The fiasco of the United States’ imperial mini-adventure in Somalia in 1993 is turned by director Ridley Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer into two-and-a-quarter hours of directionless, cacophonous, kick-ass operatics in which the overridingly big deal is that the US got all its boys out. Black Hawk Down is a post-modern Zulu Dawn — with higher cheekbones.
The scenario is that the US is gruffly attempting to shoulder the white man’s peacekeeping burden in Mogadishu, where fanatical warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed is terrorising the populace. The mission is to abduct two of his aides, a plan to be carried out by the Rangers and Delta Force, an elite group composed of only the very best-looking guys: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor. Collectively, they’re a sort of Desert Storm model agency, but there’s plausible roughage provided by chunky Tom Sizemore and lovably ugly Ewen Bremner. But when one of the Black Hawk choppers is hit, the whole thing goes pear-shaped and the only honour to be salvaged is in some kind of orderly retreat.
Scott provides us with a pure war movie, remarkable in some ways for the severity — even asceticism — of its utter concentration on deafening and relentless action. There is no back story for anyone. There is an eerie absence of political context, even when one US soldier is taken hostage by the militia, which in David O Russell’s Three Kings was the cue for a brilliantly ironic, illuminating exchange.
Nothing like that here. There is silence on the subject of what religion the locals are. All we get from opening to closing credits is guns and ammo and shooting and shouting. It has a bit of sentimental ‘Nam-style paraphernalia: Hendrix’s Voodoo Child as the choppers take off, famine-hit civilians called “skinnies” (nice touch, guys) and newcomers told to call the capital “Mog” or “The Mog”.
But even that point of reference disappears and the very strategy on the ground is obscure. At what point exactly does Sam Shepard’s grizzled general decide to abandon the plan and hightail it out of there? And whose fault is it that the US military was humiliated by this undisciplined rabble? This movie has no idea, and no interest. As one soldier says: “It’s about the man next to you; that’s all there is.” Like governor Bill Clinton in 1990, Scott supports the army, not necessarily the war.
But this is very much a movie for post-September 11 US, notionally chastened yet inexhaustibly gung-ho in its body language. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak has given Scott a great-looking movie; there’s impeccable location work and bang-up action sequences; in fact, the whole film is a 135-minute action sequence. So it’s never boring — but never all that exciting either.
Enigma, on the other hand, is more of a Boy’s Own adventure. Robert Harris’s novel about wartime codebreaking has become a handsome, if simplistic, film. No red-blooded student of history could
fail to be fascinated by the story of Bletchley Park and the Enigma code-breaking machine in World War II.
As it happens, theatregoers have for years been aware of the legendary emotional back-story to all this in the form of Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code, the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant but unhappy Station X codebreaker whose homosexuality was tolerated because of his incalculable contribution to the war effort. Harris’s best-selling novel, and this screen adaptation by Tom Stoppard, briskly abolish Turing’s role in history, ruling out any fictional variation, and effectively reclaim the Enigma story for showbusiness family values.
This is not the depressing story of suicidal cottaging boffins, but of a handsome maths whiz turned action hero, Tom Jericho, played by Dougray Scott, who is to enjoy the romantic favours of two beautiful women employed at Bletchley Park: first Saffron Burrows and then Kate Winslet. His detective work will involve an exciting chase in a classic car, a liaison at a smart West End hotel and an exploding submarine up in Scotland — light years away from the closeted realities of Bletchley Park, but it gives director Michael Apted a chance to show the form he developed on the recent James Bond extravaganza The World Is Not Enough.
The movie sets two hares running. There’s the problem of how to crack the Nazis’ devilish code, and there’s the second plot, which is the “emotional” storyline and the centre of a conspiracy far more sinister and important than breaching the armour of the Germans’ reinforced cipher system.
Winslet gives a good account of the game, go-getting Hester, Claire’s housemate. She’s a very different person from the slimline, starry, sexy Winslet on the film’s poster.
On screen she’s the bespectacled, dumpy, less attractive best friend.
The real star turn, however, is the secret service man, Wigram, brought in to investigate Claire’s disappearance. This is a marvellously enjoyable performance from Jeremy Northam, for whom Stoppard has some mouth-watering lines. He relishes every patrician flourish, every languid, feline insinuation. I would have liked to have seen more of Northam, perhaps a post-war sequel — super-spies Northam and Burrows reunited