Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout
(Note: while this film was released in the UK in October of last year, it only got an American release this year, so I'm counting it as a 2015 film.)
'71 is the sort of film that American Sniper wanted to be: an intense, morally complicated look at a recent conflict that isn't overtly political, focusing chiefly on the trials and tribulations of one man on the front lines, but which leaves enough subtext that it's clear where its heart lies, without going out of its way to muddle any message it could possibly have lest it be accused of bias. It's both an excellent exploration of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and a rock-solid action thriller, with a star-making turn by Jack O'Connell and brilliant direction by Yann Demarge. It may have flown under the radar here in the US, but it definitely deserves recognition.
Our protagonist is Gary Hook (O'Connell), a British Army private who, upon finishing basic training, learns that he and his unit are being deployed not to West Germany like they thought, but to Belfast. It's 1971, and the situation in Northern Ireland has turned into Ferguson, Missouri with an all-white cast (hell, the only black man in the film is a British soldier), soon to boil over into an insurgency as the militant Provisional IRA takes over the Catholic opposition. While doing police duties and searching for weapons, Hook's squad comes under attack and he finds himself abandoned in the streets of Belfast, where a gang of young, radical IRA insurgents, led by Jimmy Quinn, are hunting him down. If he is to survive, Hook must navigate the muddy waters of Belfast's Catholic and Protestant communities, both of which have their saints and sinners, as well as avoid the machinations of Sgt. Lewis, who is arming Protestant paramilitaries to do his "dirty work" and seeks to silence Hook after he sees too much.
The heart of the film is Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook, a man who receives little dialogue but still manages to deliver an incredibly compelling performance as a man stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. With only his facial expressions, his tears, and his cries of pain, O'Connell was able to show me exactly what was going through Hook's head at any given moment. It takes a lot to be able to pull that off with so few words, but O'Connell manages it admirably. However, while he was undoubtedly the main character, the rest of the film was very much an ensemble piece. A slew of British and Irish television actors bring to life the rest of the cast, who represent all sides of the Troubles and each feel like fully fleshed-out human beings. On the Protestant side, we see corrupt soldiers arming ruthless militia groups that freely target civilians, but as we see with the young boy who's grown up listening to his family's rants against the "papists", they're genuinely afraid that the end of British rule in Northern Ireland will see them driven from their homes and a Catholic theocracy established -- and the Republic of Ireland in 1971, while ostensibly free and democratic, wasn't exactly a place where even legitimate criticism of the Church flew very far. (See: the Magdalene laundry scandal.) On the Catholic side, we have a community that's at the end of its rope with the quiet discrimination and ghettoization they face in everyday life; Eamon, a British army veteran, freely tells Hook about how he grew disenchanted during his twenty years of service and came to sympathize with the nationalists. However, they are growing deeply divided between moderate leaders like Doyle and radicals like Quinn, often fighting each other more than the Protestants when they aren't shooting soldiers in the street. Meanwhile, young Catholic men like Sean, looking for a sense of purpose and a place to fit in, are hurt most of all.
I won't lie: I, like many Americans who claim affinity with Ireland, had often seen the story of the Troubles presented through a green-tinted lens, with the IRA presented as heroic, romantic freedom fighters. Between America's large Irish population and our nation having been founded in a war of independence from the English, it's hardly surprising that Hollywood has often played a huge part in advancing that myth. I'd long known it was bullshit -- the IRA were not above indiscriminate bombings as much as any Iraqi insurgents -- but watching this film was still a huge splash of cold water. The truth was, both sides in the Troubles were guilty of disgusting crimes, and both sides also had their fair share of people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, be it protecting their homes in the face of a hostile community or fighting for their right to live free from institutionalized repression. A moment that displays this perfectly comes when an inept Protestant militia accidentally blows themselves up along with the pub they were assembling their bomb in, and Doyle and Quinn, the two rival IRA leaders, immediately suspect each other's involvement and accuse each other of escalating the conflict. Everybody in that scene is shown to be guilty in some way, from the Protestants building the bomb, to the British who were supplying them with the tools to do so, to the rival IRA factions whose complicity in similar terrorist acts is strongly implied. And as Hook watches all this play out, he grows to question whether his own cause is worth fighting for, building up to a gut punch of an ending that I won't dare spoil.
All of this plays out in the manner of an action-packed war movie. It's a bit slower-paced and smaller in scope than most war movies, feeling less like Black Hawk Down and almost like a crime or spy thriller, but no less intense. While at first glance it may look like a movie where hordes of raging IRA members and sympathizers are hunting down this one soldier, in reality the villains are basically a small gang of only about four or five guys, many of whom are just as developed as characters as the protagonist is. Close-quarters shootouts are fought in alleyways and pubs, while a good chunk of the climax revolves around Hook sneaking his way out of the projects as Quinn's gang hunts for him, and every step was an exercise in tension. It's shot in a manner reminiscent of Paul Greengrass' films, but unlike many such imitators of his handheld cinematic style, it doesn't merely exploit it for the sake of looking cool or covering up inadequate staging. Director Yann Demange may well be the first filmmaker I've seen who's successfully managed to use that style as well as Greengrass did, remembering to make every scene feel coherent rather than jerky and using handheld cameras to put the viewer on the ground with Hook, Quinn, Doyle, and the rest of this film's characters. I hope this marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Demange (who also made the excellent miniseries Dead Set) as an action filmmaker, because he did amazing work here.
Score: 5 out of 5
Don't let this film slip past you. It may only be playing in a few American theaters right now, but when it hits video, seek it out. It's one of the best war movies I've seen in a very long time, and is a must-watch for any fan of tight, intense action thrillers, as well as anybody interested in the Troubles.