"You've given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men, boys, will be joining the IRA... and you will reap a whirlwind."
This is the assessment offered by Ivan Cooper during a hastily arranged press conference after the bloodshed of January 30, 1972, in which twenty-seven individuals were shot by British forces, thirteen of whom were killed. Cooper, the Protestant member of Parliament who organized and led the civil rights march through the mostly Catholic Derry, Northern Ireland against the British policy of internment, ultimately retired from politics due to the escalating violence and never returned. Bloody Sunday, the visceral and harrowing feature written and directed by Paul Greengrass (and the winner of the Sundance Film Festival Best Picture Audience Award and co-winner of the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival), attempts to relive the events of that horrible day in the Troubles' history, many of which are still mired in great controversy. (It should be noted that the second inquiry regarding "Bloody Sunday" by Lord Saville, in response to the initial inquiry by Lord Chief Justice Widgery - which exonerated the soldiers and the commanders entirely - is still ongoing upon this writing.)
From the outset, Greengrass thrusts the audience headlong into the tension: before the opening titles have ended at the three-minute mark, its grip is forcefully established. By skillfully crosscutting (via rapid fade-outs, repeated throughout the film) between dual press conferences of Cooper's civil rights movement and that of the British military headed by General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), Bloody Sunday commences its grim and disquieting mission. When a character notes "what we have here is a pressure cooker situation," it has already become unmistakable to the viewer.
Eschewing the normal means by which filmmakers can distort and manipulate representations of reality, Greengrass expertly employs a cinema verité style, shooting Bloody Sunday entirely with hand-held cameras, natural lighting, and no external soundtrack. The results are absolutely jarring and wholly successful. Whether viewing Cooper working a room, the British paras speculating on the march close at hand, or the overall chaos that ensues, Bloody Sunday is a triumph of immediacy and subjectivity - the "you are there" quality is unnerving and almost nauseating. (This is not to suggest that Bloody Sunday is any more "real" or "accurate" than other similarly concerned films of historical account, etc. - it just happens to look and feel utterly authentic.)
As Cooper begins his morning of politicking and surveying the potentialities of the march, so too do the British. The soldiers, already weary from confrontations in Belfast and elsewhere in the North, set about a clear objective: a few hundred Derry "hooligans" are to be arrested in order to send a clear, simple, and brutal message. The civil rights organizers, equally galvanized, do not wish to alter the original parade course, even though the Brits have begun increasing the presence in the streets and blocking off certain areas of the route. Cooper, perhaps employing a greater degree of realpolitik and savvy, suggests that the march itself is more important than the route, and decides to alter it so as to avoid direct confrontation.
As the march progresses it becomes increasingly evident that not everyone agrees with its aims (including the IRA, whose watchful eye justifiably concerns Cooper and, through an operative, believes "marching is not gonna solve this thing"). As some young men disastrously decide to confront some of the soldiers on the old route, tensions reach an absolute boiling point. Rubber bullets, water cannons, and gas commence the violence, and it appears inevitable that it will soon escalate. When the real bullets begin to fly (not seen, but unmistakably fired by the Brits), the shock registers for certain members of the military, the unarmed (as represented) protesters, and the moderately-minded Cooper.
As written by Greengrass and played by Nesbitt, Cooper is an intriguing and ultimately tragic figure, although his personal woes never supercede the greater tragedy that unfolds. Seemingly on a first-name basis with everyone in the town, Cooper is first seen as a consummate politician: gregarious, serious of purpose, and with a self-described "special dispensation from the Pope," he truly envisions a North with equal protection and hope, a place where he and his Catholic girlfriend may one day walk through the streets without threat or comment. Guided and motivated by the examples of Gandhi and King, his civil rights action against internment (which had gone on throughout the North for decades), at the time employed the aegis of the Special Powers Act, is non-violent and - in his estimation - likely to prove successful. However, many of the other key elements of the area, including the British soldiers, the IRA, and many of the working-class, hopeless young men do not share his specific brand of enthusiasm. The march becomes an arena for release of frustration, for revenge, and for aims wholly counter to Cooper's ideals.
