Being There

All guts in Black Hawk Down; no glory in The Shipping News.

| January 24, 2002

The hype Black Hawk Down has received is well-deserved. This is a film that hangs on, right at your gut.

Black Hawk Down is based on actual events that occurred in Somalia in 1993. A civil war has left the country's citizens starved. Marines are brought in to see that humanitarian supplies reach the intended target. After the Marines depart, a Somali warlord resumes stealing the supplies. The remaining peacekeepers, a small group of Rangers and members of Delta Force, are sent on a mission to capture the warlord and his top lieutenant. The mission immediately devolves into the worst kind of chaos, so the soldiers' aim changes from getting the warlord to getting themselves and everybody they brought with them out.

The tensions are set early: chest-beating among the Rangers and the Delta Force, squabbles between soldiers and their superiors, the question of American soldiers in Africa. And then all that dissolves in the melee of gunfire and the rush of angry Somalis after two Black Hawk helicopters (of the title) crash. None of that matters within the tangle of fear and blood and bullets.

Sentiment -- though heroics and purpose are given lip service -- is largely ignored for something more visceral -- survival. These soldiers start out on an almost workaday assignment. They're told what to do, and they do it. They're scared, sure, but certainly not prepared for the horror that meets them. One man squeals, "They're shooting at us!" His superior responds with irritation, "Well, shoot back." In one scene, a helicopter hovers over a mob of Somalis making its way to a downed helicopter and its captive occupants. The Rangers are on their way, but no amount of good, American know-how can out-step the crowd, and no amount of wishing can save the injured pilot surrounded by those who see his value as an American.

Of the cast -- Josh Hartnett, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, among others -- no single performance stands out. It all works toward the feel of teamwork. That these men are in this mess together, pride be damned. Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Hannibal), through little talk and a lot of action, has achieved something rather remarkable in films these days: honesty.

When the word is spoken in The Shipping News, you know it's time to pack it up and go home. There's nothing more to see here, except more of the same, and that same, while not flat-out awful, is tainted by that word -- magic.

The film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, is about a man who returns to his ancestral home to find what made him who he is. Kevin Spacey stars as Quoyle -- no first name necessary -- who has lived his life suffering from the disappointments of others. His father was cruel to him and his wife was crueler. They both die at approximately the same time, and with their demises comes the arrival of Aunt Agnis (Judi Dench). She's moving back to Newfoundland and persuades her nephew and his young daughter to return with her. And so Quoyle, a man whose recurring dream is about drowning, moves to a place where everybody has a boat and into his forebears' house that leaks and groans with the wind and the past.

Quoyle, a former inksetter, gets a job as a journalist at the local paper because the publisher has a "feeling" about him. The publisher turns out to be right. Quoyle has a nose for prose and one-ups the managing editor. Feeding his new self-esteem is his girlfriend, who is a little less sad than he is, a woman who goes by the name of Wavey (Julianne Moore). But Quoyle isn't home free, as it were. He's in Newfoundland by destiny to discover those deep, dark family secrets.

Those secrets, it turns out, are deeper and darker than most, but director Lasse Hallstrîm metes them out in a matter-of-fact way that is chillier than Newfoundland's weather. Hallstrîm seems more interested in the setting than in the drama. His small town is filled with quirkier-than-thou sorts who believe in premonitions and karma and cut their words short and find some way to work a "d" sound into every syllable. Spacey plays it soft-spoken, a no-brainer performance for him. Moore, for her part, is way too physically elegant to play such a sad sack, while Dench is almost a non-presence, popping up from time to time to spit out a bit of angry wisdom.

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