Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bloody Sunday (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Amazing film - Paul Greengrass really burst onto the scene with 'Bloody Sunday', and he's gone on to make a splash with the last two Bourne films (I reviewed part 2 here) and United 93. Unsurprisingly, this film is as brilliant as I was expecting.

Made in Greengrass' now trademark faux documentary fashion, it takes place during the course of a single day and recreates the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry, Northern Ireland, that took place in 1972. James Nesbitt stars as Ivan Cooper, MP and prominent figure in the Civil Rights Association who has planned a civil rights march despite the British Government prohibiting such activities. The film basically cuts between the march organizers and the military, who are convinced that there will be violence despite all claims to the contrary and consequently bring paratroopers onto the scene in anticipation. Tension mounts as the rally gets underway, and despite the best efforts of the rally organizers a faction becomes agitated by the aggressive military presence and starts to react with violence. This of course soon escalates with tragic results as overzealous soldiers gun down many innocent civilians.

Most of the film is based on established fact, though there is obviously some extrapolation and guesswork thrown in there. It's an even handed recounting of events, representing both sides; yes, the soldiers are ultimately shown as the 'bad guys', but in all fairness when 26 unarmed people are shot with live rounds, some of them in the back, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which these guys simply cocked up.

I think one of the best thing about the film is how it manages to get across the complexity of the situation. No one here is pure 'evil', they are all people with biases and prejudices who believe they are in the right. The military has been experiencing high casualties in the region and the top brass feel the need to assert their authority; the restless local youth detest the military presence and lash out whenever and however they can; the soldiers on the street are angry at the deaths of their colleagues and feel the need to dish out some payback; and of the marchers, while the majority are peaceful some do agitate and incite violence, with a few even packing firearms (presumably members of the IRA).

The script presents all of this effectively and sets all the pieces in place for the bloody massacre that ensues. And it also highlights some simple truths - that the belligerent use of military force invariably leads to resentment from the people, and that the military inevitably dehumanizes everyone - including civilians - and lumps them all into the same boat, resulting in violence that can often be indiscriminate. Which in turn leads to more people lining up to fight them, further fueling a vicious circle of violence. Current events lend weight to the argument that such aggressive strategies are doomed to failure, and that the cost of apparent short term gains will result merely in sowing the seeds of undesirable long term repercussions. I'm no peacenik, but more often than not callous, rampant military actions seem to achieve little besides causing loss of life and continued instability over time.

Subject matter aside, film is exceptionally well made. The feeling of actually being there is what elevates this above a mere recreation of facts - it's the pervasive verisimilitude. The writing and the intense, atmospheric direction completely sell the notion that what is on screen is for real. Greengrass' hand-held photography and austere visuals draw you in - I know some people hate shakey-cam, but it works in some contexts, and I think Greengrass is masterful with his camerawork. As with his other films, this is all very matter-of-fact and doesn't resort to anything showy. It merely presents the event as realistically as possible and allows what is on screen to speak for itself. The behaviour of everyone rings absolutely true, from the soldiers to the military planners to the masses marching, a fact that is brought about by the excellent performances throughout from every actor no matter how insignificant. James Nesbitt is of course the star, and he's absolutely superb as the charismatic, seemingly tireless activist who deep down is weary and just wants to be with his girlfriend. On a side note, most of the people are presented as blank slates but some are given a little background - it's not much, but it adds humanity to what would otherwise be a bunch of strangers.

'Bloody Sunday' is a relatively low budget film that was actually released as a TV movie. It's a masterful, even handed recreation of a historical event that is absorbing and exciting as an entertainment experience but also gives the viewer a deeper insight into the myriad variables that were in play that had a hand in leading to the massacre. While the filmmakers clearly veer towards siding with one group over the other, it's hard to argue against them. When all is said and done however the film is a sobering experience that leaves one with an indelible impression and a lot to dwell upon. Which is always a sign of a great film. Needless to say, highly recommended.

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