It would take far more space than I’m given here to even begin to explain the history of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. That’s part and parcel the problem with Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday — a two-hour movie can’t begin to present more than a very simplistic view of the situation that led to the shooting deaths of 14 civil rights marchers in Derry on Jan. 30, 1972.
Much of America — and, indeed, a large part of the world — has only the sketchiest notions of the event, and such ideas are probably more grounded in the U2 song about the tragedy than in the history of the event itself. Yet the film presupposes more than a passing knowledge of the history of “The Troubles” — and while that may be reasonable in Great Britain, it doesn’t entirely work in the United States.
Bloody Sunday devotes approximately two lines of dialogue that are supposed to sum things up, and they just can’t. Similarly, the film drops references to the R.U.C. (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the practice of “joyriding” (stealing cars just to ride around in) without worrying about whether or not these things are accessible to the average viewer. That’s a small problem by comparison with the accents and the slang. I’ve actually spent some time in Northern Ireland, yet and I bet I still missed about an eighth of the dialogue.
It also must be noted that while Greengrass tries to not demonize the British, he definitely presents a very narrow view of the Irish situation. The film centers on four characters — Northern Ireland Parliament member Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), 17-year-old Catholic boy Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy), gung-ho British soldier Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Piggot-Smith) and less-than-enthusiastic British army “peacekeeper” Brig. Patrick McLellan (Nicholas Farrell). Notice anything missing from this mix? The only Northern Irish Protestant in the batch is Ivan Cooper, who is himself the major figure in the civil-rights movement. The film almost entirely ignores the existence of the country’s civilian Protestant majority, referencing it only in passing. The upshot is a highly colored depiction of the “The Troubles”; to an outsider, it’s apt to look far more like a one-sided affair than it actually is.
Those things to one side, there’s no denying that Bloody Sunday is very accomplished and very powerful filmmaking. Shooting the movie in a documentary style, crosscutting between the four main characters, Greengrass creates a remarkable sense of immediacy. The events of the day unfold slowly, deliberately, and with great subtlety. The characterizations are first-rate, with the standout being Nesbitt’s Oscar-worthy performance as Cooper. The actor deftly captures the basic decency of the man, as well as the fact that Cooper both loves and hates the limelight (obviously enjoying his fame as a civil-rights activist and M.P. one moment, then bemoaning the fact that he can’t just have a normal life the next). It’s an intense, intensely moving, ultimately shattering portrayal. Cooper’s denunciation of the British government after the event (“You have killed the civil-rights movement in Northern Ireland and handed the IRA the biggest victory they’ve ever had”) is one of the most forceful things I’ve seen on the screen in a long while. It’s a visceral performance in a film that is, at bottom, a visceral experience.
It’s impossible not to witness the unfolding events with mounting horror, knowing that tragedy must inevitably occur, yet hoping that, through some unimagined circumstance, it won’t. When Cooper’s planned peaceful march goes horribly wrong — mostly, according to the film, at the behest of the stiff-necked Gen. Ford, who wants to show the Catholics who’s in charge — the flood of images that assault the viewer is almost unwatchable. We see British soldiers callously, sometimes viciously, shooting down the hapless marchers. Part of this sequence’s great power comes from what is not clearly shown. The viewer often gets such a quick glimpse of an atrocity that it’s not possible to tell what has just been seen; there’s only the lingering impression of something genuinely horrible.
The film clearly aims to outrage the viewer, and it certainly succeeds. See it by all means. It’s strong stuff, brilliantly done, and carrying an emotional impact you won’t soon forget. But be warned that the history it details is simplified, and it’s not as completely accessible as it might have been. Despite the possibly too-clever inclusion of a cinema marquee listing the improbable double feature of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Greengrass’ film has the kind of gritty realism a movie like 8 Mile only plays at. For sheer raw power, you’re not going to find anything better.