Shell Shocker

In Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott puts you inside the clamor of combat in a way few directors ever have. For more than two of the film’s two and a half plus hours, the audience is under siege. If all it took to make a great war film was carnage and sensation, this account of the disastrous 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, that left 18 Americans and more than 500 East Africans dead would be a classic. Instead, Scott’s fanatic attention to the logistics of warfare, intended to draw us into the experience, has nearly the opposite effect: Black Hawk Down is so pounding, and so absent of vibrant characterizations, that it’s numbing. It’s a demonstration of why action alone, no matter how expert, is insufficient to shock a movie to life.

The 1993 raid, as recounted by Mark Bowden in his extensively detailed nonfiction book on which the movie is based, was the longest sustained firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War. The U.S. presence in Somalia was part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission to provide food and humanitarian aid to a starving population in the wake of a famine exacerbated by rival warlords. Tipped to the whereabouts in Mogadishu of two top aides to the egregious Mohamed Farah Aidid – who, we now know, had ties to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda – the elite Delta Force and Rangers moved in to capture them, only to face catastrophe. In an operation that was supposed to take an hour, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, two more crash-landed at the U.S. base, and a large portion of the assault force was stranded through the night under fire. Although the mission was technically a success, the unforeseen casualties led the U.S. to withdraw from Somalia.

Black Hawk Down predates current events, but it’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of Afghanistan. No one really knows how the New Patriotism will affect American movies, or even if it will; clearly Hollywood can’t go back to the flag-waving jingoism and xenophobia of WWII-era pictures (at least I hope not). In the meantime, if moviegoers want to see something gung-ho, they won’t find it in Black Hawk Down. (For one thing, the U.S. force in Somalia, unlike in Afghanistan – or the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, or Kosovo, for that matter – fought in small groups without air cover.) Scott and his screenwriters, Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian, show us just enough of the participants – including Ranger Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann (Josh Hartnett), Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight (Tom Sizemore), and Major General William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard) – to make us register their presence when the going gets tough. The film is far from free of clichés – we still get to hear from the combatants about how no one asked them to be heroes, etc. – but the cornball quotient is surprisingly low for a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Maybe Scott had a cauterizing effect on the fun guy’s usual flamboyant schmaltz. (But I do wish Bruckheimer would drop his fetish for datelining nearly every new action sequence at the bottom of the screen. Can you imagine what he would have done with High Noon?)

Up to a point, Scott’s spartan style works well – until you realize that the actors are essentially glorified cannon fodder and the battles are going to multiply without much variation. Since the movie is, deliberately, almost entirely devoid of political context, there’s no way to take in all the bloodshed except as “pure” theater. The assault isn’t souped up or turned into a passionate, Peckinpah-style ballet; it’s closer to a documentary. And yet the horrors on view are powerful enough to warrant a more profound understanding, which we never get, of who these men are. Scott is great on the grisly particulars, but there’s a blinkered quality to the picture as a whole. He doesn’t seem to recognize, for example, that it’s impossible not to perceive the conflict, however unfairly, as a kind of race war, since the Americans’ targets are all black people and the featured U.S. soldiers, with one exception, are white. I suppose it’s a tribute to what this film does give you that it makes you want more from it; most films leave you wanting less. But its stripped-down starkness, promoted as the ultimate no-frills view of warfare, is as much a liability as a benefit. It represents a particularly limiting application of hard-bitten manly values to experiences that can’t help but transcend them.

In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays the real-life mathematician John Nash, who has suffered for much of his adult life from paranoid schizophrenia and won the Nobel Prize in economics for work done early in his career. The film spans 47 years, from Nash’s entry into Princeton in 1947 as a hotshot grad student from an unpreppy, middle-class West Virginia background right through to Stockholm in 1994. Ron Howard – who directed from a script by Akiva Goldsman that sentimentalizes and often departs radically from Sylvia Nasar’s best-selling Nash biography – isn’t terribly concerned with the mathematician’s genius per se. As with Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Man Tate, Good Will Hunting, and many other movies about superintellects, he’s more interested in bringing this brain down to bite-size. A light veneer of condescension hangs over A Beautiful Mind; even though Nash’s schizophrenia is not specifically linked to his genius, the implication is that he would not have been able to achieve his intellectual breakthroughs without his intellectual derangements. That’s probably a romantic fiction. The movie is really about how Nash suffers for his gifts and is rescued by the love of a good woman – his wife, Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly. (In reality, Alicia left him at a bad point in his illness and came back to him later.) It’s also about how, give or take a Nobel or two, Nash is not all that different from you and me. Crowe brings a lumbering grace to the role – he walks with a slight stoop, his head lowered as if weighted by cogitation – but most of the time he’s so lumpish and indrawn that you’re not surprised when the filmmakers start cooking up subplots about the Defense Department and secret military operations and Russian codes. This material is presented rather ingeniously, in order to point up Nash’s delusions, but it also seems like a sop to the audience. We might not have needed such sops if the film had tried to do more than make Nash into a poster boy for the redemptive powers of loving-kindness.

Set in 1951, The Majestic is about a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey), who winds up with amnesia in a folksy Northern California coastal community where practically everybody mistakes this familiar-looking guy for a local hero who never came back from the war. His only clear memories of his past are old movies, which is fitting for a film that seems to be made up of nothing but old movies: a huge swatch of Frank Capra here, a dollop of Preston Sturges there, with a sprinkling of everything from Sunset Boulevard to The Front to The Return of Martin Guerre. (There hasn’t been this much cannibalizing since the Donner Party.) Peter himself doesn’t believe he’s the local hero, but – guess what? – thanks to his innate goodness, he becomes one anyway. Movies about the “little people” are bad enough without also trying to treat us as if we were little people, too. The Majestic, which was scripted by Michael Sloane and directed by Frank Darabont in his usual overextended mode, is about how the homespun values of clean, old-fashioned movies can uplift our lives and turn us into better people. (Movies like, say, The Majestic?) Carrey can’t be faulted for trying to bust out of his manic rubberman persona, but his “serious” performances always slip into sappiness. He was more of an artist in Dumb and Dumber, and smarter besides.

I was afraid to see The Shipping News because director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs were also the team behind Chocolat, and I’m still metabolizing the Nutra-Sweet. By comparison, their new film, based on the E. Annie Proulx novel, is almost dignified once it gets past a disastrously over-the-top opening section involving Cate Blanchett as a cruel floozie. Shot mostly in bitter, beautiful Newfoundland, where much of the story takes place, the movie has a modest but true feeling for the ways in which people are formed by the ravages of their natural surroundings. Kevin Spacey plays (rather too reticently) the damaged, sullen Quoyle, an outcast among outcasts who ventures with his daughter to his ancestral homeland and becomes entwined in the community. Included in that community, playing characters close to folkloric, are Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Scott Glenn, and Pete Postlethwaite, who are made to seem as authentic to the landscape as its outcroppings of rock.

Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, and Sam Shepard.
A Beautiful Mind
Directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.
The Majestic
Directed by Frank Darabont, starring Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, and Laurie Holden.
The Shipping News
Directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, and Judi Dench.

Photo by Sidney Baldwin

Shell Shocker