BERLIN 2002 REVIEW: Tragedy Revisited; Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday"
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/02.08.02) — On Jan. 30, 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland, a peaceful march organized to protest a new British government policy of indefinite pre-trial internment disintegrated into a deadly melee that turned the town into a killing ground. British paratroopers, on-hand to monitor the protest, shot and killed 13 marchers and wounded 14 more. In the subsequent three decades, debate and controversy have surrounded this tragic event: did some of the marchers have weapons? If so, did that provoke the “paras” to shoot back, or did the military open fire on civilians without sufficient provocation? Did the troops have an agenda to pick up specific people that day? And finally, why were none of the soldiers disciplined officially?
If the average American knows of this pivotal confrontation at all, it is probably via U2‘s anthemic “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” which wonders “how long will we sing this song?” of tension and unrest in the region.
Now comes Paul Greengrass‘ “Bloody Sunday,” the most high-profile addition to a recent spate of English movies and TV films that have addressed this event and the issues which continue to frustrate all attempts at peace in Northern Ireland. Without meaning to sound glib, “Bloody Sunday” (which debuted stateside as a world cinema selection at Sundance 2002) can best be described as a British/Irish “Black Hawk Down.” In both films, a sensitive military mission goes horribly awry, and in both films the commanders struggle with putting the proper spin on conduct that can be interpreted in numerous ways.
Of course, the similarities are only superficial, as the marchers that day in Derry weren’t armed to the teeth. (The question of them being equipped at all is a hot-button issue, which will almost certainly never be solved to the satisfaction of either side.) “Bloody Sunday” takes great pains to underscore the peaceful intentions of the rally, following Derry Civil Rights Association leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a Protestant, as he chipperly announces “it’s just a Sunday afternoon stroll, don’t worry about it.” As for the military stance, Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) is a jovial stuffed shirt, while the brooding Brigadier MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell) is charged with actually managing the soldiers on the ground during the events.
The other main story thread follows Catholic teenager Gerry Donahue (Declan Duddy), who becomes caught up in the rowdier aspects of the march, with tragic results. His fate illustrates the military’s attempts to plant evidence on the scene, “proving” the existence of weapons in the hands of the marchers.
Even the casting in this film has been subject to debate in Great Britain. Both Nesbitt, who normally plays nice guys in such fare as “Waking Ned Devine,” and Pigott-Smith, known for his starchy, by-the-book persona, are seen as less-than-subtle indicators of where the filmmakers’ sentiments lie. Yet Nesbitt, who has just the right mix of optimism and despair, actually hails from the region. And if Pigott-Smith’s performance plays into the clichéd image of the spin-doctoring military stuffed shirt, Greengrass is generous enough in his approach to also show at least two guns among the besieged townspeople. This, in context, gives the film the same kind of ambiguous balance that makes Ridley Scott‘s “Black Hawk Down” such a provocative experience.
It’s also a visceral one. Greengrass, who has made both documentaries and features, and cinematographer Ivan Strasburg employ an extreme handheld visual strategy that makes “The Blair Witch Project” look like an Ozu picture. This is effective as far as it goes, but the decision to punctuate most scenes with a moment of black-screen silence wears thin early, and once the conflict begins the technique interferes with the movie’s traumatic momentum.
Perhaps a more effective comparison would be to Peter Watkins‘ exhilarating yet exhausting six-hour French miniseries “La Commune (Paris 1871),” which charts the tragic conflict that lead to the French uprising in greatly chaotic and sometimes fanciful detail. In both cases, it is in each side’s fervent commitment to principles and utter blindness to the human toll of their convictions until they look upon the corpses of the fallen, that true tragedy lies.
Though the Irish accents are thick, potential American distributors are advised to look past this when considering acquisition. In these last few months, movies about life-altering conflicts have gained new resonance; the events dramatized in “Bloody Sunday” are as urgent and timely as they were 30 years ago, and the film itself is a vivid, even-keeled, eye-opening ride into the whirlwind of regional history.