Black Hawk Down
30 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"Sufficiently advanced negligence is indistinguishable from malice." - Virginia Fell

December 26th, 2004. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean unleashes a violent tsunami. 50 foot waves hurtle toward Indonesia, Thailand, Sir Lanka and India. Coastal regions surrounding the Indian Ocean are devastated. Hundreds of thousands die or go missing. Millions are left homeless. As is always the case with natural disasters, the poor and the marginalised suffer the most, losing their lives, homes, possessions and/or livelihoods. When the waters recede, thousands more die due to contaminated drinking water and disease.

Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, the American weather bureau in Hawaii warns 26 countries to expect an imminent tsunami radiating from the quake's epicentre. None of the countries finally affected are deemed worthy of being notified. The Japanese weather bureau detects the quake but likewise fails to pass on its information. The Indian Air Force receives news of the quake/tsunami, but this news gets lost in bureaucracy and is not passed on. Thailand is alerted but officials dare not launch a national alert for fear of causing panic. Two years prior to the tsunami, the Inter-Governmental Oceanographic Commission predicts a possible quake/tsunami in the region and stresses the need to put in place early detection networks. Because Member States all view national tsunami warning and mitigation facilities as being "unprofitable", the Commission's cautions are ignored. Had the 2004 tsunami occurred in the Pacific Ocean, it would have been detected by the international tsunami warning system.

In the years leading up to the tsunami, environmentalists warn that the destruction of each country's "bio-shields" will exasperate the damage done by future tsunamis. They're ignored. Considered impediments to the South Asian economy, miles of coral reef are destroyed (via dynamite) and miles of coastal mangrove culled, all to make way for shipping lanes, shrimp farms, aquaculture industries and other economic choices (Thailand has lost half its mangrove cover over the past 2 decades). As predicted, areas stripped of their "natural" defences are hit the hardest by the tsunami. Where the mangrove/coral fields were left intact, no lives were lost and little damage done. To satiate economic interests, the poor, living precariously on the water's edge, are deemed a rational sacrifice. Following the tsunami, the damaged land – now "devalued" - is gobbled up by wealthy investors. The poor are pushed even further out and the strategically grabbed land reallocated for future tourism development.

Juan Bayona's "The Impossible", a film about the 2004 tsunami, bills itself as a film about "the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity". It was the "human spirit" that caused the adversity, but let's ignore that. Let's focus instead on some white tourists. They're played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, a British (?) couple who travel to Thailand with their two sons. On the way to their hotel, Watts reads some Joseph Conrad ("Heart of Darkness", "Typhoon"?), presumably because she loves symbolism. After much foreshadowing, a series of monster waves descend upon our white family. 300,000 deaths later, and the couple's son learns to be less of a jerk. The family hug and fly back to Disneyland, leaving Thailand behind. Things work out pretty well for them.

The film pretends to be about "universal goodwill", about how "tragedy brings people together". It's mostly relentlessly dehumanising. People do not matter unless they're white, the film filled with white victims and the white dispossessed. Local characters are either invisible or reduced to a couple rescue units at the bidding of white sufferers. Whilst many have complained that our foregrounded characters are white, that's not really the problem. The problem's that background characters are likewise. The fact that the vast majority of the dead, injured and displaced were Asian never registers. This has an interesting effect. In the way the film panders to white audiences whilst pretending to be about the universality of suffering, its message becomes, unconsciously, that nobody cares, and that target audiences identify only with their own. It's not economically feasible to cater to the Other. Of course it's fitting that a film about universal goodwill largely ignores the suffering of non-white characters. The real life event hinged on a similar social dismissal. A film about the plight of wealthy, vacationing Westerners which turns a blind eye to the deaths of thousands of locals perfectly sums up the lesson of the tsunami itself; they don't matter.

The film's built upon your typical Hollywood/Spielberg disaster/history movie formula ("Schindler", "Deep Impact" etc). We're reduced to being made to empathise with a handful of souls and then positioned to celebrate when our chosen few escape the fate of thousands around them. The formula works well as popcorn – it ably resorts to the usual shock tactics and horror clichés - but is also crass: we have to cheaply kill/maim others in order to engender the basest of emotions. Along the way we ourselves are dehumanised, made complicit in dehumanising those who are sacrificed for closure and our chosen few. McGregor would defend the film's racial politics by comparing criticisms levelled against it to those levelled against "Black Hawk Down". But "Down" was a sinister, similarly racist film which posited American Colonialists as victims of a historical situation in which they were precisely the victimisers, responsible for all manners of evil, namely backing brutal puppet dictators (Siad Barre et al), destabilising (and waging proxy wars with) Somlia and Ethiopia, genocide, bankrupting Somalia, manufacturing famine, assassinating revolutionary leaders, engendering untold amounts of bloodshed, arming psychos, enforcing media blackouts and waging a secret war on the democratically elected Islamic Courts Union for the specific aim of stopping any semblance of nationhood in Somalia (all at the behest of Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, Phillips etc). "Black Hawk Down's" not a defence, it's the problem.

6/10 – Generic, well acted, white-centric, self-absorbed FX porn. Needs a laugh track and Morgan Freeman giving his "Deep Impact" speech in front of a Thai Restaurant.
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