"Bloody Sunday" opens at a moment when two trains of history are barreling toward one another on the same track, and you're alternately shown the views from either direction. All you can do is brace yourself. In hindsight, there was an inevitability to the horrific events of Jan. 30, 1972, in the Northern Ireland town of Derry, and Paul Greengrass' reenactment of that day makes you feel the tragedy's impact as fully as any film could.
At the beginning, a Protestant Parliament member, Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), is preparing to lead the area's Catholics in a peaceful march to protest the British policy of internment without trial - all while British Major General Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) is preparing his troops for mass arrests to crack down on the "hooligans" who have resisted British rule.
By the end, 13 civilians lie dead, gunned down by British soldiers in a bloodbath that, aside from inspiring a famous U2 song (which plays over the end credits in a somber live version), set the stage for years of escalating violence.
Writer-director Greengrass, using Don Mullan's book "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday" as source material, draws on his experience as a documentarian (and discards the icky sentimentality of his 1997 Helena Bonham Carter/Kenneth Branagh weepie "The Theory of Flight") to thrust you into the middle of this conflict. Handheld cameras, often on the run, give the action a startling sense of intimacy while the movie remains panoramic in its scope.
The approach is similar to that of "Black Hawk Down," but this is by far the superior film. Unlike Ridley Scott's battle movie, which portrayed weaponry more vividly than humans, "Bloody Sunday" gives you a sense of distinct characters and multiple viewpoints, as well as the geography of a town turned into a battlefield. Greengrass' film has its villains, but its devastating emotional impact stems largely from the sense that understandable human impulses are at the root of almost every ill-fated decision.
The movie divides its attentions among Cooper; a stringy-haired, 17-year-old Catholic boy named Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy), who wants to avoid trouble so he can keep a date with his Protestant girlfriend; the sad-eyed British Brigadier Patrick MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell), who takes no pleasure in executing his superiors' hard-line strategy; and members of a British parachute regiment deployed for the first time in Derry after a rocky tenure in Belfast.
Greengrass gives the impression that instead of staging scenes, he's merely poking his (and cinematographer Ivan Strasburg's) cameras into various situations in progress, with brief blackouts serving as dividers. You don't feel like you're watching performances so much as eavesdropping on real life.
When "Bloody Sunday" played at the Sundance Film Festival, a frequent complaint was that the thick accents and overlapping dialogue rendered some lines indecipherable, yet the lost words are consistent with the way we experience chaotic events. The important point is that you never miss the gist of what's going on.
Presented with an artist's eye for the telling detail, the movie has its share of stirring images, some invented, some not, such as a "Derry Civil Rights" banner being used to cover a corpse, the head area becoming saturated with blood. Just as memorable are the various facial expressions, often glimpsed in passing, that convey outrage, resignation, indignation, determination, hatred, sorrow - the whole gamut.
The only off note is a shot of a movie theater marquee showing "Sunday Bloody Sunday," a 1971 John Frankenheimer drama that conceivably could have been playing there - and if it really was, I retract this gripe - but otherwise makes an ironic point in a movie defined by its lack of distance from its subject. The movie picks up a terrifying momentum as the day progresses and intelligent people on both sides realize the potential for disaster, yet find themselves powerless to prevent it. Urged to cancel the march in the face of the British troop buildup, Cooper refuses, insisting, "If we don't march, civil rights in this city is dead."
He has a point. Yet the march can't save the nonviolence movement, either.
The actors all disappear into their roles, but Nesbitt, best known as the affable pig farmer of "Waking Ned Devine," deserves particular praise. Cooper is this film's heart and soul, carrying us from the morning's anxious optimism - he rallies his crowd with "We Shall Overcome"- to the day's end anguish.
Cooper is a man who knows that his cause is a lot bigger than he is, and the Irish actor shows a similar humility in his performance. His ashen-faced reaction to the killings - clenched-teeth fury, choked-back sorrow - is stunning in its despair as well as its prescience regarding the incident's radicalizing effect on anti-British activists.
There's something thrilling about "Bloody Sunday," not in the traditional joy-ride way we view movies, but in its ability to plunk you into a firestorm and make you experience history on the fly. Rarely do gunshots elicit such shock. Rarely does violence feel so horrific.
By re-imagining a pivotal, terrible 24 hours, Greengrass has made a must-see film that is timely - and timeless.
4 stars (out of 4)
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass; photographed by Ivan Strasburg; edited by Clare Douglas; production designed by John Paul Kelly; music by Dominic Muldoon; produced by Mark Redhead. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, Oct. 25. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (violence, language).
Ivan Cooper - James Nesbitt
Major General Ford - Tim Pigott-Smith
Brigadier MacLellan - Nicholas Farrell
Chief Supt. Lagan - Gerard McSorley
Frances - Kathy Kiera Clarke Kevin McCorry - Allan Gildea
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times