Few non-fiction films capture the feeling of authenticity as fully–or powerfully–as Paul Greengrass’ astonishingly skillful and moving recreation of the violence that resulted when British troops clashed with civil rights marchers in Londonderry, Northern Irleland on January 30, 1972. There were twenty-seven casualties among the marchers, including thirteen dead, and a board of inquiry concluded that the military was not at fault, blaming the carnage on IRA snipers who forced the soldiers to respond with full force. But whatever the case (and the film casts strong doubt on the official account), the carnage sapped the strength from the movement to achieve change through peaceful means, radicalized much of the Catholic population, and precipitated a quarter-century of violence that has only in recent years begun to give way to negotiation and compromise.
There have been many films about the Irish troubles in recent years, of course, but “Bloody Sunday” is unique in both appearance and approach. Instead of offering a fictional tale about oppressed characters or a crisply organized narrative of some historical episode, it opts for a supremely gritty cinema verite look and a structure that’s a series of short, abrupt moments–a collection of mostly brief sequences, shot with hand-held camera, that at first seem almost chaotically arranged but by the end have formed an incredibly dense and compelling portrait of the attitudes, motives and actions on both sides. The result is an emotionally wrenching experience that captures the tragedy of hopeful political principle destroyed by mindless hatreds and governmental bungling. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
As Greengrass has constructed his film, the narrative centers largely on three people who are destroyed by the event. The one on whom most attention is focused is Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), the local MP, a Protestant non-violence activist who’s organized the march in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and is devastated by its failure. Another is Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddly), a young man just released from British custody who tries to keep from being pulled into a potential riot but ultimately becomes a martyr to a cause he only imperfectly understands. And there’s Major General Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), the local British commander who watches helplessly as the operation goes awry as the result of the simmering anger of his men and the blundering arrogance of a superior visiting as an “observer” but enunciating government policy. Cooper comes across as the most poignant of the three, not merely because he’s given the most screen time and Nesbitt plays him so well, but because he most completely represents the death of innocence, the promise of constructive action shattered. Donaghy is less fully developed, though Duddly makes him a rough but sympathetic fellow, while Ford is necessarily more reserved and opaque (and Pigott-Smith is, in this context, just a bit too recognizable a cinematic face in the midst of the startling authenticity around him). All of the other actors seem totally real, inhabiting even well-known figures (e.g., Bernadette Devlin) with amazing conviction.
All of “Bloody Sunday” is memorable, but surely the most remarkable sequence is the extended recreation of the march and resultant melee, which manages to make the topography and strategy reasonably clear while simultaneously conveying the messiness and brutality of real combat. The compositions and montages rival those of the most convincingly rendered battle sequences ever committed to film. By comparison “Black Hawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers” look positively artificial, despite their very real virtues.
Greengrass’ film is not easy to watch; indeed, in many ways it’s painful and brutally depressing. But if it’s true that progress in the present can come only after the past has been confronted, it could become a historically significant work as well as a masterfully made one.