Yet even as Scott seems hell-bent on depicting what happened in Mogadishu in excruciating detail, he leaves out one crucial fact. In a way, this shouldn‘t be surprising, for Hollywood is notorious for expunging uncomfortable facts -- Muhammad Ali’s cruelty to Floyd Patterson in Ali, John Nash‘s bisexual escapades in A Beautiful Mind. Still, even in these terms, Scott’s omission is shockingly conspicuous. He leaves out the one moment of the Mogadishu debacle known around the world -- the TV footage of an American body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu followed by jubilant Somalis.
The reason, I think, is simple. To show this CNN moment would shatter the purity of the action by introducing the wider world -- we‘d start thinking about what surrounds the Battle of Mogadishu. And this is precisely what the filmmakers want to avoid. Black Hawk Down doesn’t want to diminish our sympathy for the U.S. soldiers by exploring how much they despised the Somalis (whom they called “Skinnies” and “Sammies”), a race-tinged hatred that the movie itself replicates: Scott portrays the people of Mogadishu as a dark, teeming, murderous swarm no more human than the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Nor does it want to raise political hackles by exploring the ineptitude of Hollywood‘s pal President Bill Clinton, who, as David Halberstam shows in War in a Time of Peace, was so busy covering his own backside that he never developed a coherent foreign or military policy in Somalia. Unless calling the Somalis “two-bit pricks” counts as a policy.
Then, too, showing an American soldier being dragged through the street is simply too raw for a Hollywood film made during wartime, especially one produced by Brigadier General Jerry Bruckheimer, who can find an upbeat ending in the bombing of Hiroshima. Black Hawk Down’s whole marketing strategy is to portray the Mogadishu calamity as a kind of triumph, a celebration of our brave fighting men and an inspirational tale for a post-911 America. The movie ends with a crawl that speaks of American strength in the world and our newfound willingness to fight for what we believe. Trouble is, nothing we‘ve seen justifies the pretense that the Mogadishu mission was anything but what it actually was: botched, foolish, fatally pointless. Throwing away the lives of brave men is never a triumph and can only be seen that way by those trying to turn their death into profits or awards.
Has there even been such an abyss between the technical ability to evoke the visceral sensations of battle and the intellectual unwillingness to think about what the battle might mean? The Thin Red Line may have been politically blind (it implied that World War II wasn’t about anything important), but Terrence Malick did offer a Buddhist vision of the “war at the heart of nature.” Apocalypse Now may have run aground on the sandbar of Marlon Brando, but it preserved Conrad‘s idea that the heart of darkness isn’t a savage, dark-skinned place but a devouring nihilism the West brings along with it.
You find no such thematic reach in Black Hawk Down, which lays bare the limitations of a “pure” war film. In the end, its muscled-up technique and anorectic storytelling make it the opposite of today‘s TV war coverage, which shows us almost nothing but endlessly rehashes each new piece of information. Scott’s clearly on the side of the working-class troops against their feckless leaders, but his cipherlike “volunteer” soldiers have none of the poignancy of the soul-haunted draftees found in the old Vietnam War footage -- except, perhaps, in one heartbreaking sense. If you asked them if they thought fighting in Mogadishu was worth it, they‘d probably still reply, “That’s what they tell us.”