While recently sitting in my lounge discussing the current conflict in Iraq with my cousin, he mentioned the DVD of Black Hawk Down. He’d recently bought a DVD/surround setup and was eagerly entering into the financially irresponsible world of building a “collection” of movie titles, and this was one film he wanted to know more about. Was it a good film? What did it sound like? Was it worth buying?
Then he asked the question which had us talking for another two hours on the subject, “Did the story really happen?”
He said that he had no memory of ever hearing about the event on television, and that if it was such a big deal, why wasn’t it more commonly known about?
All I knew was that prior to the film, I’d never heard of the story, and that via what I had read about the making of the film, yes it did really happen back in 1993. As for why he’d never heard about it, I could only guess that, outside of America, media coverage back then was not what it is today, with journalists ’embedded’ with troops and fed the party line for nightly dissemination. Also, it was not a massive operation in the vein of Vietnam, instead being a small incursion intended to end the reign of a warlord out of control in a starving nation. Further, had the mission gone as planned, probably no-one would ever have known it happened. I could have been completely wrong on all counts, but it seemed as good a place as any to begin discussing our theories.
I’ve since discovered that most people I know who have seen this film have also wondered if the event was as depicted. This has led me to think that if just one of Bruckheimer/Scott’s goals with this film was to raise the profile of a military battle which was supposedly the fiercest since Vietnam, then it worked a treat.
Revealing the military operation to put a stranglehold on Mogadishu warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, it was planned as a 30 minute incursion to capture his top aides in order to put the squeeze on him. Almost immediately things go awry, when a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down with the pilots trapped in the crashed vehicle. With their plan thrown into chaos, the soldiers on the ground find themselves under attack from thousands of irate and heavily armed civilians. Surrounded, under constant fire and taking casualties, it would be 18 hours and 18 U.S. lives before they were brought to safety.
Scott didn’t want BHD to be a conventional Hollywood war film, and the resulting look evokes more of a documentary feel. Reminiscent of the shaky handheld camerawork from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the camera sits in amongst the soldiers as the erupting street warfare rains down death and hatred from all angles. It is this aspect, the constant full 360 degree assault on the senses, which elevates it beyond the bookended violence of SPR and creates a greater emotional drain on audiences.
Also upping the ante is the sacrifice of any significant character back end, choosing to establish the prime players in only the briefest grabs prior to getting the story proper off the ground. Of a large cast featuring young guns (three cheers for Eric Bana, three jeers for his truly God-awful accent) alongside a few who can be considered comparative heavyweights (Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard), most do well - but it’s hard to screw up when the most you have to work with for 90% of your screen time is looking scared or angry or shooting a “skinny”.
But, once the shit hits the fan, character development is thrown out the window anyway and the viewer is engaged in their very own instant loungeroom war simulation. Bullets whiz around the room like death dealing mosquitoes, choppers swing past your head and open up with the unique and unforgettable sound of their mini-guns and enemy fired RPGs promise mutilation and destruction.
There’s a sense of confusion as you watch identical looking soldiers perform their duties in different groups strewn about the city, but maybe the confusion was a deliberate part of the picture? All I know is that when one of the “good guys” dies, I normally had no idea which one he was. It’s almost as if the point of the film wasn’t to highlight the 18 U.S. casualties, but the actual battle itself, the struggle to overcome, to survive, to get their men out if it killed them.
When the end does come, over two hours later, you feel elated that they made it out, and more so that the film is finally over.
If any film wanted you to feel the nauseous nature of a violent battle, then BHD is that film. Shifting colours to greens, draining the print of colour, pushing the blacks into everything and removing shadow detail entirely at times, the 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio is stunning to watch, and perfectly evokes a sense of gritty reality, despair and confusion. Check out the interiors of the helicopters flying high above Mogadishu, the occupants barely a silhouette framed by the glaring sunlight outside. The final “Mogadishu Mile” run back to base tinted an unnatural cool blue/grey to match the opening shots, working as bookends.
The transfer itself is also just about perfect. The print is nearly flawless, with a few small blemishes so minor that they’d blend in with the grittiness on screen. And what film is more suited to grain than this one? With the dust storms kicked up by the Black Hawks blanketing the streets, the line between grain and dust is blurred and the two meld, becoming perfect partners. The film is well spaced out, with plenty of room to breathe over two layers (my player creating an unfortunately very noticeable pause between layers, hopefully yours will be better) and the flow of data off the disc generous enough to relay an artefact-free picture.
What a brilliant sounding film, well and truly immersing you in the thick of the action. The single 448kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix does everything with aplomb, impressing upon you the multi-layered cacophony that tense battles create, and then subtly moving the front soundstage back and forth to draw attention to the battle segments, or to draw focus on the dialogue. The gunfire, the sound of choppers and the use of large calibre weapons are enhanced by fantastic use of the LFE channel (some of the best LFE I’ve heard on a DVD), underlying all the sound to add a substantial and controlled weight to all of it. Integration of the surround channels is nigh on perfect, ping-ponging or slowly drifting from speaker to speaker across the room with the movements of the on-screen activity. Some sound placement beyond the speakers is fantastic, settling an effect beautifully between the front and rear channels, then drawing it slowly towards one while not neglecting the rest of the audio.
Find your sweet spot in your room, settle yourself in and be rewarded with a bravado bit of sound design. Top marks!
Black Hawk Down, now available as a 3 DVD set to replace the original single disc version, is a harrowing and emotionally taxing film, with thorough and rewarding bonus material.
The film offers up a slice of constant audio and video mayhem probably not experienced in the home cinema market before, and the two DVDs of further viewing are the perfect compliment to enhancing your appreciation of the film and your understanding of the real event.
Technically, it’s a stylish looking film with a fantastic transfer and a sonic bombardment that is well considered rather than OTT. This will be gracing countless screens as demo material, without doubt.
This easily deserves a DVDnet Gold rating, and makes the top of my 'Best DVD of 2003' list.