review by Elias Savada, 18 October 2002
Director-writer Paul Greengrass (The
Theory of Flight) made his first film in Derry, Northern
Ireland, in 1981. Two decades later he has detonated a bomb that has
wiped away more than thirty years of political missteps and military
secrecy in Bloody Sunday, an unwavering recreation of the
violent blood-stained destruction that caught this town and many of
its peaceful inhabitants unaware and unprotected back on January 30,
1972. The moral shrapnel and mental shellshock will linger long
after this film has ended.
Relentlessly realistic in its
in-your-face close-up detail, Greengrass and Ivan Strasburg, his
longstanding director of photography, have opted for a color-desaturated
look that has drained every ounce of blue that might have been in
the Derry sky that day. Every shot uses almost nauseating, hand-held
cameras, with not a steady shot in sight. The incessant documentary
style most closely resembles that used in Cops, sans
music (except for the end-credit rendition by U2 of its mournful ode
to the killings), with the equivalent of two or three separate units
following the civilian population, primarily Ivan Cooper, a
middle-class Protestant and Member of Parliament who was
spearheading a massive civil rights march that Sunday, and the
stubborn British commander and his military units taking up
positions throughout the city. To further orchestrate the concurrent
timeline of events, Greengrass and his editor Clare Douglas have
extensively cross-cut each storyline within the shared narrative,
separately often, but not always, by quick fades to and from black.
An introductory sequence announces
the leadership for the 10,000 locals eager to peacefully congregate
and the British Army, having suffering through a series of minor
embarrassments at the hands of juvenile hooligans and IRA-sponsored
saboteurs. The soldiers, some very green, but most overly anxious,
have been called in to quash the event. Greengrass, to more
personalize his day-in-a-life approach, next focuses on a
post-midnight parting of Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy, whose uncle
was the first to die on Bloody Sunday), a seventeen-year-old
Catholic having just served a six-month sentence for stone throwing,
and his cautious, Protestant girl friend, just off from a long night
of babysitting. Gerry's story highlights the lad's subdued, almost
childlike, anger with the British invasion and, ultimately, his
inclination to react rather than act against the well-armed militia.
"I'll be fine. It's only a march," he casually assures his
close-knit family. His tragedy embodies that of the Everyman; his
demise becomes all the more a battle-cry for the IRA by the planting
of false materiel, as least as Greengrass tells us.
Biblically speaking, if Gerry is
the very young son, Cooper is the wise one. As portrayed by James
Nesbitt (Lucky Break, Waking Ned Devine), it's a
performance of a determined, perhaps too idealistic ("One day we
could be normal.") individual trying to organize his friends and the
good people of Derry, modeling this peaceful demonstration after
those by Martin Luther King. The simple son then becomes Brigadier
Patrick MacLellen (Nicholas Farrell), the local commander of the
British Army in Londonderry nervously walking the tightrope between
his friend, local Chief Superintendent Lagan (Gerald McSorley), and
(foolish son) Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), the unflinching
Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, eager to strategically
teach the "hooligans" a lesson at the hands of his 3,000 troops. Not
only does he force his battle plan on the wary MacLellen, he's got
one officer handling public relations to soothe out any
"misconceptions" that might arise from the planned action.
The chants of "We Shall Overcome"
are too quickly doused in the ensuing melee, begun when a portion of
the crowd takes a wrong turn and further aggravated when this
breakaway group (of which Gerry and his friends are part) confronts
the army with chants of "Brits Out" and the hurling of stones and
bricks. The hostilities escalate and for the second half of the film
you stare aghast as the bullets fly and the blood flows, with the
soldiers unleashing their weapons as if shooting at a pond full of
ducks. As expected, your reaction is immediate as powerfully
manipulated by the filmmaker. The action moves from the gruesome
street battlefield, home to the indiscriminate murder of more than a
dozen unarmed civilians (one victim is poignantly covered in the
white banner, quickly bloodied, heralding the march), to the chaotic
Altnagelvin Hospital, where the wounded and dead are greeted by
grieving relatives and an emotional drained and exasperated Cooper.
The follow-up, er cover-up, is just
as damning. It has continued that way for thirty years now.
The whole project works perhaps too
well, with talk in U.K circles of this being a watershed in Irish
politics. Not being Irish or British, I can't read any deeper into
the film than viewers in the United Kingdom can (and they have).
Those of us in America not directly tied to or aware of the
political history in that part of the world will merely see
Bloody Sunday as a strong, fiercely-biased statement about the
troubling struggle for peace and the ruthless stupidity, much like a
botched game of Risk, that castrated it.
Kathy Kiera Clarke
R - Restricted.
parent or adult