DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Black Hawk Down, Love Letter from Somalia, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, Hotel Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil, The Last King of Scotland , Blood Diamond


Title: Black Hawk Down

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 150 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company:  Columbia (Sony); Revolution Studios, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Scott Free

Director; Writer: Ridley Scott. Based on the book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden

Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer

Cast:   Josh Hartnett, William Fichter, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard

Technical: Panavision 2.35/1, Digital

Relevance to doaskdotell site: war, terrorism


   In the Jan. 2002 issue of Premiere, The Movie Magazine, Josh Harnett is quoted as follows:


“We [Americans] have a real problem of being ignorant on a lot of world politics, being so self-contained. But I think we need to pay attention to what is happening in the rest of the world, because, obviously, a lot of people are unhappy with us.”


Indeed. And now we know that the Clinton Administration’s stumble on a humanitarian aid mission to Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993, with the deaths of 19 American soldiers, and many more wounded, with one soldier kidnapped, has historical significance beyond anything most of appreciated at the time. Indeed, the militias that descended upon the troops trying to take out one warlord interfering with food shipments (already 300000 Somalis had died of a famine) had been trained by Al Qaeda, by a network already with deep ties to Osama bin Laden.


The film, shot on location in Sidi Moussa, Morocco (and looking like Mogadishu) is perhaps the most graphic war “flick” ever made. Never has so much bodily mayhem been shown without a sense of gratuitousness. At one point, a solider is shown still alive (only momentarily) with the whole bottom half of his body, below the diaphragm, missing, as in Starship Troopers or even Pieces. At another point there is makeshift major surgery on the battlefield by Sgt. Eversmann (Hartnett) and a buddy trying to stop a soldier from dying of internal bleeding. The movie has 100 minutes straight of non-stop battlefield footage.


Near the end, there is a question “why do we fight in other people’s civil wars,” when Eversmann says it isn’t just to be a hero. It seems to be for the bonding. This incident occurred a few months after the country had publicly debated gays in the military, and made much of the unit cohesion problem. Indeed, the atmosphere is monosexual, all male, and there is hardly any better film documentation of the urgency of complete trust among members of a military team in combat. Most of the time, the cohesion is tremendous and all absorbing. But there is one sequence where a somewhat less selfless soldier, complaining of deafness, starts “losing it” in ability to keep fighting.  There is also the line at one point (early on), “don’t ask.” 


Even so, Eversmann’s character (Josh Harnett) comes across as more “refined” and “civilized” than most of the other men, at one point early in the film saying that he is here “to accomplish something.” He seems to stand apart from the men he leads, almost as if he were like the Clark character out of Smallville. Is this the way this person really was, or is this how Hartnett comes across in the context of his sudden stardom? I could not tell. And, we now know that sometimes we have not choice but to fight, as outside interests (“civil wars”) will not ignore us. But them, there is the libertarian argument that if we minded our own business, everyone else would leave us alone—not sure that I agree.


The film does not completely explain the historical and political context of this incident. I think that there is an argument for a style of filmmaking that can combine more historical episodes in one film.  This is common on cable series but needs to be tried more in high-end feature films for theaters, Americans still do not understand their history, how things got to be the way they are.


On ABC “Good Morning America” Capt. John Struecker (now a chaplain) discussed the fact that warlords handed out amphetamines to the street militia, and that Americans were surprised by the size and intense hatred of the resistance. CNN and the History Channel have both prepared films on this incident. The politics of the warlords was complicated but easily exploited by those with future agendas of terrorism.


The distributor and film companies waited to the end to display their trademarks. I missed seeing the Statue of Liberty and rising scales of Columbia’s mark as the movie opened.


The 1983 film Love Letter from Somalia, directed by Frederic Mitterand (nephew of the former French president), from the point of view pf the memoirs of a gay man now in Paris separated from a lover, documents the horrendous poverty in Somalia even beforew the 1991 coup ousted pro-Soviet dictator Barre in favor of today’s warlords (including Adid). The real  low-rise and adobe-looking Mogadishu comes through with even more realism.  They don’t sell time-shares there; it is a horrible place.


