Listen up: Killing time is over. Melt down your weapons now, forever.
Wouldn't it be nice if that sentiment echoed around the world? Well, certainly it does, every day, but weapons have a nasty tendency toward drowning out sensible words. For this reason -- now more than ever -- it's greatly inspirational to welcome the resonant release of Bloody Sunday from director Paul Greengrass (The Theory of Flight). Although modern battlefields aren't new to motion pictures -- the two grew up together, often feeding off each other -- Greengrass deftly navigates the titular skirmish while avoiding the biases and sensationalism associated with most war movies.
From dawn to dusk, we spend the 30th of January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. The day is tense. After seven centuries of conflict between Ireland and Great Britain, a noble attempt is being made, in the form of a peaceful demonstration, to reclaim local rights and ease the terrible pressure between Irish Catholics and Protestants. (Tellingly, John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday is on at the local cinema, dealing with sexual taboos, which religious people have been rumored to cultivate.) Heading the march is charismatic local civil-rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a Protestant among Catholics who fully embraces the nonviolent methods of social change practiced by Gandhi and King. Cooper's a brave man, considering the unjust deserts garnered by his philosophical forebears.
As the movie leaps about in appropriate fits and starts, we experience the day through three other primary perspectives. Representing innocent civilians is young Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy, whose uncle Jackie Duddy died on the real Bloody Sunday, also at age seventeen). Catholic Gerry is set to marry his Protestant girlfriend but is naïve regarding clashing ideologies. More polarized toward continued UK rule are British Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith, The Four Feathers) and Brigadier Patrick MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell, a survivor of Pearl Harbor). Though they're quite human, we see that these men are significantly blinded by their allegiance to the queen.
And then there are the men in uniform (including the local Derry police, who have their hands full), especially the British Paratroop Regiment, comprising thousands of troops stationed, heavily armed, throughout the city, particularly along the route of the proposed peace march. Our time spent with these men is probably the most disturbing; many in the film are played by British soldiers formerly stationed in Northern Ireland. They fall so naturally into their volatile roles that it's literally scary, especially when local "yobbos" (hooligans, also presumably playing themselves) shower them with rocks, prompting the cocking, and then firing, of many guns.
The beauty of Bloody Sunday -- and it is a beautiful film in its ugly, gritty but ultimately humane way -- is that Greengrass, working from Don Mullan's book of the same name, as well as numerous eyewitness accounts, sets up the conflict to be observed rather than manipulated. This is a vital distinction; one's skepticism quickly fades at the harrowing, realistic restaging, and the feeling of being caught in the action takes over, not unlike in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 Battle of Algiers or even recent crap such as Black Hawk Down. In the wrong hands (see the latter example -- or, better, don't), this could equal insidious propaganda, but by and large Greengrass delivers a well-balanced account.
Although there are a few small technical complaints -- running with a camera doesn't look like running; it just produces a headache -- Greengrass' instincts for matching the material with the medium are mostly spot-on. At first, the constant fades to black between brief segments may annoy, but they're also vital in preventing narrative chaos. Unlike in a conventional drama, there's also a risk of some of the characters' remaining vague, but otherwise the action is gripping from start to finish.
Amazingly, almost every note of every performance in Bloody Sunday rings true (right down to the inevitable U2 song, tastefully employed). There are a couple of emotional clinkers from Kathy Kiera Clarke as Cooper's girlfriend, Frances, and Farrell too often seems to be acting when those around him are being, but by and large everyone, including the citizenry of Derry -- who make up a complex character in their own right -- commands the screen with impressive realism. When the violence escalates and the horrors begin, their work becomes all the more astounding.