Starring: James Nesbitt, Nicholas Farrell, Tim Pigott-Smith, Christopher Villers, Simon Mann, Declan Duddy
Rated R for Violence and Language
The "Bloody Sunday" march, a would-be peaceful protest that turned into a bloodbath, was a major incident during the tumultuous times in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. Director Paul Greengrass has brought this tragedy vividly to life.
On January 30, 1972, many of the residents of Derry, Ireland, led by Parliament member Ivan Cooper (Nesbitt) are going on a protest march. The fact that Derry is predominantly Catholic and he is Protestant does little to diminish his opposition of the British occupation of Northern Ireland. Nor does it have any effect on the people, who view him with respect and admiration. He is organizing a march in protest, undaunted by the fact that the British government has made such marches illegal. It was supposed to be a peaceful march, but it turned out to be a day of horror and carnage that left 13 people dead and 14 more injured.
"Bloody Sunday" is less a narrative piece than a play-by-play telling of what exactly happened, and to the extent that anyone knows, why. Character development is almost non-existent and melodrama is minimal. That's to the film's benefit. It enhances the feeling that Greengrass is taking us right into the middle of the chaos and leaving us there. And yet, because we are watching as outsiders, we are able to see all sides of what is happening, something that none of the characters are able.
Greengrass allows us to understand that while the march may have started with the most innocent of intentions, it was really a perfect storm. The British military command is made up of men who are either gutless or incompetent, and they're being led by Major General Ford (Pigott-Smith), a sleazy sort who is hoping to score political points by capturing some key people. Add in a squad of trigger-happy paramilitary grunts who are eager to teach the Irish a lesson, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Just because making a traditional movie isn't on Greengrass's agenda doesn't mean that there aren't some strong performances. In fact, there are many, but by design, they aren't showy. Leading the pack is James Nesbitt, an Irish character actor who deserves far more attention than he gets. Ivan is polite, friendly and personable. He's the consummate politician without a hint of falseness. The scene where he finally begins to process the day's events is heartbreaking, but his early scenes are among his best. Tim Pigott-Smith is also perfectly slimy as Ford, whose hardliner approach to the situation makes him bear some, but not all, of the responsibility for what happened. Everyone else avoids any semblance of gravitas or showboating, leaving only their characters; some are better than others, but overall it works.
Paul Greengrass has been criticized for his emphasis on shaky camerawork, and in some instances, like the "Bourne" movies, this is ill-advised. Despite what Hollywood (and himself) thinks, Greengrass isn't an action movie director. He's a filmmaker who makes docudramas, and in that way, the handheld camerawork enhances the effect. This can be seen in "United 93" and his criminally underrated "Captain Philips." The editing is choppy with moments of black screen in-between the cuts, but for the most part I liked that (the only time it doesn't work is in the moments before all hell breaks loose). It makes it seem less professional and more "in your face." Greengrass shies away from overt manipulation (a foreboding score, flashy choreography, etc.). Only the editing, which doesn't call attention to itself, adds to the sense of impending doom.
I won't deny that parts of "Bloody Sunday" are confusing. For the most part, that's by intent, since up until the very end it takes place only in the here and now, without the gift of hindsight (something else that enhances the film's effect). However, I won't deny that I had to rewind parts of the film to figure out what was going on. Intentional confusion only works when we know we aren't supposed to know what is going on; if a character knows or says something and we don't know what he's talking about, it becomes a problem.
As you can imagine, "Bloody Sunday" is not easy viewing. It's violent, raw and quite bloody. The violence is so matter-of-fact that it packs a bigger punch than if it were stylized. That said, it is riveting viewing.