Here is a good place to mention The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), from Traveling Light Films, written, produced and directed by John Gianvito, associate curator of the Harvard Film Archive, 168 Minutes, no rating (suggest a soft “R”).  This film documents the home front during and after the Persian Gulf War (Desert Shield, Desert Storm), particularly through three characters in the Santa Fe, N.M. area.  Fernanda (Thia Gonzalez), a Hispanic woman with an Egyptian husband, struggles with the disappearance and apparently hate-oriented deaths of her children from anti-Arab sentiment (note her last name); Carlos (Robert Perrea) returns from the war and is unable to find work, and in one orgy scene “in the bedroom” with two females, shows off a war-related skin rash on his thigh in a scene that is certainly disturbing rather than erotic in its explicitness. Later he will commit an on-camera rape. Finally, teenager Raphael (Dustin Scott) falls out from his conservative parents as he joins the peace movement. In one scene, his father tongue-lashes his high school teacher for putting ideas into the boy’s head. Later, in an argument, the father says that his son’s outspokenness about his beliefs won’t make any difference: the war issue is already settled in a democratic way and the politicians will do their wills.  Raphael drops out, into panhandling and drugs, but cleans up his act and becomes a model young man with the therapeutic help of an elderly woman who listens to him—and by the end he has become convincing as a peace activist once he has become clean cut, gone back to school and started earning his own way.  The movie does take advantage of plenty of chances to preach—and it doesn’t always examine the “other side” (what would be the consequences if our country stayed out of everything, as libertarians want?) If you, say, watch Norman Scharwzkopf’s archives on the History Channel you get a balanced perspective.  It is somewhat improvisatory, with snippets of footage of the Gulf War (from the Jan. 17, 1991 opening bombings on Baghdad to the Highway of Death from Kuwait into Basra), to the playings of the “our” guitar by an Iraqi (in memory of those wounded in the earlier Iran-Iraq war), to the “welcome home” parties for our troops in June 1991 (I attended the party at the Washington Monument), to the May Day party at the end.


Hotel Rwanda (United Artists/Lions Gate, 2004, dir. Terry George, 110 min, PG-13) is a large independent film shot in South Africa and actually on location in Kigali, Rwanda, in CinemaScope—a tremendous opportunity for the moviegoer.  This is a film that recalls The Killing Fields, and even The Year of Living Dangerously—all it needs is Linda Hunt. The massacre in 1994 of the Tutsi tribe by the Hutu tribe is a genocide that exceeds Bosnia, perhaps even Cambodia. The Clinton administration was already caught up in the embarrassment over Somalia, and European countries were thoroughly embarrassed by the heritage of their mercantilist colonial politics in Africa. The French, in fact, had supplied the Hutu with arms. Now Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a very conscientious, customer-service-oriented hotel manager, who painfully organizes the escape of his family and many of his guests. Nick Nolte provides a retrospect of his earlier career as a reluctant UN peacekeeper. In one critical scene, Paul urges his guests to “shame” their personal contacts into intervening internationally to save them when the European and American governments can’t. This sounds like a libertarian triumph, when government doesn’t work.


The early part of the film builds up the tension leading to violence (with the signal line “Cut the tall trees!”), and provides some good information on how the Rwanda situation developed. Apparently the Belgians in the 19th Century divided the tribes according to arbitrary characteristics. Paul will do anything—buy future favors from corrupt people in high places—to save his family, as he must when he bribes rebels to keep his family and others from being executed summarily. In one bedroom scene he tells his wife, “Family is all that matters.” How many people live out their lives this way—family is what they have to live for, nothing else, as they have no personal freedom to challenge “the system.” Hence, loyalty to blood becomes the measure of a man.


Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire (2004, California Newsreel/White Pine/CBC, dir. Peter Raymont, based on the book by Romeo Dallaire) is a documentary about a former Canadian Lt. General who led a UN peacekeeping attempt in Rwanda starting in early 1994. The film starts with an optimistic note, with the green scenery around Lake Victoria as he files into Rwanda. Quickly the situation becomes desperate. The Hutu government is determined to exterminate the Tutsi, and soon the roads are covered with rotting corpses. The UN, his own government, European countries and the Clinton Administration all fail to take his flight seriously, and soon 800000 Rwandans are dead. The Belgians, as noted, had created the problem (in anticipation of Nazi-like mentality later) and the French had exacerbated it by egging on the Hutu government. Ten years later, Dallaire visits. We see glimpses of modern luxury hotels even in a country like Rwanda, but we also see the blue stadium that held 12000 refugees living and dying in squalor. The “devil” becomes that flaw in human nature, sometimes discussed by the Pope in sermons, that can lead to exterminations of those who are different. 


