The Blanket

Bloody Sunday
Review of Bloody Sunday. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. (2002, 110 min.)

Seaghán Ó Murchú

When framing the skyline of Derry, the camera never shows the waterfront. While changes Foyleside in new shopping centres and roadways indicate for us today the city’s determination to look like any other industrial city of the British north (as its chainstores signify), such symbols jar the traditional iconography of the unbreached Maiden City.

The siege this time, January 30th 1972, as shown through Ivan Strasburg’s camera, gives no sign of the sunny day that actually brightened the NICRA marchers.

Rather, muted earth and olive tones dominate not only the previous night but the next day. Filming in a style eerily mimicking the newsreels of the early ‘70s, the events unspool as if we are watching Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Yet Paul Greengrass dispenses with voiceover, title cards, or all but a rudimentary pair of narratives. The simplicity of the production allows the viewer to confront the events in all their mundanity. Too often, heroicising makes martyrs of the ordinary folks. We lose our ability to place them within our situation. Celebrity status usually uneases our average Joe or Seamus. Before they became Warholian images, a chanted litany, the 13 (later 14) marchers were pretty much indistinguishable from you and me. This film does not offer backstories for the dozen dead, only one young man among the 17-year-olds killed.

This documentary approach, I believe, presents the events familiar to readers of The Blanket shorn of dramatic speeches, with no impassioned stories of “how our hero learned that discrimination is wrong as a six-year-old lad” or “why I insist that our love can overcome sectarian barriers.” No violin crescendos or gospel choirs. No histrionic newscasters. And no soft-focus flashbacks or tin-whistled montages. Only reels of film, snatched out of cameras and stitched back into ragged patterns. Focusing upon Ivan Cooper’s role, the script thankfully resists preaching - the short speech that Cooper does offer, as the marchers are being shot at behind the peaceful assembly in front of Free Derry Corner summarises in a minute or so the whole collapse of the non-violent approach. James Nesbitt’s command of the role captures succinctly the idealism and the fury of a Protestant MP struggling to redress wrongs. Yet he’s tempted, in rare moments of reflection, to simply drop all of this and walk away. But he can’t. Those people keep collaring his every move, the camera constantly jangles, the phone never stops ringing: he, like all that day, runs after the action. By the time Cooper slows down, he’s again hugging his constituents, only now in the waiting room of the hospital.

As Bloody Sunday conveys the day, it’s beyond control of the Paras, the Provos, the marchers, the stewards. Imagery, more than speeches, presents the jumble to us shorn of easy soundbites. No character emerges as the easy hero. While the character of Bernadette Devlin is the last word (unless you count that inevitable U2 song over the closing credits), her call for justice resounds more as a threat than an ideal. Ivan Cooper, crushed, now departs the scene, leaving the NICRA press conference and the waiting media in the hands of those no longer willing to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The guns are handed out that night to a queue of new volunteers who will no longer run away from the tear gas and the bullets, rubber or otherwise.

Often in the film, for both the British and the Irish, words are cut, mikes out of range, blackouts cut into the clips. A casual viewer, or someone less able to pick up on a lot of muttering in various accents, cannot parse what is said on screen. The Army’s maps help, as those viewers not familiar with Derry’s Bogside would be otherwise as lost as some of those on the ground that afternoon in trying to track the route taken and the detours forced that afternoon. We must allow the camera to interpret more than our ear. We see through the camera as if we are there, but we are not. History distances us. Even Ballymun had to stand in for Derry. No more do Rossville Street’s flats loom large.

Whether the military, the Provos, or the marchers, the control of the events is simply beyond any one faction. Only the cameras witness the commotion, and the editors - whether Lords Widgery or Saville, Don Mullan’s and Dermot Walsh’s books, Trisha Ziff’s museum installations and now Paul Greengrass’ film - survive to record what soldiers, journalists, militants, and ordinary folks saw that day and night. Along with the recent Irish film of the hunger strikers, H3, Bloody Sunday deserves respect for serving as a comprehensive look at the republican movement from the perspectives of onlookers, volunteers, and its opponents alike.

P.S. Watch for the curly-topped and muttonchopped Martin McGuinness lookalike loitering in the car before the march begins. On the other hand, the Eamonn McCann actor is named as such - if only halfway through the film, it seems - and coiffured in equally accurate style for those of us old enough to have endured the decade firsthand. Since the ‘70s are back in fashion, perhaps an added incentive for younger viewers?



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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
- Ayn Rand

Index: Current Articles

27 October 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Bloody Sunday
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Under the Ulster Hand

Brian Mór


Security Forces

Brian Mór


Selling Ideas
Liam O Ruairc


Dirty Harry
Anthony McIntyre


Thoughts On The Coming War (Part 2)
Sean O Torain


Academics on Independence (Part 3)

Paul Fitzsimmons


Reform By Imprisonment
Sam Bahour


24 October 2002


Stand Up And Be Counted
Mickey Donnelly


Read It And Weep

Mick Hall


Particularity Or Universality?
Liam O Ruairc


Time Has Run Out For An Armed IRA
Anthony McIntyre


Thoughts On The Coming War
Sean O Torain


The Letters Page has been updated.




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