After 25 years of righteous political thrillers—yes, it has been that long since the release of Costa-Gavras’ Z, the original leftist rabble-rouser—the elements of Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (Universal, R) seem almost too familiar. A terrorist bombing; innocent people arrested for the crime; a government plot to withhold evidence; years of wrongful imprisonment; a lone attorney digging her way to the truth. Where can the audience stand but in outrage against the fascist oppressors? Sheridan, however, works with such piercing fervor and intelligence that In the Name of the Father just about transcends its tidy moral design. Based on the true story of Northern Ireland’s Guildford Four, who spent 15 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, this is an anatomy-of-injustice movie so passionately charged it can stand with the finest dramas of its kind (Z, All the President’s Men, and A World Apart). Daniel Day-Lewis, in a memorable performance, is Gerry Conlon, the young petty thief from Belfast who happened to be in London during the fall of 1974, when the Irish Republican Army bombed two pubs in the nearby suburb of Guildford, killing five people. When we first see Gerry, he’s teetering on a Belfast rooftop, taking a break from stealing scrap metal to mime a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo—an act of innocent nuttiness that sets off a riot when the occupying British soldiers mistake him for a sniper. A harmless troublemaker in permanent revolt against his dour, sickly father, the delinquent Gerry confronts the world with a nervous blur of winks and grimaces. Day-Lewis’ greatest characters (the randy Czech physician in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the raging, disabled Irish author in My Left Foot) have always been marked by their devious awareness. So it’s a shock to see him play Gerry as a foggy postadolescent nihilist, a goofball rebel with almost no consciousness of what he’s doing or why.
When Gerry’s little rooftop escapade gets him in trouble with both the British and the IRA, he takes off for London and falls in with a comically scruffy crew of hippie squatters. What he doesn’t realize is that he has entered a political minefield. The British police have begun making arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows them to detain suspects for up to seven days. Desperate to find the perpetrators of the Guildford bombings, they fasten on Gerry, his friend Paul (John Lynch), and two members of the commune—as well as Gerry’s father and half a dozen relatives.
The sequence in which Gerry is interrogated and tortured into signing a confession attains a staggering power. As Gerry is beaten by British officers and subjected to appalling mind games, Day-Lewis, in some of the most bravura acting of his career, shows us a simple young punk getting the armature of his personality broken down. By the time Gerry stares at the confession he’s going to sign, whimpering, ”I didn’t do this! I didn’t f — -in’ do this!” we’re witnessing the primal sin of a police state: the creation of a political ”criminal” through criminally immoral means.
Even as he’s railroaded through the courts, Gerry remains an oddball and a screwup. Only gradually does his experience of imprisonment burn away his flakiness, molding him into a man. Day-Lewis actually grows more handsome as the film goes on—his skinny, twitchy features resolve themselves—and this physical transformation becomes a living metaphor for his moral growth. The catalyst of the change is the fact that Gerry’s father, the ailing Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), ends up sharing a prison cell with him. The movie is subtle enough not to oversimplify their reconciliation. Postlethwaite, with his guilty, workaday-Catholic stare, quietly suggests that Giuseppe’s bitterness toward his wastrel son is the dark underside of a love he can’t express. And Gerry, we’re cued to see, has trashed his own life to prove himself unworthy of his father.
As the English attorney who reopens the case, Emma Thompson gives a brisk performance in a slimly written role. This part of the movie feels a little canned; we’ve seen it done before, and done with greater fireworks. It’s in the slow mending of the relationship between the two Conlons that In the Name of the Father becomes not just a muckraking docudrama of British oppression but an excavation of Northern Ireland’s bombed-out spiritual landscape. Sheridan doesn’t get into the ugly complexities of the Irish troubles—the tangled hatred between Catholics and Protestants. Yet he does something almost as revealing when he introduces Joe McAndrew (Don Baker), an ice-blooded IRA leader who, in prison, carries on his anti-British war with a meticulous ruthlessness that seems practically psychotic. When Gerry comes eye-to-eye with McAndrew, who’s presented as a false, evil patriarch, he finally confronts the full force of the hatred that has been tearing his homeland apart. And only when he accepts the love of his own father do those same forces stop tearing at him. In the end, Gerry triumphs over injustice—but, even more stirringly, over the troubles in his own soul. A-