On January 30th, 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, the British army opened fire on what-was-meant to be a peaceful demonstration. 13 men were killed on the spot, another died later of his injuries. In the months leading up to the demonstration, the British army had been frequently attacked by pro-independence, largely Catholic “nationalist” groups and the Army was quick to claim that the were acting in self-defense and that they had been fired upon. Others, however, pointed out that almost all of the men killed (most were just teenagers) had been shot while fleeing the soldiers and none had any weapons on them. This was the event known that later became known as Bloody Sunday and served as one of the leading catalysts for the decades of “Troubles” that would follow.
Earlier today, 38 years after the fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron finally publicly acknowledged the fact that the 14 men killed on Bloody Sunday were murdered. Much like the classic Monty Python skit where Eric Idle is convicted of murdering 300 people in one day, Cameron said that he was “very, very sorry.” (Actually, Idle said that but the idea is the same.)
The Bogside Massacre also served as the basis of one of the best (and most important) films of the first decade of the 21st Century, 2002’s Bloody Sunday.
Directed by Paul Greengrass (who would later, of course, direct the final two Bourne films), Bloody Sunday is a disturbing recreation of January 30th, 1972. We watch as the civil rights activist Ivan Cooper (a very likable James Nesbitt) makes his way through the Bogside area of Derry, encouraging people to attend the march while still finding time to beg the local IRA leadership not to start any violence. While most critical attention is, understandably, given to the scenes that recreate the massacre itself, these early scenes are just as important. They establish the idea of the people of Bogside as being a community full of actual individuals as opposed to just a collection of pawns in the war between the nationalists and the unionists.
While Cooper tries to ensure peace, we are given contrasting scenes of the British army preparing for the exact violence that Cooper is trying to prevent. Ironically, in these opening scenes, both Cooper and his military counterparts are motivated by the same basic fear of the IRA. Its only once the demonstration has started and the first shots are fired that Cooper realizes that the establishment is far more dangerous than the insurgents.
Throughout the film, Greengrass directs in his signature, documentary-style, employing hand-held cameras and rejecting any artistic flourishes that might take the viewer out of the “reality” of the situation. Each scene ends with a fade-to-black and, as a result, the viewer gets the feeling that he is literally dropping in on the action. This is not to say that Greengrass is not an artful director. The power of his artistry, however, comes from his ability to hide the technique. As a director, he does not demand attention with a lot of showy tricks. Instead, he earns the attention by perfecting his craft.
Greengrass’s psuedo-documentary style is at its strongest and most devastating during the recreation of the massacre itself. Perhaps because the film was made for British television at a time when there was still official doubt about what set off the Bogside Massacre, Greengrass leaves hazy the exact reason as to why the army starts firing. However, what he does make clear is that the 14 men killed were, essentially, murdered. One of the unfortunate things about being as big a movie fan as I am is that I’ve grown jaded to the sight of people dying on-screen. However, unlike many other similar films, the deaths in Bloody Sunday are not presented as just being plot devices or as an excuse to get an emotional response from the audience. Instead, the deaths in Bloody Sunday hurt because you immediately know that, regardless of which you side you support as far as the Troubles are concerned, none of the deaths were necessary. They were, instead, the product of a nation’s wounded pride. 14 men died so that the British could feel British again.
As you can probably guess, the British don’t come across particularly well in Bloody Sunday and, quite frankly, they shouldn’t. Watching this movie, you’re left with the impression that the Bogside Massacre was the British Army’s attempt to exorcise the demons of the collapse of the British Empire by killing the Irish. (Though, in all fairness, the Irish killed a lot of British in the time leading up to Bloody Sunday.) However, and this is to Greengrass’s credit, individual British soldiers are shown to question the massacre. Its only when those soldiers are forced give up their individuality and function as a collective that they commit (and, at the film’s end, conspire to cover up) murder. For just that, this movie should be required viewing for anyone who insists on claiming that “individualism” is a threat to society.
The film ends on a quiet note as a somber Cooper announces that he no longer sees a “peaceful” solution. This scene gets its power largely from Nesbitt’s own charismatic performance. Playing the closest thing the film has to a central character, Nesbitt makes his early enthusiasm for the march so infectious that its simply devastating to see him after the massacre, angry and disillusioned. It also reminds the viewer that, in the years after Bogside, there was no peace and many more innocent people — on both sides of the conflict — would die. The British army may have thought it was going to scare Northern Ireland into submission but instead, they helped to perpetuate a continuing cycle of death, destruction, and hatred that, regardless of any treaty, continues to this very day.
I should admit that I’m a fourth Irish. My great-grandparents were born and raised in Ardglass, Northern Ireland. Though I’ve never been, I hope to visit Ardglass some day. Though I no longer consider myself to be a member of any religion, I was raised in the Catholic church. As such, I’ve always had an interest in Irish history and the Troubles in particular. I’ve also always been biased towards the nationalist side.
So, it would be fair for someone to ask if I’d have the same reaction to this film if I was a Protestant with family living around London and the honest answer is that I don’t know.
However, the power of Bloody Sunday doesn’t come from political ideology. Instead, the movie serves as a disturbing but powerful reminder of what can happen when people surrender their free will to groupthink. Though the oppressors in Bloody Sunday may be British, recent history has proven that, when actively opposed, those with all the power will always react with the same brutal fury. The forces of oppression remain the same whether they’re in Northern Ireland, Iran, Honduras, or the U.S.A.