Bloody Sunday

February, 2003, Drama

Political issues rarely make for good film fiction; the documentary provides a much better opportunity to present complex issues or review the evidence for and against a particular interpretation of history. Because real events often have the bad habit of moving too slowly, fictionalizing them can be both costly and rather boring. 

Yet in 1965, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo created The Battle of Algiers, a small masterpiece in the tiniest of movie genres- the political pseudodocumentary.  Four years later, Costa Gavras brilliantly revisited the category with Z, his pulsating thriller about the assassination of a Turkish politician, played with gripping charisma by Yves Montand. It's taken more than three decades to produce another movie that can fairly be placed alongside that pair--and this is it.

Sunday records, in gritty black and white images, the slaughter of civilians in Northern Ireland's industrial city of Derry on January 30, 1972. Shot by director Paul Greengrass using a host of familiar faces from other English pictures, (you'll see alumni from Waking Ned Devine, Remains of the Day and Chariots of Fire) the film traces, in newsreel-like fashion, the disastrous events surrounding a civil rights march by the city's Catholic minority which began as well-intended demonstration and ended as horrific nightmare.

Greenglass sketches a host of characters here with remarkable economy. The action cuts frantically between preparations for the march by its Irish organizers and the ill-advised response of British troops; in simply allowing the audience to eavesdrop on these opposing factions, the motivations of both groups and their suspicions of each other emerge with appalling clarity. The result resembles watching a slow moving train wreck; it's awful to contemplate and even worse to observe when it inevitably occurs.

While this film's viewpoint clearly favors the marchers, it provides plausible evidence of justification for the military's growing frustration; troops have been on peace keeping duty for months, (getting spat upon, shot at and often killed) with no opportunity for response. Her Majesty's government especially wants to put an end to the "hooliganism" of some unemployed young men who use the demonstrations as an excuse to simply raise hell. The Protestant majority stays conspicuously on the sidelines save for members of the "paras", whose contribution of small arms fire provides the match for this growing pile of tinder. The motivations of the mainstream marchers vary; political gain is at work here, side by side with a real desire to express peaceful grievances. As caution from the local police gets patronizingly ignored by both sides, last minute changes in the march route and inadequate self-supervision by the demonstrators parallels cynical pressure from members of the senior military command and overheated "show 'em a lesson" rhetoric between British officers and their agitated troops, resulting in a pas de deux with tragic results. When the bloodletting begins, its brutality is as frightening as it is senseless. 

Don't be surprised if you miss half the dialogue here; it's deliberately muffled, buried behind shouts from the crowds, the grinding noise of military equipment and the whispered, ambivalent orders that will be conveniently denied when the finger pointing begins. You can't fail to understand where the action is heading, even as you strain to make sense of it all in the brilliantly confusing tumult that unfolds up there on the screen.

Like Algiers and Z, you'll consider this movie forthright expose or propaganda depending on your political point of view. Whatever your judgment on the merits, here's a film that delivers an emotional wallop with passion and extraordinary dramatic power.

The verdict? See it, or you'll miss one of the best films of the year.   


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