(Movie & Audio/Video reviews written in 2002.)
"Black Hawk Down", the latest film from director Ridley Scott, is adapted from journalist Mark Bowden's riveting and meticulously researched non-fiction bestseller of the same name. The book focused on the 1993 mission by U.S. troops to take two of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid's key lieutenants. US forces were attempting to stop the warlords, who were stealing food meant for the starving people of the country. The military forces thought that the mission should take around an hour and that the troops would be back to base by dark.
They did not count on the fact that a nightmare would await them on the ground. When the the troopers enter the area, the mission quickly becomes a complete disaster. Somali militia are awaiting the forces and are armed - the troops quickly find themselves surrounded on all sides and being fired upon by an increasingly large army. The situation becomes worse with each and every passing second - soon, two helicopters have been shot down. What was originally going to take an hour eventually stretches into the night. By the end of the battle a day later, 18 soldiers and 1,000 Somali were killed.
The film's opening 35 minutes is devoted first to offering a very brief introduction to the situation currently going on within the country before begining to offer slight introductions to the characters. At 40 minutes in, the troops are dropped into battle and all hell breaks loose. The film, from that point on, is essentially the intensity of the opening of "Saving Private Ryan" extended for nearly two hours; there is no break and the film's scenes of battle are extremely intense, shocking, horrific and terrifying.
The film does not develop the characters intensely, but the actors do provide satisfactory enough performances to make many of the characters at least distinct. I can't say that I've ever liked a performance from Josh Hartnett, but his portrayal of idealistic Sgt. Matt Eversmann is effective and emotional - far better than anything he's done in past films. Ewan McGregor, as a typist sent into battle, is also superb - with the exception of an American accent that's not great (although not distracting, either). Australian actor Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Ron Eldard and others are also very good in their roles.
The film doesn't look at the politics and background of the situation with the kind of detail that the book went into. The film, as is, does not really have the time or place to insert discussion of the background, but adding some additional facts and other information into the opening scenes might have helped. I continue to think about the opening, which could have been handled better and provided a more effective and detailed mix of character development and background before the battle started. I wouldn't have minded another 15 or 20 minutes added to the opening to add more facts, background and character moments.
Technically, the film is an impressive effort by all involved, from excellent (Oscar-winning, in fact) editing by Scott's "Gladiator" editor Pietro Scalia, beautiful and haunting cinematography by Slavomir Idziak (I still think it's ridiculous that the cinematographer wasn't at least nominated for an Oscar for his work in 1997's "Gattaca") and remarkable production design. Hans Zimmer's exotic and intense score is highly effective - tense, uneasy, fierce and sorrowful. The film is obviously a big-budget effort from producer Jerry Bruckheimer; this certainly doesn't seem like one of the producer's efforts and it's certainly far better than the last picture he was involved with, "Pearl Harbor".
"Black Hawk Down" is a ferocious and powerful portrayal of the nightmarish battle that occured on this October afternoon in 1993. The film is effective, intense and frightening. While it would have been even stronger had it provided more background and character depth, it's still a haunting and emotional portrayal of men who fought to leave none of their fellow soldiers behind.
VIDEO: "Black Hawk Down" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality, while not quite flawless, is often simply amazing. What tiny flaws there are don't keep this presentation from being, in my opinion, reference quality. Sharpness and detail are beyond exceptional; I've seen presentations with excellent depth and detail before, but this picture often boasts a very remarable three-dimensional feel to the image.
The print used is nothing short of pristine, looking dazzlingly clear and crisp. The film grain present is intentional and doesn't take away from the experience, only adding to the visuals. The only problem that I noticed was that very slight edge enhancement appeared during a couple of occasions. No pixelation or other faults were noticed.
The film's desaturated color palette remained well-rendered throughout, looking flawless. Overall, this is a really outstanding transfer from the studio that's just short of perfection.
SOUND: "Black Hawk Down" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. While it's rather strange that a DTS 5.1 edition is not included, the Dolby Digital presentation is still quite excellent. To compare the film's Oscar-winning sound design is somewhat difficult. As enveloping and detailed as this film's soundtrack is, I still find the soundtracks of such films as "U-571" or sound designer Gary Rydstrom's work on "Saving Private Ryan" more immersive and remarkable.
Still, the sound for "Black Hawk Down" is highly agressive and very dynamic. Surrounds contributed a great deal during much of the movie, whether for sound effects during the battle scenes or for Zimmer's score. Strong bass is both heard and felt during the film's many intense battle sequences. Sound effects, Zimmer's score and the film's dialogue are all crisp and clear throughout. Both audio/video seem to be the same as the prior release.
Commentaries: The first DVD includes three commentary tracks: one from director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, one from writer Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan and the third track is from members of the Task Force Ranger team, who offer their memories of the events in the film.
