BLACK HAWK DOWN
March 22nd, 2004
Reviewed by Christopher Wehner
Ken Nolan has been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for over ten years (he arrived in 1990). He has sold three spec screenplays that have not been produced yet. BLACK HAWK DOWN is his first produced script.
In William Goldman’s book "Which Lie Did I Tell?" he has a short section titled "Because the people are alive." In it he recalls an event right after he had written his script for A BRIDGE TOO FAR in 1976 or about. A true story centering on the awful battle of Arnhem during World War II. One of the characters, almost all of which were based on real people, was a thirty-one year old British Captain named John Frost who years later became a general. After finishing the screenplay Goldman received a message from Frost asking that they meet for lunch. Goldman graciously accepted the offer. Goldman beautiful recants how during the meeting this shaken war hero was gravely concerned about a sentence of dialogue in the movie. (A sentence of dialogue!) There is a wonderful scene in the movie where the British are pinned down in the town, they are bloodied, battered and on the verge of collapseŚnot to mention surrounded. The German commander approaches with a white flag and asks simply, "Surrender." (This actually happened by the way.) And in the script Anthony Hopkins (who plays Frost) considers this and in a typical British response says they don’t have enough room to take all of the them hostage, so therefore they cannot accept their request to surrender. (Once again, this actually happened). Frost was upset because he was not the one who spoke the line and was therefore terribly concerned that people will think he influenced the writing. So he wanted it changed. If you’ve seen the movie you know Goldman of course changed it to another soldier standing with Frost. Goldman went on to say that never again will he write another factual movie where the people are still alive. There will always, inevitably, be things that will come across the wrong way and hurt those who were there. Even just a single line of dialogue. I think Goldman is wise.
In my WE WERE SOLDIERS review I mentioned that I couldn’t even begin to imagine how truly difficult it must be to write about such factual and horrific events as depicted in that script. BLACK HAWK DOWN is another example. Reconstructing a factual story where those who experienced it and the loved ones of those who died during it, must take a toll on the writer. I would think the results would be a lot of sleepless nights. As a screenwriter your job to weave an entertaining story and as a human being your responsibility is to try and take as few liberties with the true events as possible. Sometimes liberties probably have to be taken. Timelines have to be compressed and characters condensed. Sometimes many characters have to be folded into one. I think Randall Wallace said it best in his letter to the families of the soldiers depicted in his movie. Something to the effect that his movie, the men portrayed in it, are representative of all of those who were there as not every one of them could be singled out. It would of course be impossible to do in a two-hour movie.
So right away recognition to the author of the book BLACK HAWK DOWN, Mark Bowden, and the accredited screenwriter of the film, Ken Nolan, must be given. The movie was directed by Ridley Scott, and will star Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, and Ewan McGregor, among others.
War is hell. A growing theme in the war movies of today is the desire by the filmmakers to show us, up close and personal, just how hellish war really is. Why is this? Perhaps it’s as simple an explanation as, "because they can."
BLACK HAWK DOWN is the true story of the longest sustained ground battle involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War.
The story deals with a force of about 100 elite American Delta and Ranger troops who are dropped into Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3rd, 1993, to abduct two lieutenants of Somalian warlord Farrah Aidid. In the course of a bloody and long battle, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are shot down (hence the name). A quick and simple in-and-out job of what should have been 30 minutes lasts 15 hours, and resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers, 73 wounded, and hundreds (maybe thousands) of Somalian's killed.
Like the battles of Vietnam, these soldiers were dropped into a hot LZ with the first order of business to secure a defensive position while parts of the force swept a near-by building searching for the targets. However, very quickly everything goes terribly wrong.
The Mogadishu armed militia used a weed-like substance called "Khat" on some kind of a ritual daily cycle. These clans are fearless and extremely reckless when on this drug. They also aren’t just throwing sticks and rocks, they have machine guns, rockets, and ride around in what are called "Technicals." Which are best described as something out of a MAD MAX movie. Converted cars and trucks, with guns mounted on top.
At first our troops were sent in as apart of a UN peace keeping mission. But the mission was anything but a peace keeping one in a hostile land full of armed belligerents. And unfortunately we sent in undermanned and outgunned soldiers to do their jobs.
