There's no subtext in Bloody Sunday. No allegorical references. No symbolism.
Paul Greengrass' docudrama is obsessed with one thing: re-creating reality. And the story he tells unfolds with the grim inevitability of Greek tragedy.
The massacre in January 1972 of civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland by British troops remains a sore point in Irish-English relations. It has spawned songs (U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday") and countless orations, poems, books, and, if you're Irish Catholic, a conspiracy cover-up industry.
Greengrass' film about the massacre covers approximately 24 hours, beginning the night before the peace march – envisioned as a mass protest by Irish Catholics over the suppression of their civil rights by Londonderry's Protestant majority and the occupying Brits – and into the hours after the incident.
Shot through hand-held cameras that often seem to be eavesdropping on the action, and captured on grainy, color-desaturated film stock, the events unfold in scenes separated by several seconds of blackout.
Greengrass' methodology is simple enough. He cuts back and forth between the two sides.
For Maj. Gen. Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), threats by the locals to defy his ban on marches and meetings is an act of deliberate provocation. He comes up with an elaborate plan to block off the parade route and use troopers to search the crowd for wanted IRA members.
His men, meanwhile, are sick of seeing their comrades shot by snipers and are itching for a little payback.
However, the march leader, Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a Protestant member of Parliament who represents a Catholic district, is determined to forge ahead: "The British government has promised us reform, and all we've had is excuses and curfews ... If we don't march, civil rights is dead in this city."
Then there are the wild cards – armed IRA members at the fringes of the march and the Catholic teen-agers who need little excuse to go on a rock-throwing rampage.
Greengrass tells his tale matter-of-factly, with no overt editorial comment. Even the question of who began shooting first – an IRA sniper or the British troops – is left unanswered. But once the bullets start flying, there can be no doubt that the soldiers went out of control, shooting marchers already lying wounded on the ground and picking off those trying to help the injured.
The production's attention to detail is almost overwhelming. The clothing, the hair styles, the weapons, and the setting feel thoroughly authentic.
Even more important, the chaos of that day comes through loud and clear.
As for the acting ... what acting? I don't mean that as criticism but rather as high praise. Nobody seems to be acting here.
Other films in the series “Luck of the Irish”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 2: My Left Foot (1989) Rated R
- March 9: Odd Man Out (1949) Not Rated
- March 16: Once (2006) Rated R
- March 23: Bloody Sunday (2002) Rated R
- March 30: The Commitments (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.