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Northern Irish politics in the 20th century was a tragic mess, so ill reported here that most Americans know little of what really happened in major conflicts. The 2002 docudrama Bloody Sunday drew plenty of critical praise, while its director Paul Greengrass immediately jumped to 'A' status. It essentially restages a 1972 mass political rally in Derry that turned into a massacre. The historic event is filmed as if it were a documentary, but with cameras in all the right places.
I found out about Bloody Sunday through John Paul Moser's book Irish Masculinity on Screen, which delves into the portrayal of Ireland and the Irish by filmmakers John Ford, Jim Sheridan and Paul Greenglass. Bloody Sunday becomes the focus of Moser's final chapters. My review of the book is in the August 23 Savant column at this page.
Thirty years after the events, writer-director Greengrass enlisted the help of the Derry neighborhoods to tell the true story of what happened. Although leading roles are performed by professionals most of the cast are locals. The show is a shock from one end to the other.
Northern Ireland in 1972is divided between mostly Protestant Unionists that want to stay under London-based rule and Nationalists (including civil rights: they're interning (imprisoning) citizens without trial, indefinitely.
Northern Ireland MP Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt of The Hobbit) is a Protestant but an anti-occupation activist for the Nationalists. He announces a demonstration against the internments despite the fact that occupation commander Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) has outlawed any marches or political gatherings by decree. Cooper organizes a huge march through the town, unaware that Ford has moved in battle-trained Paratroops (paras) at the last minute, to enforce British will. We soon realize that all the ingredients are present for a disaster. Cooper's civilian marchers are in good and peaceful spirit, but a large group of young hooligans are eager to throw stones at the British soldiers. Operatives of the militant IRA (provos) are watching closely.
On the British side, Major General Ford is eager to show who is in control. His plan is to use the paras to surround and arrest the hooligan element, but he also urges 'maximum aggressiveness'. Already fixated on the casualties suffered by their ranks in the past weeks, the paras and their officers are worked up into a frenzy by the taunts and bricks of the hooligans, and are made even angrier when Brigadier Maclellan (Nicholas Farrell) senses a mistake and tries to delay deployment. The paras go in action on their own, shooting hooligans and peaceful demonstrators with live ammunition. In the aftermath fourteen are dead and as many wounded. The army sticks to the lie that they were attacked with guns. A bomb is planted on a mortally wounded hooligan to help justify the killings. Horrified, Ivan Cooper tells the press that the British have destroyed his push for a peaceful settlement; the militant IRA factions will now get all the recruits they want.
Greenglass films Bloody Sunday using an interesting style. The hand-held16mm cameras create the you-are-there atmosphere, and no movie lights are used. Most of the film's shots are long single masters, as if they were news film shots captured on the fly. We barely notice the cuts. Each change of setup or location is bracketed by a fade-out and a fade-up, which prevents the film from taking on the pace of an action thriller.
The script does add possible fictional elements. Ivan Cooper tries to keep the peace with his girl friend, a government press officer impatient that she has no time for him. Young Catholic hooligan Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy) is shown necking with his Protestant girl friend the night before, and being warned by his sister to stay out of trouble. When he's wounded, his friends try to take him to a hospital, but are stopped at a roadblock where the Brit soldiers are happy to let him bleed to death.
Considering that the entire show is out to expose the outrageous irresponsibility and contempt of the Brit military -- itself encouraged to be brutal by the powers back in London -- Bloody Sunday compels us to believe its version of events. The Derry hooligans seem intent on starting trouble, and clearly put the peaceful marchers in danger. The IRA agents hanging around are hoping for violence so they will gain public support for their terror resistance. One hooligan does bring a rifle to the fighting (he's stopped) but another is seen firing a pistol several times.
But judging by what we see in this depiction of events, Major General Ford's unit is guilty of mass murder. The combat troops apparently disregard orders and load up with live ammo, and by the time they charge into action their psychology is that they're under attack in a battle situation. Their officer gives the go-ahead to attack even as his superior is telling him to wait. Everything reported by the military after the killings is a lie. The military insists that it was attacked with rifles and nail bombs but no soldiers were injured or weapons found. Greenglass shows a paratroop executing an already fallen civilian point blank. Are the eyewitness accounts reliable? Seeing this happen on film makes up our minds for us.
The theatrical release reportedly began as a TV production. Paul Greenglass had plenty of experience with varying film styles but pulls off a stylistic triumph. As does the classic Battle of Algiers, it convinces us we're seeing the real thing. The day's events must have been staged like a pageant, with cameras planted in multiple positions and scores of assistant directors to handle the large crowds. All the proper details stand out well, as when Ivan tries to talk to an IRA agent observing from the sidelines. The hooligan teens feel it is their right to scream and throw rocks, and their unreasoning emotions guarantee that trouble will start. When one of the paras remarks that it seems wrong for battle soldiers to be doing this job, his fellows bully him into silence. The paras go into action ignoring their orders and open fire almost the moment they see a line of targets behind a barricade. 1
The film is both exciting and sobering; it's a powerful experience. It won Best Picture at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Greengrass's film is both reasoned and responsible. Within two years he had a monster hit with The Bourne Supremacy. He proved to be the perfect choice to take on another politically loaded subject done in semi-doc fashion, 2006's United 93.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of Bloody Sunday is an excellent encoding, a re-pressing of a disc from 2003. It carries a now-defunct 'Paramount Classics' logo. I'm told that the WAC Paramount releases are true DVDs, but cannot tell from looking at them -- they reflect the same dark-purple hue. Of course, the WAC discs I've been using for comparison might be true DVDs as well.
Paramount has given the film two alternate audio tracks, an original and a second where some dialogue was replaced for audiences unfamiliar with Irish accents and jargon. Happily, English subtitles are also provided, so we can catch every word spoken. The only music in the movie is a live U2 performance of the song Sunday Bloody Sunday.
The disc is packed with extras. Director Greenglass and actor James Nesbitt are on one feature commentary, and a second is provided by co-producer and author Don Mullan, whose book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday inspired the film. The real Ivan Cooper takes part in two featurettes taped on location, History Retold and Ivan Cooper Remembers. With its ample extras, the show qualifies as an history resource. I recommend doing what I did -- with my iPad on Wikipedia, I looked up every name and unfamiliar word I heard: 'para', 'unionist', 'provo', 'APC'.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bloody Sunday DVD-R rates:
1. Socialist Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin was on the dais with Ivan Cooper during the march, and is depicted in the movie. Home Reginald Maudling later stated in the House of Commons that the paratroops had fired only in self-defense. When Devlin was denied permission to speak about the massacre, she walked across the chamber floor to Maudling and publicly slapped him. In 2003 she was denied entry into the U.S. because our State Department declared that she "poses a serious threat to the security of the United States".
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T'was Ever Thus.