The Last King of Scotland (2006, Fox Searchlight/FilmFour/DNA Films, dir. Kevin MacDonald, novel by Giles Foden, 119 min, R [very close to NC-17 in one or two scenes], UK)  When I lived in New York in the 1970s, a close friend in the Village sometimes talked about Idi Amin Dada and accurately characterized him as a “butcher.” (The other dictator as personally brutal seems to have been Pol Pot, “The Killing Fields.”) Forest Whitaker here puts on a riveting performance of psychopathic dictator who is always reversing and contradicting himself. The opposite pole is the young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who, often enough in his skivvies (open-necked to shirtless, of course) in swimming pool or bedroom scenes, looks like a skinny graduating high school teen (McAvoy was actually about 27 when this film was made) but has this overwhelming charismatic and warm personality that takes in Amin and then gets the young doctor, ironically, into peril for his own life. He is the sort of person that would have become a runaway game Jeopardy champion today, perhaps. Early on, he spins a globe and agrees with himself to go wherever his finger points, on some kind of idealistic mission, to bring medicine to the poor. It’s about 1971. (This is the “Beyond Borders” syndrome but here the doctor is even more affable.) He winds up in Uganda and is taken in as Amin’s personal physician, which soon becomes a political confidant as well. (For example, the doctor has to deal with Amin’s expulsion of Asians.) Amin simply does not realize that his young friend will be revolted by his ruthless politics as he finds out, and then carry on a masquerade in order to escape. Quickly, Amin demonstrates what seems like a homoerotic interest in the young male doctor, as in one scene where follows and he stares while Garrigan changes clothes, totally nude for a fleeting moment. The film will gradually, if partially, confirm these suspicions, even as Amin arranges a party and seems to set up his own wife to get knocked up by the young doctor, whom Amin is said to refer to as his "white monkey." (Not exactly one of the "twelve monkeys." Amin also likes to watch porn videos like "Deep Throat.") It’s all fun for him, but then it isn’t—the psychopathology again. There will be a scramble, and an attempt to arrange an abortion, but then the Entebbe hijacking hostage crisis occurs (it’s now 1976, and Garrigan never looks a day older.) Garrigan will captured and tortured in a homoerotic scene reminiscent of “Midnight Express”; his shirt is torn open, and knives and pecs hooks are applied to his chest as he is “hung.” (Of course, the same kind of thing has happened to Clark Kent a couple of times in the Smallville series.) Miraculously, one of Amin’s aides is willing to rescue him and send him along with the hostages, possibly out of the same sort of potential “romantic” attachment.  Whitaker could get the best actor Oscar this year, and McAvoy the best supporting actor.


Blood Diamond (2006, Warner Bros./Virtual Studio, dir. Edward Zwick, story by Edward Leavitt, 138 min, R, UK) has (like The Departed) Leonardo Di Caprio as a fully grown man, even to the point of un peu scraggly chest hair, and a blond descendent (the character named Danny Archer) of apartheid, actually a self-made mercenary and diamond smuggler after he was orphaned at nine in Zimbabwe. Di Caprio speaks with a South African accent, and still seems like a good guy, like maybe he could have been a CIA agent. In Sierra Leone, where rebels rule and exploit the “conflict diamond” trade, they need G-men. And there are plenty of corrupt American (or are they Belgian) military in the film. Sebastian Junger had done riveting reports on Sierra Leone in 1999, and in the film the journalist is female Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connolly). Djimon Honsou plays Solomon Vandy, the third corner of the character triangle, a fisherman sent to labor in the mines by the rebels. He finds a huge pink diamond and hides it (after a harrowing Auschwitz-like scene where other prisoners and even the kids are hacked to pieces, almost on camera). In jail (Archer can’t stay out of jail all the time) Danny hears about this, and then tracks down Solomon. If he can get the diamond and get out of the country, he can help Solomon save his family. They meet up with Maddy, who wants a good story and whose charms get them out of trouble. On the run (the movie seems to become a bit like Apocalypto, opening the same day), they clash, until at one point, in a stunning scene visually, Solomon asks Danny about having a wife and children and whether Danny ever will. Danny is not sure, and in fact never takes advantage of female companionship. (Are we to imagine that Danny Archer is gay? If so, it’s interesting to see his military and sniping skills on display all the time. He seems to be very fit, despite the depressing and annoying chain smoking.) Interesting. He would rather be a self-made man who changes his world in his own way, and at that level we accept the character. (I think Josh Hartnett could have played the role and would have given a similar effect.) We leave Danny, with a collapsing lung after a firefight, on a mountaintop where he calls the reporter in Capetown. We will not be reassured about Danny’s fate despite the fact that we like him. There will be a big secret handoff to Tony Blair in London (which becomes Maddy’s final scoop), and Stephen Collins (7th Heaven) plays the ambassador. Most of the film was shot on location in Mozambique, in Cinemascope, and in DLP the clarity and depth of the photography is stunning.


You can read the diamond industry’s account of the political problems at and the interview with Zwick here. The diamond industry’s website discusses the Kimberley Process and claims that 98% of all commercial diamonds are “conflict free.” (That is, conflict diamonds come from rebel groups like RUF.) Much of the smuggling problems in the past involved the Ivory Coast and Liberia, a country known for many things (such as the Liberian ship registry; an insurance company that I worked for in the 90s actually owned such a registry process for a while and would promote executives into it.) New York City is well known for its midtown diamond district (the subject of the novel and film “Marathon Man”) and as recently as the 1970s was very anti-gay; I knew a bartender the West Village who claimed he had been fired for being gay covertly. 

There is a book by Greg Campbell, Blood Diamonds from Westview Press, 2004. Mr. Campbell was interviewed on CNN over the 12/10/2006 weekend.

Since this film aims at consumer awareness, it bears comparison to the video documentary Black Gold, about the coffee business. But this is a very large film. I wonder if Participant could have made this film.     


Related reviews:  Pearl Harbor   Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60  Black Gold  Diamond Men


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