We’ve got to teach these people a lesson…
Paul Greengrass gained global fame for his direction of two of the original Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. Those films showed how sure a hand he has when it comes to creating and managing tension and thrills. More recently, he directed Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, just as exciting but with a more obvious political theme, largely because it is based on true events (review to follow.) That film – based on reality and overtly political – seems to be a fairly obvious return to his roots; Greengrass was well-known as an investigative journalist and television producer before he was a film director. Most famous was his co-authoring of the book Spycatcher, which revealed secrets about Britain’s spy services and was the subject of an unsuccessful banning attempt by the government.
So, clearly he’s serious about the political content of his work, and perhaps his finest film, though not his best known, is Bloody Sunday. Made in almost-documentary style, it recreates the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland when British soldiers fired on unarmed Civil Rights marchers, killing 13 of them. Bloody Sunday, as the massacre came to be known, has since been the subject of enormous controversy and two government enquiries. (The first found the British Army blameless; the second, thirty years later, found the exact opposite.) Combining violence, oppression, politics and authentic controversy, it is hard to imagine subject matter more suited to Greengrass’ style.
Typically of Greengrass, the film is presented in a sort-of cinema verite style. (This is very typical of him. Even his Bourne thrillers, as The Guardian points out, were made in this style.) More generally, we can see the influence of the Italian Neorealists. First, many of those appearing in the film are not actors; many of the soldiers are played by actual ex-paratroopers, for example, and one of the victims of the massacre is played by the nephew of a real-life victim. Don Nesbitt, author of the book on which the film is based, appears as a priest. So, we’re watching people with direct connection to and involvement in the events documented in the film. With the soldiers in particular, this adds hugely to the verisimilitude and realism; they sound and look and behave like soldiers, not like actors. When they talk, it sounds ad-libbed and believable; they interrupt and talk over each other just as people do in real life. As Edward Guthmann writes, ‘Nothing looks rehearsed, and each of the dozens of actors seems to respond to the action while it unfolds.’
The camera is handheld (this might actually be the fundament of Greengrass’ aesthetic) and, particularly in the shooting scenes, this is supposed to put the viewer right in the middle of the action (although arguably, it’s such an overused technique now that it no longer has that effect.) Real sets, ambient lighting and so on are used, and editing is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the neorealist ethos; the diegesis in this film looks and feels very much like the real world. The idea is to create a sense that what we are watching is real; the filmmaker has removed himself as far as possible from the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter. It works; this is one of those films which leaves the viewer exhausted and outraged at the end.
However, Greengrass is not making a documentary; this is a narrative film and as such the narrative is artificially imposed onto events. We follow one character, basically, the organiser of the march, played by James Nesbitt. We are focused on the march itself and how much he has invested in it, but we also see him with his parents, his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and so on, and the audience can hardly help but empathise with him. The fact that he is played by James Nesbitt, one of the most automatically likeable actors working today, already starts sugest where Greengrass’ sympathies lie. We are being manipulated throughout the film. At the start, for example, we see the crosscutting between the (chaotic, civilian) preparations for the march and the (efficient, military) organisation for the army response. Crosscutting continues throughout, always constructing the binary opposition between the ruthlessness of the army with the well-meaning naiveté of the marchers. Cinematography contributes to this; before the march for example, we see one shot wherein Nesbitt’s character is trapped in the mid ground between the British paratroopers in the foreground and the Nationalist paramilitaries, the IRA, in the background. The shot, and the whole scene, not only shows how trapped our main character is, but seems to suggest that these two groups – the British army and a terrorist organisation – are alike in terms of their intractability and cynicism. Greengrass, clearly, is not one to shy away from controversy.
Representations in this film are most definitely not those we would expect from mainstream cinema. Soldiers – those on ‘our’ side at least – are dominantly represented as heroic and generally predisposed to do the ‘right’ thing. Here, we see absolute cynicism in the military. The army sets out not to control the march but to provoke trouble and arrest as many people as possible. Commanding officers are shown to be removed from the actual trouble, secure in their knowledge that nothing they do will be questioned or challenged. It is significant that the accents of the commanders are most definitely upper-class; the soldiers, like those they are shooting at, are working-class. This is not particularly developed, but there is certainly an idea about class warfare and solidarity being expressed. Perhaps the most shocking representation of the army comes at the end when those soldiers who have just killed 13 civilians are called before their superiors to account for their actions. Greengrass frames them in almost full-frontal close up, having them talk, and lie, directly to the camera. Juxtaposed with the shocking, chaotic violence we have just seen, the calmness of this scene and the blatant dishonesty of their testimony is shocking and sickening. Lighting is subtly chiaroscuro to connote the wickedness of what is being done.
The representations of the army finalise in the scenes where they are shown to chase, then murder, fleeing citizens. The shots of uniformed British soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in the back, situated in ordinary working-class housing estates, are designed to be shocking and brutal. The always-present emphasis on the reality of these events makes it massively more powerful and effective.
Although made in a cinema-verite style, then, it soon becomes clear that Greengrass is very much pushing an agenda, that he is not wholly objective about these events. There is subtle artistry at work here; note, for example, that the palette is appropriately desaturated throughout the film until after the massacre when we start to see shocking, garish splashes of blood. Greengrass is appropriating the realist style in order to give weight and credibility to his own take on historical events.
The film is extremely powerful, largely because of the weight of realism that it brings to bear. It utilises the two aspects of Greengrass’ style – thrills and reality, excitement and intelligence – to superb effect and it is, I think, his finest work to date.