Paul Greengrass has quickly become one of the finest directors in the first decade of the 21st century for his ability to make reality-based dramas that look like documentaries but have the kind of tension that is usually created in Hollywood’s finest thrillers. He first showed his knack for it in this film, a dramatization of the landmark event that helped strengthen the IRA and became one of the British army’s most embarrassing moments. It also inspired U2 to write one of their most famous songs, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. It may sound like a simple thing, but the tune has become a stirring symbol for The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
On Sunday, January 30, 1972, thousands of civil rights protesters in Derry began a peaceful demonstration led by Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a Member of Parliament of Northern Ireland. Cooper wanted to show the Brits, and the IRA, that non-violence was the ticket to independence for Northern Ireland. British troops stood by, prepared to quell any outburst of violence. Things quickly got out of hand. Young protesters broke off from the march and started pelting stones at the army barricades and the military responded with the expected rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. There were rumors of IRA snipers and the order to fire live rounds was eventually given, resulting in one protester being shot dead as he ran for his life. That only served to increase hostilities between the soldiers and the protesters and parachuters started firing indiscriminately into the fleeing crowds. All in all, 26 protesters were shot and 13 of them died (a fourteenth victim succumbed later). The army subsequently stated that the soldiers only acted in self-defense, firing at IRA activists who were armed and carried nail bombs. However, no bullets or bombs were found and no soldiers were injured. To this day, the army is widely considered to carry the sole responsibility for these deaths, but the British government won’t recognize it.
Sticking to the facts
Forgive me if that last statement sounds like I’m definitely assigning blame, but it’s hard not to. Director Greengrass nevertheless does an admirable job of sticking to the facts – that’s all he needs to show how individual parachuters lost their cool and started killing people for no reason, and how their officers lacked the courage and ability to control the situation. The film also shows how intimidating a crowd of thousands can be – not that that’s an excuse. The filmmakers truly take us to this place and time and put us smack in the middle of events (not least thanks to Ivan Strasburg’s shaky camera and gloomy January cinematography) making us feel the fear, anger and sense of hopelessness that these people must have felt on that fateful day. Some viewers might dislike the initial confusion, but the bits and pieces create an overwhelming whole.
The film ends with Cooper at the press conference where he stated that the British government now has given the IRA its biggest victory with the destruction of the civil rights movement. Greengrass’s film has the power to make the government take responsibility for what it did in 1972. It could still happen.
Bloody Sunday 2002-Britain-Ireland. 110 min. Color. Produced by Mark Redhead. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Cinematography: Ivan Strasburg. Cast: James Nesbitt (Ivan Cooper), Tim Pigott-Smith (Robert Ford), Nicholas Farrell (Patrick Maclellan), Gerard McSorley, Kathy Kiera Clarke.
Trivia: The film was shown on British and Irish TV the same night as it also opened in theaters, thereby ruining any chances of being nominated for Oscars. Co-executive produced by Jim Sheridan.
Berlin: Golden Bear.
Quote: “I just want to say this to the British Government… You know what you’ve just done, don’t you? You’ve destroyed the civil rights movement, and you’ve given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men… boys will be joining the IRA, and you will reap a whirlwind.” (Nesbitt at the press conference)
Last word: “I would not have done this film had I not thought it was a truthful account of what happened that day. I realized very quickly that Greengrass was trying to make a film in the spirit of reconciliation.” (Nesbitt, SF Gate)