Given the tensions in our world today, sitting down to watch 'Black Hawk Down' was a very different experience in late 2006 than it was when I first saw the film during its theatrical release in 2002. As a viewer, it is hard to not draw parallels between the film's somewhat fictionalized events of a daring rescue mission during the Somalia conflict and the current armed conflict in Iraqi. Certainly, it is hard to watch 'Black Hawk Down' as just another action film, or as mere entertainment.
Adapted from the novel by Mark Bowden, 'Black Hawk Down' tells the story of a downed chopper of elite soldiers forced to wage a small war in Somalia in order to escape. Based on a real-life incident, Bowden's re-telling brought fire from all sides of the political fence, as well as charges of governmental mishandling of the botched operation depicted. Substitute a chopper full of American soldiers in Somalia with our men and women fighting overseas in Iraqi, and even if the particulars are considerably different, 'Black Hawk Down' is as timely as ever, and perhaps even prescient.
So it is odd that 'Black Hawk Down' still strikes me as such an impersonal film. It seems almost impossible that director Ridley Scott could make such a generic film out of a story that should have been anything but. Perhaps 'Black Hawk Down' continues to ring hollow for me because it feels less like the work of a director truly interested in illuminating the material than it does an excuse for him to at last make his "war movie."
To be fair, much of my problem with 'Black Hawk Down' exists at the script level. With the Somalians in the film depicted as little more than repositories for gunfire, it is up to a cast of over 30 principals and their supporting cast to somehow bring human focus and drama to the story. Unfortunately, there is little differentiation made in the film between characters. And though he is ostensibly the lead, Josh Hartnett again fails to register as a strong presence onscreen -- as in 'Pearl Harbor,' his subdued demeanor and pug-dog expressions just can't sustain a two hour-plus epic. Also a bit overboard was the choice to cast what seems like every even semi-recognizable male actor in Hollywood, even in the smallest parts. Watching the film soon becomes almost like a party game of "spot the cameo." Look, there's Ewan McGregor! Orlando Bloom! Jeremy Piven! Eric Bana! I know such a complaint may sound childish, but I couldn't help but feel that 'Black Hawk Down' would have been much more effective with unknowns cast in the major parts instead of recognizable stars, because the men involved in the real-life incident remain faceless.
Having said all that, I'm sure many will enjoy 'Black Hawk Down.' As filmed by Scott, and produced by action uber-meister Jerry Bruckheimer, 'Black Hawk Down' is certainly a visual and aural assault of a motion picture. The spectacle is impressive, and all of Scott's trademark visual finesse is ably on display. Choppers crash, bullets whiz all around, soldiers scream indecipherable commands at each other and copious amounts of blood is spewed. But that just wasn't enough for me. What's missing is a real sense of perspective on the conflict that could have elevated the film to be more than a mere hi-tech video game. Given what little we know of the men, the brief platitudes offered by the script and the lack of political context left me numb -- I've already seen this war carnival of horrors before. And it's too bad no one involved in making the movie was courageous enough to take a stand on the real issues behind this "military mishap" -- Scott and Bruckheimer resist coming to any conclusions. Against all odds, 'Black Hawk Down' is just another big, violent and noisy war film.
It is perhaps ironic that one of my biggest complaints about 'Black Hawk Down' as a film is actually what makes it so perfect for the home theater environment. Too much spectacle and not enough substance is exactly what we want in high-def demo material. 'Black Hawk Down' is also making its Blu-ray debut under the weight of considerable expectations. Sony's second BD-50 dual-layer disc to hit store shelves (after 'Click'), 'Black Hawk Down' just has to look and sound absolutely superb or risk greatly disappointing the format's faithful. Luckily, it does. (Note that 'Black Hawk Down' was released on standard-def DVD in a 153-minute "Extended Cut" version that included nine minutes of additional material. Sony has elected not to offer that version here; instead, the Blu-ray features the 144-minute theatrical version of the film only.)
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p/MPEG-2 video, I actually wasn't expecting 'Black Hawk Down' to look this good. I'm not as intimately familiar with the film as its many fans, so I just pictured a very grainy, jacked-up image that would look like an overdone MTV music video. While the film does have elements of considerable stylization, it really packs a great deal of visual punch on Blu-ray, so much so that I would indeed say it is in the upper strata of transfers I've yet seen on the format.
The opening moments of 'Black Hawk Down,' however, did not exactly inspire confidence. The first few shots of the film are bathed in deep blue, and so dark, grainy/noisy and just plain ugly to look at that I immediately feared the worse. Thankfully, the quality of this brief intro is the exception rather than the rule. 'Black Hawk Down' is consistently three-dimensional and striking on Blu-ray. Yes, the film is quite processed -- colors are tweaked to high heaven to give the intended stylistic effect (heavy orange filters in daylight, impossibly deep blues and greens at night, etc.) and contrast is definitely on the "hot" side -- yet, the level of detail maintained throughout left me impressed. Even with such overt visual panache, minor details are noticeable. These are some of the sweatiest soldiers I've ever seen in a film, and you can see just about ever bead of it here. Colors, too, are nice and stable and surprisingly free of chroma noise or fuzziness.
