Tuesday, January 22, 2002
There was a moment in the middle of Black Hawk Down when it dawned on me what I was watching – it was a TGF.
Those of you unfamiliar with US military slang will have to take my word for this, but it wasn’t that Friday feeling I was getting as I watched this grim depiction what it’s like to be stranded in a city where everyone’s got a gun and they all want to kill you.
What I was watching was a Total Goat Fuck. Everything that could go wrong in the film does go wrong, and it’s told without the usual sentimentality and tub-thumping bravado. We’re presented with a two-hour anti-recruiting commercial as Ridley Scott brings his technical mastery to bear on outlining the chaos of a disastrous mission to seize lieutenants of the warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid from Mogadishu in 1993
Watching this film, you know in advance that bad things are going to happen and that there’s no happy ending, so when you’re introduced to all the soldiers in the first twenty minutes, you’re already trying to work out which ones won’t be coming back.
But there’s little enough time for character development before everyone’s off into the city, afraid but committed. It’s a daylight raid into a hostile environment by a lightly-armed force with no armoured backup. The US authorities didn’t even tell the UN troops in the ‘safe’ part of the city what was planned.
The whole film gives us the point of view of the US soldiers on the ground, who as one of the militia men points out later, have no responsibility for being there, but are free to kill people.
And be killed. Things quickly fall apart as rocket propelled grenades and AK47 fire fills the sky, and from here on it’s a bloody mess. In the midst of it there are individual acts of bravery, but a much greater sense of everyone just trying to survive.
It takes a long time to come up with a plan to rescue the stranded troops, and meanwhile Tom Sizemore shines as the increasingly disillusioned lieutenant colonel who keeps being sent back and forth in his bullet-ridden Hummers in the middle of the chaos.
Most of the other members of the cast are interchangeably desperate and bloody (I bet Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting never thought they’d be reuniting to don fatigues and get shot at for Ridley Scott), but that’s fine because this isn’t about heroes, and it’s clear that chance decides who’s going to live and die amongst the Americans.
You can level criticism at the movie for not exploring the context for the attack in more detail, and you can certainly argue that the US army shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but that’s not the concern of the troops on the ground, nor of the film.
When the exhausted survivors make it to safety, there’s no time for explanations or apportioning blame, except when General Garrison goes to visit some of the wounded. One of the young soldiers he sent into the city is bleeding all over the floor, and the general bends down to wipe it up. He’s got blood on his hands.
We all know that war is about killing people, but this film is a cold-eyed and unpleasant look at what that actually means if you’re some of the people involved. Especially when you’re asked to participate in a total goat fuck.