The starvation of 300,000 Somalis in a land torn by centuries of tribal war brought us into a highly controversial peacekeeping mission – sending U.S. forces on a combat assignment in a foreign land. The debate reached boiling point when a black hawk helicopter went down in the middle of a firefight. Beyond a headline on the front page and a piece on the nightly news, I can hardly remember the incident. The death of 19 U.S. soldiers in Somalia on Oct. 3, 1993 was for me – safely far removed – a footnote of history. And probably would have remained so if not for Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.”

As the film begins, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid has put a strangle hold on foreign aid. Army Rangers and Delta Force plan to enter a building in the hostile zone of the capital city Mogadishu to capture two of Aidid’s top lieutenants in the hope of whittling away his power. If the coordinated attack goes to plan, the mission is scheduled to last, at the most, 45 minutes.

Four groups or “chalks” of Army Rangers surround the target building while a Delta Force extraction unit goes inside. Waiting to back them up is a column of six Humvees and a flat bed truck on which they will load the prisoners. A team of black hawk helicopters drops the insertion team and then circle overhead providing cover fire.

When one of the choppers narrowly misses a shoulder-fired-rocket, sending a soldier falling from the sky, the first in a series of escalating troubles begins. When a rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) strikes another black hawk, the mission objective is drastically changed. Refusing to leave men behind, the chalks are soon diverted to the crash site to look for survivors. It is a race against time and overwhelming odds as thousands of heavily armed and hostile civilians turn the city into a deadly hornet’s nest.

“Black Hawk Down” is not for the tame of heart. Like the first half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan,” a substantial portion of this film is spent on the front lines, hidden behind blown-out vehicles or makeshift redoubts in the infrastructures of decimated buildings.

Scott is wise to avoid going in-depth with only one or two characters; at their core they are soldiers who think and act as one, doing their duty for their country, and, as we learn, ultimately for each other. Yet, there are notable performances. As Lt. Col. Danny McNight, leader of the lost Humvee unit, Tom Sizemore never breaks from his cool-under-fire persona. For his role as the idealistic Sgt. Eversmann, Josh Hartnett earns a promotion to a rank above his pretty-boy, teen-Hollywood peers.

The rest of the character actors are convincing as seasoned army elite. Yes, there are the characteristic machinations between differing methods of the Rangers and Delta Force. And yes, it has the archetypical characters – a fish out of water, a jaded professional, and a humorless, by-the-book captain. Creative license aside, this (recent) historical drama is more non-fiction than fiction.

A modern war-film, “Black Hawk Down” neither glorifies, nor denounces war. As the light fades on Mogadishu, the futility and desperation of the situation is pulled into sharp focus. Scott has done a credit to these men, by turning what might have become a tragic footnote in our military history into a film that helps us understand why we sent troops into battle for a foreign people and why we refuse to leave a man behind.