The second Black Hawk shot down was piloted by Mike Durant (Ron Eldard). The Delta troops were portrayed as cocky and arrogant, while the Rangers represented the typical clean-cut American solider. The two groups quite didn't get along at first. But once the fighting started they had to depend on each other, and respect one another, and the script really captured that aspect of these characters.
Two Delta soldiers would ultimately die while saving Durant. The badly injured Durant would be captured, nearly torn to pieces by an angry mod, and held captive until his release days after the battle.
As the trapped soldiers and downed helicopters are left stranded all rescue attempts fail in the hours after the attack. One such attempt was lead by U.S. Army Lt. Col. McKnight (Tom Sizemore) who tried to battle through the streets of Mogadishu in Humvees. They would be forced back in what are some of the most hellish scenes in the script. Night comes and then the final rescue attempt with the aid of armored vehicles and additional forces from other UN countries.
The shooting script for BLACK HAWK DOWN is at times very confusing as the story involves a lot of soldiers and details that it nearly becomes a victim of circumstance. It’s problematic. But the story is so relentless, consuming, and draining because the narrative places you right in the middle of the action. It’s vivid and real in the script.
Once the battle starts the action is relentless. Maybe too relentless, but that’s how war is, and that’s how it’s presented. There is really only one sequence where you get to catch your breath. But even that seen is evoking such a high level of emotion that psychologically I wonder if an audience will be able to "digest" everything that is happening. The scenes blur into one and never seem to add up to more than another soldier dying and usually in a horrific way. Once again, it’s brutal, but that’s war.
The story evokes emotion through the portrayal of these horrific events. Regardless of who it is on the screen and whether you know who the character is, you’ll feel their fear. I guarantee it. However, unlike the early draft I read the shooting script does a much nicer job of capturing some of the main characters for us. What I mean is, we get better visceral references of the different characters before the action starts. One solider tries to call his wife before, but just missing her, and another gives a "death letter" to a friend in case of the unfortunate, one soldier is a prankster, one is visibly scared, and yet another is fresh in from the world and ready to "kick ass." And unlike the early draft, the shooting script has a focus, a center. The character of "Eversmann" (Josh Hartnett) is more dominate in the story and is fleshed out more. There’s more substance to him and during the action we follow him more than anyone else. This gives the audience a character that they can focus on no matter how confusing any of the other storylines might be. And in this draft the battle sequences are tightened up and the confusion should be minimal for the audience. There is some excellent writing in this script.
Eversmann at times represents the moral center. He sums up why they are there: "Look these people, they have no jobs, no food, no education, no future. I just figure we have two things we can do, we can either help, or sit back and watch the country destroy itself on CNN. Right?" (This dialogue is in the earlier draft, though it’s a little differently worded and not nearly as effective.) When they go into battle it will be his first time as a "chalk" leader. He’s confident, but nervous, and doesn’t want to screw up. He’s a very identifiable character and someone the audience can connect with, even when the fighting is insane.
One of my main problems with the earlier draft was the way it ended. It didn’t really seem to come full circle. This script comes full circle. The beginning is completely different and offers some background for what is about to happen. And the ending really sums it all up and ties it together. There is more of a sense of closure.
The script still fails to take any kind of a stance, and I’m not sure it’s needed. The shooting script is reminiscent of Wallace’s writing on WE WERE SOLDIERS in that this is a story about the men, not so much the politics and the environment that causes the event. Though interestingly enough the political and social conditions of the country are touched on in an early scene where U.S. soldiers capture one of Farrah Aidid’s men. When he is interrogated by General Garrison he brings up issues that we as Americans would probably agree with. Things about the nature of the war, the country, and why we shouldn’t be involved. That scene really hints at the error of our policies and takes a jab at the United States’ as World Police. It’s apparent now that adding any more of these outside elements would have thrown the story off center and made it more about the "external" events rather than the "internal" events. It’s about the men, not the policies.
Where the early draft was largely unmemorable for various reasons, the shooting script is vivid, coherent and effective. The events of that day are iniquitous and unthinkable, and always will be. The shooting script is focused. Whether or not that’s Steven Zaillain’s influence I do not know, as he did do some unaccredited rewrites. But what is sure is that Ken Nolan tackled an enormous subject and in the end has captured the essence of it in a dramatic and thought provoking way.