‘Bloody Sunday’

By Cynthia Grenier

The first half of “Bloody Sunday,” a pseudo-documentary by writer-director Paul Greenglass, is absolutely spectacularly, brilliantly good. I kept thinking of Eisenstein’s “October,” one of the greatest pseudo-documentaries in the history of film, until about midway through as a British paratroop regiment started mowing down North Irish civilians gathered for a civil-rights march in Derry – a march the British authorities had forbidden.

Director-writer Greenglass doesn’t put a finger on the scale – he slams his whole fist mightily down. You learn from the press kit, Greenglass had every reason to be partisan. Twenty years ago, as a young television producer for Britain’s “World in Action,” he was the first journalist to get into the Maze prison to film an interview with the IRA hunger strikers. He was particularly taken by a man from Derry, who had taken up arms as a direct response to the shooting of 27 people – 14 of them fatally – on that day named “Bloody Sunday,” Jan. 30, 1972.

Actually, as I look back, I realize I should have known how Greenglass was going to handle the events of that day right from the beginning. The movie begins by showing a long-haired, jeans-clad Catholic youth necking with his pretty young Protestant fiancee who is worrying about him getting caught up in any rough business in the march. He reassures her. Of course, he is one of those shot and killed. He dies in a car rushing him to a hospital. A little later, in a murkily lit scene, we see hands reaching into the parked car, fumbling around with his garments and hear a voice saying, “We got the bomb in the pocket all right?” Planted by whom? The British, to help justify their attack? By the IRA, who are shown eager to provoke an armed struggle? Greenglass leaves us to speculate.

Actor James Nesbitt as Ivan Cooper gives an utterly interesting performance as a member of Parliament for Mid-Derry, who fervently believes in the virtues of civil-rights marches. He cites Martin Luther King more than once, and even Gandhi, to the large crowd of local citizenry massed for the march. But it is all for naught. At the end, the last image is of him coming away from the hospital that looks more like a hecatomb with wounded people sprawled out bleeding on the floor. His face is completely drained. His co-worker/girlfriend leads him out – barely a walking shell of a man. Wondrously well-conceived, whatever you might think of the heavy-handed political point of view of the director.

The British major general in charge of the exercise is played on the perfect mold of what folks on the left tend to view as generals. Tim Piggott-Smith makes the man utterly comprehensible – you might not like him, but you’d like him on your side in a battle (leaving aside political considerations). Nicolas Farrell as the brigadier – commanding the brigade and placed in charge of the operation devised by the commander, Land Forces, Northern Ireland (the Tim Piggott-Smith character) – is quite splendid as the officer who finally gives the order for the paratroopers to move in, while managing fairly subtly to convey his reservations about the whole situation.

The paratroopers themselves, with very few exceptions, are shown mainly as men certainly in their 40s, even if they look properly dramatic in close-up, edgily waiting orders to go in, their faces streaked with black camouflage paint. There was, incidentally, an audible gasp from the small group of people attending the screening when, toward the end, across a black screen appeared words to the effect that the queen had decorated the British officers who had taken part in the action that day.

Even taking sides in the film as Greenglass did, you can’t help thinking of Israelis and Palestinians or Russians and Chechens in their ongoing conflicts as the film unfolds. So many of the situations parallel so many of the events we see on television and read about in the papers today. “Bloody Sunday” is very much worth your seeing even if you don’t buy the director’s point of view. After all, did I ever buy Eisenstein’s point of view in “October”?

The film’s title is cited, as it were, in an ironic touch when Ivan Cooper pauses to speak to some men in front of a theater, the marquee of which is billing “The Magnificent Seven” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the John Schlesinger film of 1972). Why the Schlesinger film’s playing on a bill with a film released in 1960 you can probably figure out as well as me.