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BLOODY SUNDAY (director/writer: Paul Greengrass; cinematographer: Ivan Strasburg; editor: Clare Douglas; music: Dominic Muldoon; cast: James Nesbitt (Ivan Cooper), Tim Pigott-Smith (Maj. Gen. Ford), Nicholas Farrell (Brig. Patrick MacLellan), Gerard McSorley (Chief Supt. Lagan), Kathy Kiera Clarke (Frances); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Mark Redhead; Paramount Classics; 2002-UK/Ireland)
“Captures the horrors of a civil rights march taking a wrong turn in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry on Sunday, January 30, 1972.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Paul Greengrass’s hard-hitting documentary-like film frightfully captures the horrors of a civil rights march taking a wrong turn in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry on Sunday, January 30, 1972, as it reconstructs the events of that tragic day. Cinematographer Strasburg uses the unsteady handheld camera, shooting in 16mm, to chronicle the events that led to 27 unarmed marchers being shot and 13 dying. This info is based largely on eyewitness accounts. Greengrass has cited Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as an inspiration for his film.

Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a harried and caring Protestant MP, attempts to organize a peaceful protest march for Catholics to end Unionist rule and gain civil rights (for one thing, end internment without a trial) despite a British ban on the march. Cooper distances himself from the violent tactics of the IRA and grounds the protest in the non-violent ways of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the marchers singing “We Shall Overcome” as they snake along the streets with a few thousand in the procession. In contrast, the haughty British military leadership under the command of Major General Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) and his assistant Brigadier Patrick MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell) plan to “teach these people a lesson” in response to the British soldiers who were recently shot and spat on in demonstrations. They are aiming to use maximum force to show that they can maintain law and order, and have informed the seasoned paratroopers to round up the hooligans at all costs.

The film builds to its boiling point slowly by showing both sides preparing for the march and the inevitable collision, as the animated Catholic protesters gather in an almost chaotic fashion while the grim faced soldiers consult at headquarters buoying themselves up in the belief that they will get a chance to round up all the targeted hooligans. One passing shot is of a movie theater playing the double feature The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), a portend of things to come.

When the more youthful and angry marchers veer off from the main march and break the barriers and start hurling rocks, disappointed that they are not heading for the Guild, the Paras react by charging them in armored vehicles and using live ammo to fire point-blank at those cowering in retreat and those running away. The unnecessary massacre of the nameless and faceless getting mowed down in the street, gives the film a numbing effect. It ends on an even more numbing way, by showing the Brits trying to justify their actions against the unarmed crowd by planting evidence.

The first casualty of this stylized cinema verit√© film is the plot and the second any character development. But the gain in feeling the tension on both sides and the sudden surges of events and the spine-tingling immediacy it captures, more than makes up for that neglect. It’s a chilling film viewing experience, and as the exasperated MP says at a press conference at the end “It’s a moment of truth and a moment of shame.” He goes on to say, “Your actions destroyed the civil rights movement and gave a victory to the IRA.”

To compound that day’s tragedy, two of the military officers responsible for the massacre were eventually honored by the Queen of England for their actions and no soldier was charged with a crime for his actions. The film ends with the moving song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 playing in the background.

Greengrass’s film acts as an investigative report putting together all the tragic pieces of that day without sparing the British military for their part in the slaughter, as all our sympathy goes out to the unarmed protesters. Nesbitt’s superb soul-searching performance provides the pained human face to show how on that tragic day peaceful and idealistic means lost out to violence.

“Bloody Sunday” shared the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”