mission, there came a point when I found myself getting up to fix myself a snack and didn't even bother to pause the film. I didn't think I was going to miss anything, and my son-in-law, who watched the film with me this time around, felt the same way. It was good, but one-note. And the visual techniques that served Scott so well in "Gladiator" seemed little more than external devices here. With "Gladiator" the blurred moments, the slowed-down moments, and the skip-frame printing were an outward reflection of the main character's inner state of mind. Here, we don't really get into the minds of the characters, and so those same techniques seem more superficial—an "artsy" choice that doesn't have a logic to support it. Then too, Sam Peckinpah was one of the first to use dramatic slow-motion to both heighten and (ironically) soften the moments of violence in "The Wild Bunch." That was extremely effective, but once you've seen it in a film, is it as effective the second time around? For me, the answer is no, especially when there's no ostensible reason for it.
Video: My colleague pointed out that the graininess was deliberate, and in terms of cinematography the images that we see certainly shift throughout the film. The picture inside the war room where Garrison leans over his monitors is sharper and with more contrast than you get when you're aboard one of those Black Hawks or on the ground during a battle that produces as much dust as it does smoke. And that visual is different from those which involve CGI grenades followed in flight as they leave their launchers and zip toward targets. Watch the picture quality from frame to frame and you'll see a huge difference in the way that scenes are handled, and I think the cinematography really complements the film's ostensible focus on journalistic reporting. This release says it's been remastered in High Definition, but it's going to take a more perceptive eye than mine to see the difference.
Audio: All your speakers will get a workout with this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which has a perfect balance of sounds and trusts audiences to be able to pick out muffled dialogue. Some of the lines are practically shouted in order to be heard over the explosions and sounds of battle, just as you'd get in reality. No studio sound here, and no complaints here. You can really see why "Black Hawk Down" won an Oscar for Sound.
Extras: There's only one bonus feature, and that's the PBS "FRONTLINE: Ambush in Mogadishu" program that offers 56 minutes of interviews with veterans of the battle and shots of the actual site. Scott filmed in Rabat, Morocco, so it's nice to see the actual locations. This is a solid program that offers the kind of expertly edited blend of talking heads and visual footage that we've come to expect from PBS, but you have to wonder why the scrimp, when the Deluxe Edition offered up three discs of material.
Bottom Line: Structurally, "Black Hawk down" has more in common with action films than it does with the war movie genre, and as my colleague first wrote, it's certainly a thrill ride. But if you read the original Philadelphia Inquirer series, you see that a little character development would have helped it . . . not killed it. "Black Hawk Down" makes you feel as if you're right there with the soldiers, but if you're a fan of the film you're probably better off sticking with the Deluxe Edition. The eight extra minutes really don't add much to the film, while a single bonus feature seems like a tease compared to the wealth of extras on the three-disc edition.