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Black Hawk Down Print E-mail
Monday, 01 May 2006

Image In 1993, what a Black Hawk helicopter was and the significance of one being downed was virtually unknown. “Black Hawk Down” depicts the harrowing events of October 1993. During a well-planned seek and capture mission in Somalia, one of the powerful Black Hawk support helicopters is shot down. As groups of soldiers head to the crash site, things proceed to go horribly awry, and the separated group of lost and confused Rangers try to make their way back to base while fighting off vengeful mobs of highly armed native militia.

“Black Hawk Down” is a gripping, frequently terrifying illumination of little-known recent history. It frequently plays like an update of "Zulu Dawn" as the scattered soldiers are besieged by thousands of furious, machine gun toting Africans. Moment-to-moment reality is the focus here, and the well-chosen settings and atmosphere of human confusion only amplify the believability of the enacted events. The storytelling and focus are fairly diffuse, almost by necessity, given the number of soldiers involved. The cast, character actors and familiar faces, helps make the events and personnel more involving, but the fates of some of them are still a little vague at the fade-out.

The film shows what good work Jerry Bruckheimer’s gargantuan production entity can do if given a good script, a fine director, and material that benefits from its largesse. To accurately capture the events of “Black Hawk Down” required a huge budget and ample production resources, and the level of believability and authenticity achieved is quite an accomplishment.

Adding to the film’s realism is the script’s lack of larger character arcs; instead, it focuses on the characters’ moment-to-moment needs and the casual acts of heroism performed out of sheer necessity. Despite the chaos around the characters, your sense of them performing together as members of a team is highly convincing. On the downside, some of the international cast’s dodgy American accents occasionally distract and there are moments of character building early on that are a tad obvious and clichéd. The epilogue features a distracting, unsubtle speech from Eric Bana’s character, which pushes a message too heavily.

There are several haunting images within the film—Sam Shepard’s general trying to swab up pools of blood in the medical tent (echoing the deleted battle aftermath scene from “Gladiator”), the cloth-wrapped bodies of starvation victims in the beginning, the Pakistani soldiers emerging from the dust with trays of water, the image of children playing on the downed helicopter—that give the film a richness and lingering power that stay with you after the incidental events of the film have passed from memory.

Sony’s Blu-ray disc is a demo-quality release, a high caliber treatment of a visually and aurally demanding film. Ridley Scott is a director with a keen visual sense—his compositions and lighting (as executed by director of photography Slawomir Idziak) are often beautiful, stylish, and sometimes painterly. It’s one beautifully-produced image after another, at 30 frames-per-second. Scott’s style has its hallmarks, but the overall look changes with each film to match the material. The imagery is densely saturated and has been pushed to convey a warmer and darker palette. Blood here is darker, blacks are denser and there’s an intentional yellow/greenish aura to the film and grainy film stock used in a few sequences for effect. While it fits the film and its locale, it’s a familiar look, used by producer Bruckheimer in several other pictures (“Con Air,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Bad Boys II” to name a few), so it does raise the question about who dictated the style of imagery.

The Blu-ray transfer is an exemplary record of the film’s intended look and style. Blacks are dense, with occasionally impenetrable shadows, and colors are accurately conveyed. Grain is visible only when it’s an intended part of the imagery, and the level of sharpness and clarity is impressive. Nearly every shot is jam packed with miniscule details. It’s a chaotic film, and though the characters are constantly surrounded by explosions, atomized debris and orange dust, the high definition resolution of the Blu-ray is able to showcase this in all its fine detail. There are acres of sweaty skin on display, and the transfer is sharp enough that one can count the droplets.

The uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound is crisp and intense. It’s a dense, punishing mix, layered with detail, full of effective surround presence and thundering bass. Helicopters, gunfire and scattering debris rain throughout all the channels, which creates quite an enveloping experience. Explosions are given a great degree of impact in the subwoofer channel. Despite the heavy layering and omnipresence of the sound effects track, dialogue is always clean and intelligible and the film’s volume level is consistent throughout.

There are six “Essence of Combat” featurettes, all in standard definition, which run just over two-and-a-half hours and do a nice job of covering the background of the actual battle, actor combat training, production, digital effects, music and reflections on the intentions of the filmmakers. The digital effects featurette should probably be avoided for those that don’t want all the magician’s secrets revealed. There’s a strong sense of realism and verisimilitude in “Black Hawk Down” and this featurette’s dissection of how various invisible effects shots were achieved weakens the film’s illusions. The featurettes include all the primary cast and main participants in the production, but some are repetitive. The same points tend to be stated and restated a few times more than necessary. The three commentaries are solid, particularly the ones by members of the actual Special Forces team members depicted in the film. Their perspective on what it was like to be in the middle of the actual events is invaluable, and they discuss where the film veers from reality. Ridley Scott’s commentary is informative from a production standpoint, with Scott providing the lion’s share of the discussion. Jerry Bruckheimer brings a historical perspective, shedding light on the actual battle, the events that lead up to it and its aftermath. The extras while limited in number are fairly substantial--there’ are just under 10 hours of bonus material to experience. Unless you’re waiting on a Blu-ray issue of the extended version, this disc should suffice, for its stellar aural and visual presentation alone.

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