Bloody Sunday


In the media age, a filmmaker who is looking to restage an infamous moment of national cataclysm has countless techniques at his disposal. He can use a handheld camera that jumps and stutters with newsreel immediacy. He can flood the screen with actors who don’t resemble movie stars, and he can mimic the scary zigzag turmoil of a street battle so that the audience practically smells the chaos. Yet a filmmaker could do these things, and do them well, and still not match the dizzy, disturbing immediacy — the sense of everyday life smashed, like an atom, into a surging force field of violence — that the writer-director Paul Greengrass achieves in his epic, anxiety-jangled, ripped-from-the-headlines-of-history docudrama, Bloody Sunday.

Set in its entirety on Jan. 30, 1972, the notorious day on which forces of the British army killed 13 people in the Northern Ireland town of Derry, the movie doesn’t just show us events. It re-creates a moral earthquake; it captures how the eruptive texture of that day was the product of forces that had been brewing for decades. As a verite passion play, ”Bloody Sunday” is a bit impersonal, yet it seizes, and shakes, the moment in a way that perhaps no political film since Pontecorvo’s ”The Battle of Algiers” (1965) or Costa-Gavras’ ”State of Siege” (1973) has.

The camera appears to be everywhere at once, the overlapping dialogue (and brogues) so thick it makes Robert Altman’s typical hubbub sound like Noel Coward. Yet if it’s impossible to make out every line, we end up listening to, and experiencing, this movie in a unique way, reading each scene not so much for the words as for the shifting, entwined moods of fear and repressed aggression.

The Irish, spurred by the modest, disheveled prole Ivan Cooper (embodied with stirring decency by James Nesbitt), have organized a peaceful march to protest the British policy of internment without trial. If they back down, they’ll be forfeiting their civil rights. Yet the British, led by Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), are smug, if not blind, with colonial righteousness. Cooper, a small-town idealist, has modeled himself on Martin Luther King Jr., but unlike King, he has little idea of what he’s up against. As the march splinters into factions, one of them peaceful, the other, smaller group tossing rocks at the soldiers, the film’s vision becomes so multitiered it’s almost symphonic. We see the crowd as an unruly organism dividing, unconsciously, against itself, the rock throwers expressing the primal rage that Cooper fools himself into wishing away.

As unconscionable as the massacre was, ”Bloody Sunday” gives us little awareness of the tribal complexity of the Troubles — i.e., the way that the British occupation was, and still is, entangled in conflicts between Irish Catholics and Protestants. Yet the film sees the thrust of ego at stake in an occupied nation. The British crack down because they think it is their right to rule, and the only proof of that right is…the singlemindedness of the crackdown. The Irish are left feeling like dupes for having tried for peace. It’s a mad cycle of arrogance and despair, and ”Bloody Sunday” etches it onto your nervous system.

Bloody Sunday
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes