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[] WPO 16.1.02: Hollywood's 21-Gun Salute,

Washington Post
January 16, 2002
Pg. C1

Hollywood's 21-Gun Salute

Washington Brass Help Trumpet 'Black Hawk Down'

By Roxanne Roberts, Washington Post Staff Writer

War is hell. Soldiers are heroes. That's the essence of combat and the essence of "Black Hawk Down," which had its red-carpet premiere last night in Washington.

"It's a powerful film," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. "I think it's good for this time. It reminds people what it's all about."

This is a message movie, the essence being that the 1993 mission in Somalia was much more than a ignominious fiasco that killed 19 American soldiers.

But the message last night was "This movie is a Big Deal." To underscore the point, the Uptown Theatre was filled with a top-brass audience of 800 that included Vice President and Lynne Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Army Secretary Tom White, Tipper Gore, former Marine Oliver North, actor/heartthrob Josh Hartnett, the film's Academy Award-winning director Ridley Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Sony Chairman Howard Stringer.

The spit-and-polish premiere signaled that the film deserves all the Oscar buzz zipping around Hollywood. It was released in New York and Los Angeles in late December -- making it eligible for this year's Academy Awards -- and will open nationwide on Friday.

"Black Hawk Down" was written and filmed long before the Sept. 11 attacks created a renewed respect for the military, but it fits neatly into the zeitgeist. "I think it will benefit from the U.S. activity in Afghanistan," said Stringer, who was seeing the film for a fifth time. "It will give audiences a sense of what contemporary warfare is all about."

The movie tells the story of the U.S. soldiers sent to Mogadishu, Somalia, as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Their goal was to capture Somali rebel leaders in an attempt to curb the civil war and resulting famine in the country. After two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers were trapped in the city and awaiting rescue for their wounded comrades.

The lingering image of that mission was played on the evening news: two dead Americans stripped and dragged through the streets by Somali mobs. (That horror is foreshadowed but not depicted in the movie.) A total of 19 American soldiers died, and 73 were wounded. Afterward, politicians here pointed to the tragedy every time U.S. troops were drawn into another international conflict.

But the movie paints a more complex picture: Yes, the troops were overpowered and underequipped, as is depicted in bloody and relentless scene after scene. But to the soldiers involved, it was one of their finest hours; they believe they fought valiantly under impossible circumstances. The film is intended to serve as a memorial to those who fought and died.

"I think this movie pays the proper tribute to them," said retired Army Col. Lee Van Arsdale, who served as a technical adviser for the film.

Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Jeff McLaughlin, who fought in Somalia, was viewing the movie for the third time. "The first time I saw it, it was rather emotional. I still have moments when the hair stands up on the back of my neck. There is Hollywoodism in it," he said, "but it's pretty authentic."

The script is based on the book "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden. The film has plenty of Hollywood clout behind it: Bruckheimer produced "Pearl Harbor," "Armageddon" and "Flashdance." Scott directed "Gladiator" (which nabbed last year's Oscar for Best Picture), "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Thelma and Louise." And it stars Hartnett, Hollywood's latest "It" boy.

"Josh!! Over here!" Hartnett was the only VIP greeted with squeals from the fans outside the theater, all of which came from a phalanx of adoring teenage girls. The 23-year-old actor was gracious, signing autographs and shaking hands with fans until he was dragged back into the long line of cameras and reporters.

"We just need to be aware of what we're doing in the world," he said, declaring "Black Hawk" a "very important film."

It's also got the military seal of approval. Last night, Rumsfeld declared it "powerful." The Defense Department threw its technical support behind the film; actors were trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Bragg, N.C. Scott was determined to get the details right and hired two military advisers who were on the scene in 1993: Col. Thomas Matthews, who served as the air mission commander, and Van Arsdale, the officer who headed the rescue team. (Matthews was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his valor; Van Arsdale received the Silver Star and Purple Heart.)

So the Washington premiere was a bona fide Event. Yesterday afternoon, Scott, Bruckheimer and military experts participated in a panel discussion at the National Press Club. The premiere itself was held at what many consider Washington's best movie theater and was followed by a party at Sequoia Restaurant.

The screening opened with remarks by all the movie folk saying lovely things about the film -- as movie folk are wont to do -- then got a nod from the secretary of the Army.

Some of the story, White admitted, had been altered slightly for dramatic effect. "But the values portrayed here are absolutely authentic," he said.

We're talking valor, courage and reluctant heroes -- which left the audience sobered but very proud. The movie ends with Hartnett's character speaking to a fallen comrade: "Nobody asks to be a hero," he says. "It just sometimes works out that way."

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