film review: Bloody Sunday ***1/2

When most people think of reenactments, visions of cheesy “Rescue 911” clips pop into their heads. Bloody Sunday has set a new standard, or maybe the only standard, for recreating an important event. The movie is set on Jan. 30, 1972, a day when 13 civil rights marchers were shot and killed by British soldiers in Derry, Northern Ireland. The marchers, part of a group of thousands, were protesting a government that would not permit certain freedoms, one being the right to protest.

After a confusing string of miscommunications among the soldiers, a few fire into the crowd, in the process killing citizens, some no older than 17. The government avoids a political mess by contending that the citizens were armed and had fired at the soldiers first (we all saw Rules of Engagement…).

Writer/director Paul Greengrass strategically uses Bloody Sunday as an artistic weapon against the government – one he believes murdered innocent people. In fact, none of the soldiers who pulled the triggers were reprimanded for their conduct, and some were even decorated by the Queen of England.

While recollection of these events could fill endless, lengthy volumes of non-fiction, the politics behind Greengrass’ film are an entirely different matter. After one viewing, the soldiers look like evil villains and the protesters, innocents, but Greengrass is merely giving his point of view on what happened. Debatable political bias aside, the film itself is just as provoking.

Scenes permeated with realism and violent intensity have drawn comparisons to those of Black Hawk Down. While it does share a few commonalities, Bloody Sunday is far from an action-packed thrill ride. Instead of Hollywood-influenced action scenes with big explosions and tanks flipping over on command, Greengrass takes a more documentary-style look at the day’s events.

He has recreated the scenes with passion for the tiniest detail. Thousands of eager extras participated to transfer their cause onto celluloid. Some of the extras were present on the actual day 30 years ago, lending an unprecedented credibility usually reserved for a real documentary.

Greengrass shot most of the film on handheld cameras, giving viewers the “in the trenches” feel of running right behind/with the characters. The editing is simple, yet effective – each short scene fades out and a new one starts immediately. Hundreds of scenes fill up the movie, some a few minutes long, others a few seconds. Even more noticeable is that the film has no music until the final credits. No original score, no booming Dolby tricks, no blue screens, no hi-tech cinematography. The movie gets its hands dirty protester-style.

Bloody Sunday centers around civil rights leader Ivan Cooper, played by James Nesbitt. Cooper is a humble and decent man – approaching soldiers before the march and reminding them of peaceful intentions. He invests greatly in the civil rights movement, and is loved and respected by others with similar beliefs. When shots are fired, Cooper is perplexed by the violent stench of death. An end scene shows him crying at a press conference while the names of the dead are read to reporters. Nesbitt is perfect as Cooper and it is hard to imagine a real man behind such idealism. He is likeable, yet commands respect at the same time, and his emotions seem as lively as the events around him.

The only flaw of Bloody Sunday is that it is simply painful to watch. Very few people will enjoy this movie, although it’s undeniably grade-A cinema. It holds the audience in a difficult position, as no one wants to walk out on a good film, but two hours of harsh reality takes its toll – especially when the action does not enter until half way through. Movie theaters may be air-conditioned escapes from reality, but Bloody Sunday brings the horrible truth indoors – like a slap in the dark.

Shawn Wines can be reached at