Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008)
“When you cross the line there’s no going back.”
Director: Kari Skogland
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess, Kevin Zegers
Synopsis: Based on Martin McGartland’s shocking real life story. Martin is a young lad from west Belfast in the late 1980s who is recruited by the British Police to spy on the IRA.
A rather unpleasant little man named Gerry Adams appears in a montage sequence in this movie asserting that the IRA’s killers are not terrorists but freedom fighters and, as the entire world now knows, the distinction between the two depends completely on your perspective. This is the problem 50 Dead Men Walking has to address: to unify its viewing audience so that it isn’t sickening one half while pandering to the possibly biased opinions of the others. It attempts to do so by adopting a kind of non-judgmental moral ambiguity that is both unsatisfying and infuriating.
That isn’t to say the film isn’t entertaining on its own terms. It’s certainly well-made, with Jonathan Freeman’s cinematography contrasting the drabness of the council-estate milieu with vivid, rich colours at night. Belfast resembles a city blitzed beneath WWII bombers, and most of us watching probably can’t even begin to imagine how life under British rule at a time when the IRA was at its most active must have been. In fact, the film becomes so immersed in the world of the Republican Army and the treacherous path travelled by the charismatic Martin (ably played by Jim Sturgess) that you’re given the impression that everyone in Northern Ireland was in some way connected with the cause.
The film deliberately avoids condemning outright the actions or beliefs of either the British or the IRA. British troops are portrayed as unthinking weapons of war carrying out orders without thought or concern for their correctness, or as grey-faced suits pulling strings and using people like chess pieces. A bewigged Ben Kingsley plays Martin’s mentor, but he isn’t right for the part and for some reason chooses to impersonate Tom Courteney for most of the film. Martin’s true reasons for betraying his fellow troops as he rises through the ranks of the IRA are never clearly spelled out: does he do it for the money, or through moral conscience? He’s portrayed as a hero — and there’s no doubt his information saved many lives — but the deliberate ambiguity suggests that even Kari Skogland, who adapted the real McGartland’s book, has doubts about his motives. The IRA characters are convincing only on the typical espionage thriller level: you can’t imagine any single moment of their life — no matter how insignificant — revolving around or being motivated by anything other than their belief in the cause, and this single-mindedness makes for fairly one-dimensional characterisation.
50 Dead Men Walking is undeniably a powerful, well-made film, but it isn’t without its problems. Perhaps quite rightly, the film refuses to promote McGartland as an out-and-out hero or role model while acknowledging his courage, and thus leaves itself without a real hero we can root for.