Bloody Sunday
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.

Written and
Directed by:

Paul Greengrass

James Nesbitt
Tim Pigott-Smith
Nicholas Farrell
Gerard McSorley
Kathy Kiera Clarke
Allan Gildea
Gerard Crossan
Mary Moulds
Carmel McCallion
Declan Duddy

Written by:
Michael Elliot
Rick Famuyiwa

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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