The first commentary from Scott and Bruckheimer is excellent, as Scott offers an organized discussion of almost every element of "Black Hawk Down", from the casting to the locations to more of the real history behind the events, extending our understanding of what's going on around or before what's occuring on-screen. Bruckheimer doesn't talk quite as much, but does add to the background of the events, chats about casting and provides some interesting tidbits about trying to get government cooperation with the film.
The commentary from Nolan and Bowden is equally interesting and enjoyable. Nolan provides an interesting and occasionally humorous perspective on being an obvserver on the set, amazed by how the filmmakers were making the "biggest documentary ever". Both discuss how they made great efforts to make sure that the story was told accurately, pointing out only the occasional small changes or touches that were added.
The third commentary track is really the most fascinating. The Task Force Rangers who are portrayed in the picture comment on the events in the film and talk about the reality of the events, discussing their perspective on what happened. They also point out elements that were changed or differ from the actual events, but also point out aspects of the film that they think are an accurate, strong depiction of what happened. A subtitle track tells which of the Rangers are speaking. There are indexes for all three commentary tracks.
Also: Rounding out the first disc are filmographies.
The Essence of Combat: Making "Black Hawk Down": In what has to be a first for a major feature film, this "making of" documentary is actually longer than the film itself. Featuring interviews with director Ridley Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, screenwriter Ken Nolan, writer Mark Bowden, Task Force Rangers and many of the main and supporting actors in the picture. The documentary is split into several sections, each available in an index ("Play all" is also an option). The first section, "Getting It Right", is a 23-minute piece that explores the lack of coverage of the events, the development of the book and how devoted the filmmakers and actors were to doing justice to the men that the film portrays.
"Crash Course" is the second piece of the documentary. The actors were sent to actual (although modified, and week-long) military training before shooting started, mainly to give them an understanding of the skills involved in combat, so that they could accurately portray soldiers. Learning combat strategy before production also meant that advisor Harry Humphries did not have to do any direction on-set. The documentary features interviews from the actors as well as training footage of the actors learning about military techniques. This piece runs about 30 minutes.
"Battlefield: Morocco" is an on-set documentary that focuses on the choice of Morocco as the location for the movie. We learn more about how the production worked together, costume design for the enormous cast of main characters and extras, the work of the real Rangers in the movie and more.
"Hymn To The Fallen" is an 18-minute look at the scoring sessions with composer Hans Zimmer. "Digital Warriors" is a fascinating 25-minute look at how visual effects were used in the film. Finally, "After Action Report" is a 25-minute final piece in which the actors and Rangers discuss the horrifying events of the conflict portrayed in the film.
Image and Design: This section includes a featurette on production design (15 minutes), production design image gallery, storyboards (7 minutes w/optional commentary from Sylvain Despretz, the film's storyboard artist), "Ridleygrams" (7 minutes of Scott's own storyboards w/optional commentary from Sylvain Despretz, the film's storyboard artist), Jerry Bruckheimer's photo album (6 minutes, with commentary from Bruckheimer), additional photo galleries and title design explorations (3 minutes, with optional commentary.
Deleted Scenes: Rounding out the second disc are a series of deleted scenes. 20 minutes of scenes are offered, with optional commentary from director Ridley Scott on why the scenes were deleted.
Historical Archive: This section starts the third disc in the set. It includes a History Channel documentary, "The True Story of Black Hawk Down" (100 minutes) and a PBS documentary, "Ambush: Mogadshu" (60 minutes). It also includes a timeline of the mission events. Both of the documentaries have moments of very disturbing imagery and frightening situations, but also provide information on how the horrifying and tragic events of the battle unfolded, as well as the general situation and conditions in Somalia.
Q & A Sessions: The features continue, as this section offers three Q & A sessions - one at BAFTA (Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Jason Issacs, Mark Bowden and Tom Matthews), one at the Editor's Guild (featuring editor Pietro Scalia) and one at the American Cinematheque (featuring Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer). All three of the Q & A sessions add up to a total of about 33 minutes.
Target Building Insertion: This is a multi-angle (6) feature that shows the different camera angles involved in capturing this sequence. Viewers can switch to one of 6 cameras or view all 6 at once. Production audio or commentary from the assistant director are the sound options.
Also: The film's theatrical trailer; 10 TV spots; music video; poster concept galleries and bonus trailers for "Basic" and "Tears of the Sun". Also in the box was a $5 mail-in rebate for those who purchase both the "Black Hawk Down: Special Edition" and the upcoming (6/10/03) DVD of the Bruce Willis film "Tears of the Sun".
Final Thoughts: I've recently expressed some dismay at the promotional featurettes that are found on many DVDs. It's been a while since there's been a massive DVD title that covers all aspects of a film production, and it's great to see a release again that's so immersive and informative - in this case, both in terms of the film production and the historical events behind it. The amount of features included on this three-disc set are remarkable and the quality of them are simply tremendous - there's no "press kit" type of material here. The audio and video quality is, as it was with the prior release, superb. While there was quite a wait for this release, it was certainly worth it, as this is a remarkable presentation. Very highly recommended.