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More Bang, Less Muck

Patient: Black Hawk Down

Profile: Movie about disastrous American military operation in Somalia that's terrific when it's about the military operation and disastrous when it's about being the kind of movie every other movie is. Think Platoon meets The Out-of-Towners meets A Bridge Too Farmeets The Warriors meets Rambo meets Wots Somalia U?Symptoms: A terrific two-hour movie that is almost two and a half hours long. Ridley Scott has produced the most amazing, sustained and character-revealing battle scenes I've seen since I doubled with Frank and Ava. Problem is that the battle scenes don't get under way for 45 minutes. In that time, we are subjected to pedestrian storytelling techniques (the call home to the wife who picks up just as the GI is hanging up, the idealist soldier) and the kind of subtle foreshadowing (soldiers told not to bring water because they won't be gone that long—et tu, Gilligan?) that usually accompanies Congolese lava flows and the Academy Awards. Then there's the rationalization for us even being there: "Three hundred thousand dead, Mr. Atto. That's not war. That's genocide!" (Note to General Self-Righteous' speechwriter: total dead in U.S. Civil War—364,511.) Diagnosis: Less talk, more rock(et launchers).
Prescription: I think it was Hemingway who said, "If you talk, you ruin it," or maybe it was Frank to Ava. The point is there are some stories, operations if you will, whose action is compelling enough to carry the movie. Consider All the President's Men. We never hear the characters talk about their lives; it's all about the work because the work is fascinating and important, and we follow them captivated even though we know how the thing turns out. Instead of a 45-minute lead-in to the battle, how about beginning with an informational scroll—quickly explaining where we are and why—and then fading into soldiers readying themselves for the mission. Instead of trying to explicate characters, show us the mood. Your movie's characters are not American soldiers; they are The American Soldier. Once the fighting starts, you make this clear, pointing out that a solider doesn't fight for geopolitics but the brother next to him, even if the brother is dead—especially if the brother is dead. That tells us a lot more than some piano-tinkle talk about girls left behind. What you end up with is a compelling two hours. Don't worry about giving us things to like about these guys; just let us see them in action. Their actions are what matter. We're going to root for them no matter what. Not just because they're American, but because it's a war story told from their perspective. Or am I the only one who rooted for the Nazis in Das Boot?


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