Some critics have lambasted Bloody Sunday's pointed anti-British viewpoint and purported bias and have dismissed the film outright because of it. Moreover, criticisms have been lodged against the filmmakers' aesthetic choices in representing the events as documentary in style, as if intelligent viewers (by implication) cannot distinguish between artistry and fact. Such claims are both obviously biased in themselves and ultimately hinder what the film is trying to accomplish: the creation of a means by which to further dialogue. It is not difficult to determine where Bloody Sunday's sympathies lie, and its worthiness is not consequently compromised. As with any response to charged, controversial matters, presentations merit consideration if they are thought provoking, and - more importantly - historically plausible; Bloody Sunday is certainly both. It is also, lest we forget, filmmaking - extremely effective, visceral, and powerful filmmaking at that.
Video: Bloody Sunday is presented in anamorphically enhanced widescreen, with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As noted above, the film was shot utilizing natural light with hand-held cameras - accordingly, it is generally drab in appearance, although the video presentation itself is well rendered. There are only slight instances of source print damage; otherwise, Bloody Sunday looks good. Although virtually overwhelming on the big screen, the chaos and immediacy of the film has carried over more effectively that I suspected it would on the small screen.
Audio: Presented in two DD 5.1 mixes (the Domestic Theatrical Version and original U.K. theatrical version), Bloody Sunday sounds good as well. There is very little surround action, as the front speakers get most of the action, but in the few instances it occurs it is palpable (when real bullets have replaced the rubber ones, the sound is unmistakable; the incessant ringing of telephones is equally jarring). Dialogue is generally clear and crisp, although viewers on this side of the pond may elect to utilize the English subtitles, as the accents (especially the Irish) are thick and more than likely undecipherable to the unfamiliar.
Extras: Included in Bloody Sunday are two full length commentaries; one with actor James Nesbitt and writer/director Paul Greengrass, and one with historian and author of "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday" Don Mullan. The Nesbitt / Greengrass track is informative and relatively subdued - it is largely a question and answer session between the two, with Nesbitt probing Greengrass for information. It moves along quite nicely, and Greengrass speaks with candor as to his choices and the ultimate aims of the film. The Mullan track, even more subdued, adds great historical and personal context to the events at hand, and will certainly provide valuable additional information to those so inclined. In the final analysis, both commentaries are worthwhile and very engaging. Very well done.
There are also two featurettes: Bloody Sunday: History Retold (13:13), and Bloody Sunday: Ivan Cooper Remembers (6:46). The History Retold feature includes interviews with Greengrass, Nesbitt, Cooper, executive producer Jim Sheridan, Don Mullan, and producer Mark Redhead among others. The impetus and choices for the film are discussed at further length - Greengrass states that it was crucial this was a joint venture of sorts between the Brits (Greengrass himself is British) and the Irish, and believes that Bloody Sunday can help in the attempt to heal old wounds, rather than inflame them (for example, British military advisors were brought in, and many of the soldiers were actually once members of the British military; many of the marchers in the film were actually part of the "Bloody Sunday" march of 1972). This is generally an informative, albeit brief, featurette. The Ivan Cooper Remembers featurette, also brief, features actor Nesbitt and Cooper revisiting Derry and some of the pivotal locations of the march, including a monument erected to honor those fallen where ceremonies are still conducted each year. Cooper speaks with candor, and Nesbitt proves a good listener if not a great questioner. Although I certainly would have enjoyed more conversation with Cooper, it is still interesting to hear his brief comments thirty years after the fact.
Final Thoughts: More precisely described as a polemic rather than outright agitprop in my estimation, Bloody Sunday is - regardless of ideology or point of view - simply brilliant filmmaking. This is not meant to suggest that it (or its representations) should be merely accepted or, conversely, dismissed wholly. Rather, it should be taken as a vital component to an ongoing process of understanding and investigation and made part of a greater whole. Aided greatly by inspired artistic choices and an excellent lead performance by James Nesbitt, Bloody Sunday is easily one of the best films of 2002 and is given a worthwhile and valuable DVD presentation by Paramount. Essential viewing.