|Directed by:||Paul Greengrass|
|Written by:||Paul Greengrass|
|Cast:||James Nesbitt, Allan Gildea, Gerard Crossan, Mary Moulds, Carmel McCallion, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell|
Both sides concur that the eponymous civil rights demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland, ended with a skirmish between some of the demonstrators and British army paratroopers. Ultimately, 13 demonstrators were dead and 14 in the hospital, one of whom later died. None of the casualties were British troops. A formal inquest proclaimed that the soldiers had defended its position against armed demonstrators. Some of the soldiers involved were later honored by the crown.
Outside this understanding, there's a dispute so profound and indignant that three decades later Bloody Sunday is still an open gash in the lingering, disputed account of the British in Northern Ireland. Paul Greengrass' Golden Bear-winning film is shot on 16mm, made in the manner of a documentary. It encompasses roughly 24 hours, beginning on Saturday evening, and its central character is Ivan Cooper, a civil rights organizer in Derry. He was a Protestant MP from the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party. Most of the 10,000 demonstrators on that Sunday would be Catholic. That a Protestant led them reveals the separation in the north between those who stood in unity with their co-religionists, and those of all beliefs who just wanted the British out.
Cooper is played by James Nesbitt as a completely excellent guy, hopeful, diligent, who walks boldly through hazardous streets and has a good remark for everyone. He knows the day's demonstration has been prohibited by the British government but anticipates no conflict, as it will be diplomatic and peaceful. As Cooper distributes flyers in the streets, Greengrass intercuts measures by the British army, which is fully resolute to take a muscular position against "hooliganism." Several British soldiers have been killed by the IRA, and this is an opportunity to settle scores. The British continue giving themselves tell-tale indications of how to prevent violence when they say things like, "If they see the Paras, that'll inflame the situation." So basically, the people demonstrating for their rights will only become violent if the troops try to stop them from demonstrating for their rights. Which they do. So the British knew the truth before the atrocity even occurred.
Greengrass also establishes some other characters, including a young man who kisses his girlfriend goodbye and assures his mother no hurt will come to him, classic threatening omens in a movie. And we meet the Derry police chief, troubled by the ferocious doggedness of the soldiers and asks, not irrationally, if it wouldn't be more prudent to just allow the march because it's clearly going to carry on anyhow. Greengrass reconstructs proceedings with striking realism. When he shows a movie marquee promoting the Schlesinger film Sunday Bloody Sunday, it's a tiny anomaly, a deliberate shot in a movie that aims for cinema verite. He's served by the incidence of thousands of volunteer extras, some having demonstrated on Bloody Sunday and are relatively playing themselves.
Cooper and the other influentials are on a truck which pilots the procession, and from their POV we can see that when the march avoids the army's spot, some hotheads instead start to throw rocks at them. At Major General's headquarters, commands are given to counter decisively. Data lines are obscured, orders are hazy as they dispatch down the pecking order, and soon rubber bullets and gas grenades are substituted by the shatter of actual bullets. Once this begins, we get the truest visceral sense of how difficult it must be to resist physical retaliation, and thus the true profundity of pacifism.
Greengrass sees marchers struggling to control some of their comrades who are armed, but his film is unmistakable in its conviction that the British fired first and without mercy, and he shows one injured demonstrator being eliminated execution-style. One of the marchers is based on Gerald Donaghey, who, after being wounded, was searched twice, first by doctors, then taken to an army section where he died. Soldiers then "discovered" nail bombs on his person that had been "overlooked" in the earlier searches. This is part of a frantic effort by the army to plant evidence and validate a slaughter. OK, there are two sides to the story, but 14 dead marchers alongside a complete lack of dead or wounded soldiers seems telling. The Greengrass standpoint reproduces the rage of the anti-British groups, and the army's self-satisfaction after being acquitted in the initial investigation was simply infuriating. This raw, ultimately brutalizing tragedy is an extremely valuable vision of what occurred that day. And as an act of filmmaking, it's stunning: A sense of urgent and present-tense reality pervades every powerhouse moment.