On January 30, 1972, thousands of civil rights demonstrators in Derry (Londonderry), Ireland, held a rally to protest the British Government’s use of internment without due process in Northern Ireland. British military forces were ordered into the unarmed crowd to capture some of the rowdier youths. What followed has been the subject of great debate and a well-known U2 song, but amidst the confusion, the army opened fire on the protestors, killing thirteen and wounding fourteen others. The day became a turning point for the Northern Irish “Troubles” and is attributed with inspiring thousands of new volunteers to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
As far as subject matter is concerned, many people are more familiar with the U2 song than they are with the actual event or the factors that led to the day. This movie takes a turn at correcting this imbalance by recounting what happened on Bloody Sunday in a powerfully realistic half- drama, half-documentary.
Five characters represent the major forces of the day: a reluctant protest organizer and popular local –Protestant—politician, Ivan Cooper (a mesmerizing performance by James Nesbitt); a seventeen year old Catholic boy, just out of jail and torn between protesting and staying out of trouble, Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddly); the radioman whose shock and disgust with his fellow soldiers is pitted against his loyalty to the unit, Soldier 027 (Mike Edwards); the dutiful but sympathetically human Brigadier, Patrick MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell); and, the unbending imperialist with the order to end the unrest, Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith). However, it is in the faces of those around these characters where so much of the event is framed: the subtle shift of expression on the face of the Captain of the local police force as the Major General orders soldiers into position; the desperate grimace of an unnamed man as he rushes to resuscitate a corpse; the vacant eyed shock of a man learning of the death of a loved one beneath iridescent hospital lights.
Director Paul Greengrass does an excellent job at crafting a documentary feel for the story, complete with grainy film, jumpy shots, wavering sound and naturally gray light. Reportedly, Greengrass sought out people who were there on January 30th –those who lost loved ones as well as soldiers and bystanders—casting them as extras to add to the verisimilitude. The dialogue might be hard to follow between strong accents and a shifting aural perspective but the result is so realistic that the abrupt ringing of the phone or the crack of gun fire makes you flinch.
Not allowing the viewer to be passive, the movie catches us up in this pivotal day in Ireland’s history. Greengrass chooses not to review events leading to Bloody Sunday beyond passing references, however the moment itself is caught with a moving clarity: whether you agree with Greengrass’ portrayal of controversial events or not, he does a good job of capturing the feel of a society in flux during the early 1970’s and portraying the plight of Derry’s denizens. And, yes, they do play U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as the credits roll.
Parents should know that this movie depicts a tragic, violent event. The graphic shooting of unarmed protestors is very disturbing and the ensuing images including mayhem and grieving are likely to terrify younger children. Young adults accustomed to Hollywood’s comic book portrayal of violence are likely to be disturbed by the events so realistically framed on 35mm film.
Families who see this film could be discussing it for days. First, from a historical perspective, families might wish to talk about how this movie relates to current news stories about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Both the Major General and the protest organizers work as much as possible with the media. How is the debate being presented to the court of public opinion? How has this changed since Bloody Sunday? When Ivan says that the IRA scored its biggest victory on Bloody Sunday, what does he mean?
Second, families may wish to discuss the ramifications of having military forces in populations that are predominately civilian. For some historical perspective, the paratrooper unit responsible for firing on the crowd –the First Battalion Parachute Regiment—was created in 1940 by Sir Winston Churchill, gaining the nickname “Red Devils” during fighting in Northern Africa, Sicily and France during WWII. In the years before being stationed in Northern Ireland, they were stationed in the Middle East, Aden, Cyprus and other hotspots. With a respected history in combat, the First Battalion considered themselves part of Britain’s fighting elite. Why would this group –trained to face armed enemies—be given a peacekeeping role in Ireland? What friction exists between the Regiment and the local police? What are their respective goals and responsibilities? What lessons might there be for us regarding troops in other urban situations, such as the Balkans or the Middle East?
Greengrass has chosen to film this account with a distinctly “documentary” camera style, intended to make an audience feel like they are there as a witness to history. As a brief notice in the credits mentions, the movie is based on events that did occur, however many of the conversations and characters were created for the purpose of the story. Is it important to the story that the audience think of this film as a documentary? If so, what issues might this raise for Greengrass or other filmmakers when they are presenting stories based on controversial events?
Families who are interested in seeing more on non-violent protest and the difficulties of maintaining peaceful demonstrations in the face of force might wish to watch “Gandhi” (1982). For those who are interested in the theme of mismatch between military units and the political objectives asked of them, “Black Hawk Down” (2001) might be of interest. Those who are interested in seeing more on the Irish Troubles might be interested in director Jim Sheridan’s 1990’s trilogy (“In the Name of the Father”; “Some Mother’s Son”; and, “The Boxer”) or Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins” (1996). For families who wish to see James Nesbitt in a vastly different role, “Waking Ned Devine” is a lighthearted look at an isolated Irish town far away from Bloody Sunday and, indeed, from any troubles at all.