Other aspects of the transfer may be up for a bit more debate. The grayscale seems to fall of a bit sharply on the dark end, at least for my taste. Shadow delineation can appear a bit less than would be ideal in many shots, with fine detail lost to the murky blacks. However, again, I have no knowledge of what the master does and should look like, so this could be intentional. Also, the film is somewhat inconsistent on its own, so grain and splotches of what appears to be noise do pop up at times. Nothing severe, and this is a very stable image indeed, but nitpickers will undoubtedly find a few select shots to harp on. But without a doubt, this is another strong battle cry for the BD-50 -- it is hard to imagine 'Black Hawk Down' could have looked this good had it been crammed on a single-layer Blu-ray disc.
Those with any nitpicks about the video of 'Black Hawk Down' surely can't complain about its audio -- this one is absolutely a stunner. I have little doubt that the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track on this disc easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best soundtracks I've heard on either next-gen format. It also helps that the film's sound design is so impeccable -- 'Black Hawk Down' didn't win the Academy Award for Best Sound for nothing.
This is as highly aggressive a mix as you would expect. In fact, it may be the most consistently engaging and just plain loud soundtrack as I've ever heard, with nary a dull moment throughout. Dynamic range is generally incredible, with expansive separation between all channels that creates a fully-enveloping and lifelike soundfield. Dialogue is generally spread across the entire front soundstage, with effects directed to every speaker, and even some of the operatic elements of the score are continually deployed to the rears. Discrete effects are almost constant and amazingly lifelike, with imaging seamless and transparent. And talk about incredible low-end -- this is one soundtrack that, if played at a decent volume, you really feel in the gut. Lastly, the attention to balance between the music, effects an dialogue really surprised me. I was initially worried I wouldn't be able to tell what anyone was saying amid the gunfire, but this mix is quite impressive in how clean and clear dialogue is rendered. 'Black Hawk Down' is about as good as it gets in high-def audio.
Getting to the supplements of 'Black Hawk Down,' there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that this is a pioneering title for Blu-ray, the format's first "Blu-Wizard" enhanced release. The authoring environment promises an unprecedented level of interactivity, including the ability to "program" the way you want to watch your supplement content (more on this later in the "HD Bonus Content" section below). Unfortunately, the bad news is that the actual amount of supplemental material included on the Blu-ray version of 'Black Hawk Down' is considerably less than can be found on the standard-def DVD three-disc set Sony released back in 2003. Yes, we get the main commentaries and complete 151-minute making-of documentary, but lost are deleted scenes, tons of additional behind-the-scenes vignettes and additional historical documentaries.
That said, the material here is very, very good in its own right. Not one but three audio commentaries are offered: the first with director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer; the second with novelist Mark Bowden and screenwriter Ken Nolan, and the third featuring real-life Task Force Ranger veterans. Oddly, I found the Scott and Bruckheimer commentary the most ordinary, perhaps because I've heard so many of these filmmaker tracks I couldn't help but be slightly bored. Certainly, though, Scott (who dominates) and Bruckheimer are informative. They cover all the expected bases, from casting to working on location to the often rigorous production challenges in staging a totally realistic war film. Scott is also eloquent on his feelings about the real-life conflict depicted in the film, and how it affected his narrative and visual style. These strands are carried over to the writer's track, which focuses even more on the reality behind the fiction, and the various trimming and compressing Bowden had to do in order to compress his sprawling story into a digestible film. Surprisingly (given the subject mater), Bowden and Nolan are quite upbeat, even chipper, at least compared the more solemn Scott and Bruckheimer. Saving the best for last, the Task Force Ranger track is really the most fascinating, if only because we share in a side of moviemaking rarely discussed. With great authority, they speak about what elements in the film differed from real life, or were outright fabrications. Yet they remain respectful and thankful to the filmmakers, and ultimately pay tribute to what they bill as a very accurate depiction of one very controversial incident. If you have the time, don't skip this track.
The "only" other feature on the disc is the 151-minute documentary "The Essence of Combat: Making 'Black Hawk Down.'" But what a documentary it is! Running even longer than the film, it is divided into six parts -- "Getting It Right" (23 minutes), "Crash Course" (30 minutes), "Battlefield: Morocco" (30 minutes), "Hymn To The Fallen," aka composing the film's score (18 minutes), "Digital Warriors" (25 minutes) and "After Action Report" (25 minutes). How to find fault with a doc as comprehensive as this? You can't. "The Essence of Combat" reminds of my favorite DVD docs, such as "Under Pressure: The Making of 'The Abyss'" and "Terror Takes Shape: Making 'The Thing.'" Utterly thorough, flush with behind-the-scenes footage and featuring interviews with just about every major player involved with 'Black Hawk Down,' just about everything you want to know about is here. I was also impressed with the amount of time spent talking with screenwriter Nolan, chronicling the pre-film "boot camp" the actors went through, Hans Zimmer's score, and yet more interviews with real-life Task Force members. Sure, 151 minutes is a considerable time commitment to make for a DVD extras, but "The Essence of Combat" is certainly worth it.
Once again, Sony has not included any theatrical trailers or other promo materials. Seeing as this is a BD-50 disc, you would think there would have been room?
I can't say that I'm a huge fan of 'Black Hawk Down,' but then if you're reading this, you probably could care less what I think and just want to know if this disc rocks or not. Don't worry -- it does. The video is very strong and the soundtrack is awesome. Oddly, given that this Sony's flagship BD-50 dual-layer Blu-ray release, it is the supplements that are somewhat slimmer than expected. However, the format's Blu-Wizard technology is promising, so if nothing else, you gotta check this one out just for a taste of what Blu-ray is capable of.