A nonviolent protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland escalates into a bloodbath on January 30, 1972. Alas, this event is best known within the American pop culture lexicon as U2's sanctimonious rock ballad, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (which makes a grating appearance during the closing credits, after a movie that has nearly no music in it whatsoever). If nothing else, the new film Bloody Sunday directed by Paul Greengrass (The Theory of Flight) should be able to get a sense of the tensions that arose that fateful day between Irish protesters and British paratroopers. Told in a minute-by-minute documentary style, the story recreates the events of that morning switching back and forth between the British and Irish perspective.
It's a compelling idea, with handheld digital cameras swooping around the actors as the Derry citizens prepare for the march. It has the lived-in quality of any rally you've ever been to, with stressed-out volunteers trying to coordinate the herd. The performances are naturalistic and unshowy, with a committed performance by James Nesbitt as Protestant activist Ivan Cooper (whose everyman mug and receding hairline make him a believably workaday hero). There's a surprising lack of self-righteousness in the proceedings, for the most part fairly handling the British officers and soldiers caught up in gung-ho tension and resentment for being there in the first place. And the Irish aren't given a halo, with IRA thugs working their way through the crowd and stupid kid hooligans throwing stones during the "peaceful" march.
Cooper's exasperated reaction to the hostility around him draws our sympathy, but there's purposefully very little character development in Bloody Sunday. It's all about the incident and action. Or, at least, it feels that way during the chaotic, seemingly unscripted moments during the violent shootouts that happen at the film's midpoint. The hard-edged documentary approach, where dialogue is barely heard as the camera responds to the immediacy of the action around it, is craftily employed.
That's what has earned the movie comparisons to Battle of Algiers, but Bloody Sunday never goes far enough with that raw notion. It's compelled to give just enough narrative arcs for Ivan Cooper and a handful of others (a smug British Major General, an earnest Brigadier, and a young Irishman whose tender relationship with his girlfriend has him pegged early on as "the guy who will tragically get blown away") to make the movie feel indecisive. It wavers between slim narrative and tough documentary, and that throws it all off. There's an incomplete quality to Bloody Sunday that mars it. That haziness is compounded by irritating fades in and out of each scene, constantly stopping the movie dead in its tracks and adding a slow, lethargic quality to a movie that should be lean, fast, and uncompromising.
The situation is far more interesting than the details we learn about anyone in the film, and Greengrass could have gone further into it as a non-narrative, or as a restaging of the event that allows us to pick up Ivan Cooper and others in the crowd but doesn't make the movie about them. (Alan Clarke's Contact did this brilliantly, another film about the "Irish situation.") While it's not boring or maudlin, Bloody Sunday feels gutless and empty for not taking as strong a cinematic stance as it could. For all its noble qualities, the movie feels mediocre when it could have been razor sharp.
The history lesson continues on DVD, with two commentary tracks and two short documentaries. Very staid, but it does provide a rare inside look into the conflict.
Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival