A strange sensation transpires through the course of Bloody Sunday, one that happens very rarely in cinema. The film transcends its own grounding in drama and real events, and instead gives the genuine sense of being documentary footage. This may sound ridiculous, and more likely to be forgetfulness and idiocy on my behalf, but there is a loss of consciousness whilst you are watching the film. Every little moment feels appallingly real.
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne films, United 93, Captain Phillips) and starring James Nesbitt (The Yellow Pages adverts), Bloody Sunday is based upon the tragic massacre of 14 unarmed civilians by the British paramilitary in Northern Ireland in 1972. A peaceful protest march against British rule is taking place in Derry, and due to both the actions of a minority of violent protestors, but predominantly the reaction of the British paratroopers, there are deadly consequences.
Central to the film’s excellence is its depiction of the events of the day from both sides, and from multiple different points of view. On the Irish side the film primarily follows Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), an SDLP MP who leads the march, stressing the need for the “right of democracy, and civil rights”. The film also develops stories of those on the ground in the march, both the peaceful majority, and the few who believe non-violent protest will get them nowhere and are instead intent on causing harm.
But while many other historical dramas develop only one side, or paint a one dimensional side of the enemy, Bloody Sunday also develops nuance on the British side too. The soldiers on the ground have a variety of identities: some are very self-aware and cautious about their situation; others are intent on a fight; and some are too young and inexperienced to be there, and are liable to panic under pressure. However, the film shows a far more negative view of those in the command centre. They are intent on “teaching them [the protestors] a lesson”, with the message that “if the shooting starts, we’ll be shooting back” – a conflict was clearly pre-planned. Additionally, they are also concerned with winning the battle of the propaganda war for positive newspaper coverage in mainland Britain. We in the audience recoil at the thought that we may have been among those gullibly fed ‘mis-truths’.
If the film does take sides, its sympathies lie with the innocent Irish protestors whose march is hijacked by both some members of the British army and some violent individuals on their own side. But the predominant message of the film is that of humanitarianism, how the lives of the peaceful majority can be harmed and persecuted because of the reprehensible actions of a minority. Similarly nuanced characters on both sides – particularly in situations where public knowledge is too commonly black-and-white – can be seen in a later Paul Greengrass film, the excellent Captain Phillips (2013).
While the range of characters and the subtlety given to each of them may be central to why the film is not a normal historical drama, there are other reasons too. Firstly, the (now common) Paul Greengrass-style of handheld cameras give the aura of events happening live. Secondly, the sets and locations are excellent. Rather than shoot in a studio, or on a small unrealistic set, there is a large outdoor area that the march makes its way through, and the audience can really understand the layout of where the events are taking place. This becomes particularly important when the British try to corner the violent protestors. The viewer can see exactly how and where the events are developing. On top of this, some of the outdoor scenes are even shot in Derry on the actual route of the march.
Similarly, the command centre where the army operations are conducted from does not look like a state-of-the-art war room. Instead it is a normal office: there is paper being shuffled around; phones ringing; people having conversations over one another.
And it is in these small details that the realism really hits home. A woman peacefully marches whilst pushing a pram. The clipped English accents of the soldiers contrast with the coarser Irish ones. Not being able to hear all the dialogue properly becomes a benefit to the film.
The final act of the film is particularly gut-wrenching. There is a (nearly) dialogue-free scene in a hospital, witnessing both the bloody aftermath of the events and the despair of those families and friends around. And then there is the cover-up, as police and army officers plant evidence on dead Irish bodies, the impact of which would take decades to undo.
Bloody Sunday went onto win the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival (tying with Hayao Miyazaki’s fabulous ‘Spirited Away’ (2001)). It moved Paul Greengrass from relative obscurity to international critical acclaim. Then with the prime-numbered Bourne films, he introduced his handheld documentary-style of cinematography to a mainstream audience. This in turn changed the way in which action films have been made over the last decade. He also made excellent adaptations of similar real-life catastrophes with ‘United 93’ (2006) and ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013).
But Bloody Sunday is the stand out. It is one of the best British films of this century, and an incredibly affecting piece of work. If only they hadn’t played U2 over the closing credits …