Bloody Sunday (2002)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: James Nesbitt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell
Synopsis: A dramatization of the Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30, 1972.
More than 40 years after the events of 30th January 1972, the shooting of 27 civilians on a protest march in the Northern Ireland city of Derry remains an inflammatory subject. While the Savile Inquiry, the hearings for which were concluded in 2004 and published in 2010, heard evidence from a youth member of the IRA that Martin McGuinness, who was then a senior member of the paramilitary organisation, had issued him with bomb parts which were intended for use in Derry city centre on the day of the march (an accusation which McGuinness dismissed as ‘fantasy.’), there is no doubt that the British army’s actions were illegal and that the death of the innocent civilians was probably wholly avoidable. But exactly how the crucial events of that day unfolded remains a mystery thanks to the conflicting accounts from the parties involved.
Paul Greengrass, a director now better known for his work on the first two Bourne movies, directs Bloody Sunday in a documentary style. His camera peers over the shoulders of reporters at a press conference held by Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), the tireless MP who organised the peaceful, but illegal, march, and at briefings held by the British army. It shakes violently, transforming the screen into a confusion of blurred colours, as it immerses the audience in the panic of the protest marchers when the military opens fire, and at one point it almost looks as though it is going to disappear up the backside of one civilian fleeing in panic. Verite is the word, and you can’t get much more of a realistic recreation than Greengrass manages here. Hand held cameras are usually an annoyance, but here they give the viewer a real sense of being in the thick of the action, with only the refocusing of a blurred image proving to be a distraction.
When the storyline sticks to events directly related to the march and its aftermath, Greengrass’s movie is pretty good. The era is effectively captured, and the de-saturated colours evoke a sense of the bleakness of lives lived in the midst of the conflicts. When it gets distracted into providing a peek at the personal lives of Cooper and a young Catholic man who gets caught up in the riots it’s far less compelling, and these side roads contribute little to the story the film is telling. If anything, it leaves Greengrass exposed to accusations of bias in his portrayal of the incident because he shows little from the British side to balance the picture. Only one soldier is shown in a wholly sympathetic light, while his comrades are given a mob mentality, spoiling for a fight so that they can teach the ‘yobbos’ a lesson, an attitude which can’t help but colour everything that follows. The key moment of the flashpoint – when the first shots are fired — occurs obliquely on the screen, perhaps out of necessity given the conflicting accounts, but by filming it this way Greengrass, intentionally or otherwise, implies that there was no concrete reason for their opening fire.
No-one questions the fact that what happened on that Sunday in January was a wholly indefensible injustice against the people of Derry. And there is equally no doubt that the subsequent enquiry, during which important evidence was withheld by the Ministry of Defence, was a further travesty of justice. But it’s impossible for a film like Bloody Sunday to represent a completely accurate representation of the events that took place, and to claim to do so, even if by omission, does nothing to further its cause.