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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

HEARTS AND MINDS

Hollywood propatainment



Behind Enemy Lines

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: John Moore
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Now showing


Black Hawk Down

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Ridley Scott
Running time: 145 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 30

The Bosnian conflict as thrilling "Top Gun"-style action-adventure? The idea seems almost obscene in light of the ongoing Milosevic genocide trial in The Hague, but for director John Moore and his film "Behind Enemy Lines," mass graves full of executed Muslims are just so much background noise.

News photo
Owen Wilson in "Behind Enemy Lines"

"Behind Enemy Lines" is the story of how it was the gung-ho American Army -- not the cowardly paralyzed-by-politics Europeans -- who stepped into the conflict and made a difference, blowing away Serbian thugs and delivering evidence of war crimes.

No, really! Of course, French or British readers might not find this rewriting of history very amusing, given it was their peacekeeping force on the ground in Bosnia at a time when the U.S. steadfastly refused to commit ground troops. Theoretically, the film is based on a true story (in much the way that Spam is based on pigs), that of Scott O'Grady, a fighter pilot who managed to evade capture after his plane was shot down by Serbian forces in 1995.

News photo
A scene from Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down"

Of course, the real O'Grady never got into a cat-and-mouse duel with a chain-smoking Serbian sniper, nor did he play hopscotch through a web of booby-trap trip-wires. And no reports mentioned a squadron of helicopter gunships taking out a Serb battalion when they rescued him. But, hey, what's an action movie without a nick-of-time rescue by the air cavalry?

Owen Wilson -- widely praised for his writing/acting turn on "The Royal Tenenbaums" -- gets the hotshot flyboy role, pumped for action and chafing at the political constraints imposed by NATO. His commander on the aircraft carrier is a gruff admiral, played by Gene Hackman, who first upbraids his pilot for not taking his peacekeeping reconnaissance missions seriously, then agonizes over what to do when the kid's shot down. Wait for the big "yo!" moment, when Hackman goes ballistic on Euro NATO commander Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida): "I'm not gonna let that kid die out there while we sit around on this ship!"

Director Moore, who cut his teeth on video-game commercials and such, makes his feature film debut look every bit as MTV-slick as you'd expect: His quick-cut montage of a carrier in action, set to some ready-to-rock big beat, is indistinguishable from an actual U.S. military recruiting ad. Moore is certainly capable of making some high-impact action sequences -- notably, the bit in which an F-16 frantically tries to evade a number of SAM missiles -- but he also uses rapid cutting to cover up several half-baked scenes. When an entire Serbian armored battalion opens up on Wilson and a couple of helicopters hover right behind him, at a range of about 50 meters, even hyper-editing can't make us ignore how ridiculous it is that no one gets hit.

There have been several excellent films on the Bosnian conflict, most of them, no surprise, by people who saw it firsthand. But what almost all these films share -- whether it's "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" or "No Man's Land" (to be released here during Golden Week) -- is a sharp sense of the bitter irony inherent in this convoluted war. Unfortunately, Hollywood rarely does irony.

Operating on a firmer historical footing is Ridley Scott's latest, "Black Hawk Down," a gut-wrenching look at the failed U.S./U.N. intervention in Somalia in 1993. Based on the meticulously researched book by Mark Bowden, "Black Hawk Down" follows in minute-by-minute detail what happened when U.S. Special Forces tried to seize warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid from a hotel in the center of Mogadishu. The U.S. troops were set upon from all sides by hordes of Aidid's gunmen, and they took heavy casualties while trapped in the city over night, until a relief column blasted its way through. This became the bloodiest firefight involving U.S troops since the Vietnam War.

Scott's film is very good at capturing the chaos and velocity of modern urban combat, with hovering gunships and careening rocket-propelled grenades dominating the dusty, mazelike battle zone. This is no action-movie bull -- Scott aims for a jagged, concussive realism, and he largely succeeds. If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to take a spine-shattering landing from 100 meters in a 7-ton helicopter, well, this is your film. Especially in light of what's happening in Afghanistan, "Black Hawk Down" is a timely look at how U.S. Special Forces operate, the risks they take and their bravery and coherence against tremendous odds. (In Mogadishu, about 100 of them fought off literally thousands of attackers.)

And yet, it's possible to admire this film's technical excellence, while also decrying its utter lack of perspective. The tale is told entirely from the American viewpoint, while the Somalis are reduced to screaming, crazed mobs of gunmen. Anyone who's read the book would know why they were so angry -- U.S. gunships had fired missiles into a meeting of clan elders several weeks earlier, killing over 100 people -- but such crucial background info is excised from the film. Ditto for the literally hundreds of Somali civilian casualties that occurred due to promiscuous use of heavy weapons -- like Black Hawk gunships -- in an urban environment.

The reason for this selective reading of the facts is obvious: "Black Hawk Down" -- as well as "Behind Enemy Lines" -- were made with the complete cooperation of the Pentagon. In exchange for technical assistance and cool shots on real aircraft carriers and the like, the filmmakers agreed to Pentagon "advice" on the script, which generally ensures the military will not be shown in any negative light.

Hollywood argues that this relationship is necessary to make "realistic" war films, but the use of actual weaponry and tactics does not make for realism when history, honesty and accuracy fall prey to the censor's scissors. The miracle of the U.S. system is that intelligent people will voluntarily allow their films to be shaped into propaganda.



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