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Ridley Scott proves his brilliance with a great war film.

Ridley Scott is something of an idiot savant. I won't miss one of his movies, because they're all visually brilliant. Not just technically exacting, or beautiful in their cinematography, but brilliant. He invents shots that other directors will spend the next 10 years ripping off.

But his stories, well, they can often charitably be described as "stupid." To be fair, he didn't actually write Hannibal or G.I. Jane or Gladiator (yes, it was a fun movie, but, let's face it, it was stupid). No one can blame him for the simple-minded morality of Thelma and Louise or the boring voice-overs in Blade Runner. But still, there's this sense that if only he had a great script, he'd make a great a movie. Not just a movie that's so cool to look at that it fools the middle-brow administration of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into giving it an award, but a movie that's actually great.

Black Hawk Down is about as close as he's gotten. Within its genre, the war film, it is certainly great. It may be the best war film of the last 10 years. It makes Saving Private Ryan look like Mickey Mouse's Adventures Up Tom Hanks' Talentless Butt. It is relentlessly active and incessantly compelling. Whatever its intellectual limits, it is so well constructed that any political qualms you may have about the Somali conflict, or even war in general, will have to go on the back burner while you watch this impeccably paced film.

Based on the book by Mark Bowden, it tells the story of a disastrous raid by U.S. troops during their brief stint in Somalia. During an incursion into territory held by warlord Farrah Aidid, two American helicopters (the "Black Hawks" of the title) were shot down. One hundred American troops were then stranded inside enemy territory, surrounded by thousands of hostile Somali militia members. During the course of a 15-hour fire fight, 19 Americans and over 1,000 Somalis were killed.

It's a brutal, ugly scenario, and Scott claimed that by showing the horrors of war, he was making an anti-war film. Actually, an anti-war film is a little beyond Scott's scope. This is neither an anti-war film nor a pro-war film, nor a political film of any kind. It's a genre film, pure and simple, but it's an extremely precise example of its genre.

The basic setup: A ragtag band of young soldiers must survive a night behind enemy territory. Josh Hartnett is Sarge, who's nervous about leading his first mission. Ewan MacGregor is Grimes, the company clerk who's complained about being stashed behind a desk, and is now terrified to be facing combat for the first time. William Fitchner is Master Sergeant Paul Howe, the maverick warrior who doesn't respect his commanders but is just the guy you want on your side in a firefight. Tom Sizemore is the by-the-book field commander. Sam Shepard is the soft-hearted major general. And I think Audie Murphy plays Opie, the Ohio farm boy whose innocence is challenged by the tough-talking troops and hard-fought friendships of Easy Company. Basically, Black Hawk Down is like a really, really good Sgt. Rock comic.

I could make a long list of the things that Scott does well here: The film is perfectly paced; the action, though relentless, is always clearly articulated; despite the cast of identically coiffed white males, each character is well delineated; and the goals and conflicts are always well delineated. In short, what he does well is make movies. He's not really about "film" in the highbrow sense, and he's certainly not about messages or depth or intellectual content.

Instead, he's about engaging, emotionally compelling action, and you really can't ask for more in a war film. However, in case you are asking for more, there's Scott's impeccable visual sensibility. If you've seen any of his films you've no doubt been impressed not only with the beauty of his shots, but also with their range. In Black Hawk Down he uses tight close-ups of the actors' dirty faces and long night shots of the combat environment to create the kind of tension that real life never seems to present.

Some of the credit for Black Hawk's beauty must go to cinematographer Slavomir Idziak, who shot all of Krzysztof Kieslowski's movies. Still, in spite of Idziak's credentials, the look of Black Hawk should probably be credited to Scott, since it's in keeping with the visual sensibility that he's been developing since Alien.

In fact, Black Hawk is probably Scott's best film since Alien. Like Alien, it knows its genre, it has a tremendously talented cast, and it has no slack spots or dull moments. You may not walk away from Black Hawk with a lot of deep questions about existence, but it'll keep you more than occupied for its seemingly short 144 minutes.

Black Hawk Down
Rated NR
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard and William Fitchner

More by James DiGiovanna

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