Bloody Sunday

Dir: Paul Greengrass, 2002. Starring: James Nesbitt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell. Drama.
Bloody Sunday
One of the best examples of docu-realism in the Battle of Algiers-mode, Bloody Sunday, from director and writer Paul Greengrass, was originally made for Granada Television (a high quality UK outfit) but after an acclaimed screening at the Sundance Film Festival it got its theatrical run and instantly made Greeengrass a director in high demand. He went on to direct the final two Bourne flicks as well as another outstanding docu-drama, United 93. Bloody Sunday tensely recreates the events of the 1972 peace march in the Bogside of Derry, Northern Ireland that spiraled out of control as itchy trigger fingered British paratroopers opened fire on marchers killing 14 and then covering their own actions. The film tries to show the points of view of both sides, but no matter how even-handed the film intended to be, and even with the usual IRA types running around looking for a fight, it’s impossible to see it as anything less than a British massacre of the innocent.

Inspired by the American civil rights movement, the Catholics of Northern Ireland lived in a near police state under British control; the marchers even used “We Shall Overcome” as their theme song. The march was led by their local MP, Ivan Cooper, ironically a Protestant himself leading a peaceful Catholic rebellion. As played brilliantly by James Nesbitt, Cooper is the epitome of good intentions in a bad situation; he often references his idol Martin Luther King and does everything he can do to keep his marchers peaceful, but unfortunately for him this is Northern Ireland not Selma. The Northern Ireland-born Nesbitt, a staple on UK TV, was mostly known for lightweight fare like the show Cold Feet; here he gives the performance of his career. It’s a stunning piece of acting; Cooper is desperate to lead, but the weight of events is just too overpowering for him and Nesbitt earns the viewer’s respect while our hearts go out to him.

Fading in and out and moving in and out of focus with a wildly intense handheld camera, Greengrass creates a feeling that goes beyond just the recreation of news footage; the style is actually like a 3-D amusement park ride that makes you dizzy as if you are there as marchers and soldiers clash. The film cuts between Cooper and his marchers, the soldiers who always seem to be just on the other side of the wall, and military headquarters where Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) coldly pushes his men to impede the march at all costs, even while a local cop (Gerard McSorley) implores him to pull back. "What would letting some people march hurt? We can arrest the leaders later," he urges. But like those Southern sheriffs during the American civil rights heyday, there’s a lot of pent up ego at work and a show of force is a gesture of power no matter how many people have to die.  

We’ve seen so called “made-for-TV movies” taking on historical events, but none with the visceral punch of Bloody Sunday; it’s a credit to the outstanding skills of Greengrass that the film is so accomplished. Its realism is at a level rarely seen in non-documentary films. Like In The Name of the Father (directed by Jim Sheridan, who served as an executive producer here), it’s another example of the Irish being victimized by British paranoia. Shockingly, none of the murdering troops were disciplined for their actions; as a matter of fact, many were praised and treated like heroes. The end credits have U2’s famous song, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” playing over them; for a generation who grew up on the song, what the band was horrified about can finally be seen and even felt.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 15, 2012 5:08pm
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