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BLACK HAWK DOWN
3 Disc Deluxe Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard
Director:  Ridley Scott
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  144 Minutes
Release Date:  June 3, 2003

LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND.

Film ****

There were two indelible images brought to worldwide cultural attention from Somalia in the early 90s.  The first was a photo of a starving, skeletal child (one of some 300,000 residents of the country who would die from lack of food) that prompted enough outrage to get America and the United Nations there.  The second was videotape footage of gleeful Somali dragging American soldier’s bodies through the streets.  Each image was like a bookend:  we got in, we got out.  What happened in between can be summed up by one major event that went terribly wrong for our side, and marked the beginning of the end of our involvement in that country.  Black Hawk Down is the movie that brings that event to life.

One could argue that Black Hawk Down would not have been possible without some of the great war films that came before it, but you’d also have to argue that what it ended up as was something truly unique to the genre:  a gritty, harrowing tale of a true story told without sentiment, driven by necessity and instinct rather than character, but most of all, a story that trumpets heroism better than most war films, even though it’s about a mission that failed.

Somalia, October 1993:  the United Nations had been attempting for some time to deliver food shipments to the starving masses.  They were unsuccessful.  The country was engulfed in civil war, and warlords like Mohamed Farrah Aidid actually intercepted the food and used the people’s starvation as a way to maintain their power.

A mission was planned by the United States Army to capture two of Aidid’s top men.  The details and timing were perfectly drawn out.  The men, both members of the Deltas and Rangers corps, were well-trained and ready.  Technology was on our side:  Humvees, Black Hawk helicopters, weaponry, and more.  Everything was orchestrated to the second.  Total mission time would be 30 minutes from start to completion.  Nothing could go wrong.

But everything did.  The American forces were unprepared for the resistance of the angry Somali, who reacted to the invasion with greater speed and power than they could have imagined.  Before long, two of the Black Hawks were shot down, blockades were up in the city streets, and firefighting broke out on such an intense level that troops were separated, confused, and lost.

That our boys performed as well as they did under those circumstances is as great a testament to their heart and dedication as any successful battle this country has ever fought.  18 died, 70 more were wounded, but because of their loyalty to one another and their credo “leave no man behind”, they managed to give better than they took, and many came back to fight another day.

Ridley Scott is a director I’ve had a love/hate relationship with over the years.  For every picture he made that enthralled me like Alien or Thelma and Louise, there was one that left me cold like Gladiator or Hannibal.  Black Hawk Down is, I think, his singular masterpiece…not only is it a supreme technical achievement from start to finish, but it’s a film with plenty of heart and conviction despite less focus on singular characters and more on the situation.

My favorite sequence is case in point…a lone man, wounded, fires round after round at an approaching Somali mob.  He fights well, but we see the hopelessness from his point of view:  the enemy has far more people than he has bullets.  He fires until he is out, then quietly sets his gun down, takes out his picture of his wife and kids…and waits.  For the inevitable.

Most of the battle sequences feel like real time…we are not sharing in just the danger and the excitement of war (if such a word is correct), but also the exhaustion, the fear, the sweat, the thirst…watching this movie just might be the next most harrowing experience to being there.

The cast features known names, but the picture is not about individual stories as much as the group and the group’s mentality.  Their simple code was to believe they were responsible to the man on either side.  It was a code that kept a devastating situation from becoming absolutely catastrophic.

Black Hawk Down is, in an unusual way, a celebration of courage at its best…but unlike many other films, it doesn’t celebrate it with a fist in the air and a loud cheer.  More like a bowed head, a quiet tear, and a moment of silence.

Video ****

Black Hawk Down boasts one of THE best transfers I’ve ever seen…it was an exhilarating viewing pleasure from beginning to end.  Though tones and colors were sometimes deliberately manipulated for effect by Scott and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, shot after shot rings out with incredible tone and detail.  Whether close in to the action or as far away as a helicopter’s eye-view, the sharpness and clarity are stunning.  Some of my favorite shots are the aerial ones; whether over city or ocean, I was constantly amazed at how fully dimensional and perfectly rendered every detail was.  There was no distracting grain, no evidence of compression…nothing unnatural to mar the experience.

In fact, I’ll easily say this DVD presentation is the most film-like in appearance I’ve encountered.  You’ll actually feel like you’re in a theatre with a pristine print showing.  This is what the medium is all about.

Audio ****

Rivaling the video presentation is one of the most explosive and dynamic audio mixes you’re likely to hear.  Black Hawk Down is a sonic assault from beginning to end…definitely deserving of the Oscar it scored.  The battle sequences, which are plentiful, keep you in the middle of the action as explosions, gunfire and voices come at you from all directions, but always with good balance and crossover.  The .1 channel gets plenty of overtime…if it ever rested for more than 60 seconds at a time, I couldn’t tell.  Despite the potential for chaos, this is a 5.1 mix that maintains integrity, clarity, and potency from start to finish…reference quality.

Features ****

It isn't often that I'm actually intimidated by a features package, but this three disc deluxe edition piles quality on top of quantity for an astounding DVD experience.  I'll TRY not to miss anything...

Disc One features the movie, of course, and not one, not two, but THREE audio commentaries.  The first has director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer recorded separately but edited together smoothly, and is one of the more interesting offerings to come from Scott (a great director, but not always the best when it comes to commentaries).  The second features novelist Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan.  Both tracks discuss the film and real life events, along with the ever-present spirit of making sure the story was told right.  The third track is an even better treat, as it features Task Force Ranger Veterans who were involved in the Somalia operation.  This is a wonderful listen, smoothly edited together and with subtitles on screen to indicate who is speaking where.  Rounding out the first disc are filmographies and weblinks.

Disc Two is all about the production and promotion of the film.  It starts with a 2 1/2 hour (you read that right) documentary on the making of the film, with a handy chapter index in case you want to seek out specific items.  Overall, it discusses the development of the book and script, the intense military training the cast went through, the spirit of keeping it as accurate as possible, locations and more.  Interviewees include the major actors, Bruckheimer, Scott, Bowden, Nolan and more, including the real Rangers and military advisors.  This is a well-done supplement.

There are also 8 deleted/alternate scenes with optional commentary by Scott, a video photo album from Bruckheimer, two sets of multi-angle storyboard comparisons with optional commentary (one set is called "Ridleygrams"), title design explorations with optional commentary, photo galleries, a production design archive, and a featurette on "Designing Mogadishu".  A four star features package already, and we're not finished yet!

Disc Three is all about the history.  Two television documentaries delve into the real story of the mission:  The History Channel's The True Story of Black Hawk Down runs 100 minutes, while the PBS Frontline episode "Ambush in Mogadishu" runs an hour.  Both contain actual footage and historical perspective, as well as some harsh looks at the suffering of Somalia...be warned.

There is also a mission timeline, a multi-angle sequence on the target building scene with optional assistant director commentary (you can pick one of 6 angles, or watch all of them on the screen at the same time; nicely done), plus three Q&A forums featuring Scott, Bruckheimer, the actors and others (one at BAFTA, one at the Motion Picture Editor's Guild, and one at American Cinematheque).

The third disc wraps up with a music video, poster concepts, the theatrical trailer, and 10 terrific TV spots, plus bonus trailers for Tears of the Sun and Basic.  This is as complete a features package as you could want for a DVD!

Summary:

Black Hawk Down is a terrific and completely unique movie going experience, but even more, it’s THE reference quality DVD so far for 2003.  With three full disc's worth of features and one of the best combination video and audio transfers ever burned onto a disc, not to mention one uniquely intense and powerful motion picture experience, this belongs in every collector's library.  Highly recommended.