2002, R, 107 min. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Starring James Nesbitt, Tom Pigott-Smith, Mary Moulds, Gerard Crossan, Allan Gildea, Nicholas Farrell.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 8, 2002
Save for the anthemic U2 protest song that plays over the closing credits, there is no music in Bloody Sunday, no orchestral score with strings to cue the drama. That would be too movie-like, and this movie plays like a documentary. It's not -- rather, Bloody Sunday is a dramatization of Jan. 30, 1972, the day on which British paratroopers in Northern Ireland opened fire on a mostly peaceful march protesting for Catholic civil rights and against the British policy of internment without trial. Greeengrass' film chronicles that day from sunup til' sundown, following three groups: the peaceful marchers, led by the charismatic Ivan Cooper (Nesbitt), a Protestant MP fighting for his Catholic constituents; the green British troops, led by company man Major General Ford (Pigott-Smith), keen to make an example of the day following the recent murders of a number of British soldiers; and the “hooligans,” angry Irish youths who may or may not have launched the first bricks that set off the British. Greengrass has done a commendable job showing every side to this story, although it's obvious his sympathies lie with the protesters. The film's cinéma vérité approach is perhaps disingenuous -- certain things are presented as fact, when history has yet to conclude for certain what happened that day (and an official inquiry, reopened in 1998, continues today). But as far as facts go, 13 Irish citizens were shot dead in the streets of Derry, at least one in the back, and three dozen more were injured (another would die in the hospital). There were no British casualties. Those are chilling statistics, and this film chills to the bone. As the day progresses, Greengrass cuts between the sides, expertly evoking the increasing confusion (made all the more so, for the viewer, by the sometimes unintelligible Northern Ireland dialect). When Cooper attempts to calm the scared, skittish crowd, we can barely hear the microphone through the jumble of shattered glass and feet running through rumble. It must have been much the same for the marchers, who found themselves hemmed in like sitting ducks for the paratroopers. And when those first shots are fired, the camera, nipping at the heels of those fleeing, is as merciless as the snipers, unflinching when a marcher with a white flag in hand is shot in the head. This stuff is harrowing enough on page; it is almost too much to bear onscreen. There are none of the distractions, the forced melodramas of a Hollywood death scene, so prettily shot and in slo-mo. Here, a man is cut down; the sniper and the camera quickly move on to the next. By making his movie look like real life, Greengrass has far more effectively conjured the real-life terror -- and tragedy -- of Bloody Sunday. None of the parties are victorious. The Brits -- despite having been commended by the crown -- had shot themselves in the foot, and the martyred dead would benefit not the civil rights movement but the IRA. Indeed, in one of the film's last shots, shell-shocked young men are seen lining up to enlist. No victories here, but Greengrass' film is a triumph in anguish.