Director infuses 'Bloody Sunday' with anguish 'Bloody Sunday' relives Northern Ireland's civil-rights march

British director Paul Greengrass has made in "Bloody Sunday" a political movie about the slaughter of unarmed protesters during a civil-rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972, that rouses anger and anguish without reducing the catastrophe to slogans. In the film, he pins the killings of 13 civilians and the wounding of 14 others on panicky British soldiers. But he doesn't downplay the awful fright military men experience when rock-throwing hooligans confront them at the rear of a huge if otherwise peaceful crowd.

The man immediately at fault is the British officer (played by Tim Pigott-Smith) who pressures a brigade commander (Nicholas Farrell) to deploy the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment: these "Paras" are the toughest, most aggressive soldiers in the British Army. Implicitly, however, the film reserves its most devastating blame for British and Northern Irish politicians who refused to engage with the Derry civil-rights movement. Confronted with the marchers' outrage over the jailing of Irish nationalists without trial, the British resort to military force, catalyzing the sort of jagged-edged swirl that breeds the killing of civilians.

In a recent conversation, Greengrass said he deliberately made the actions that trigger the British soldiers' fusillade "floating and volatile and ambiguous, as I'm sure they were. The truth is we will never know the totality of what happened. In a sense, it doesn't matter, because things spiraled out of control and nothing justified that excess."

The movie follows four main characters: A 17-year-old Catholic and former stone-thrower with a Protestant girlfriend and the determination to stay out of trouble; the British commander wary of his superior and the plan to curtail the march or use it to crack down on hooliganism; a Para radio operator who sees that fellow troopers are killing not in self-defense but out of blown nerves and uncontrolled alarm; and Ivan Cooper, the heroic Protestant M.P. at the forefront of the rights movement.

James Nesbitt, perhaps the most popular TV actor in England and Ireland as well as a Northern Ireland Protestant, plays Cooper with elan and veracity. The character grows from a peppy politician to a towering statesman; he gives voice to the movie's underlying hope as well as its heartbreak.

Says Greengrass: "In the final scene, it means something for British audiences to see Jimmy Nesbitt as Cooper. When he tells the British journalists to report to their people that their government has destroyed the civil-rights movement, empowered the IRA, and will 'reap a whirlwind' — you can sense the feeling sweeping over the audience that because of what we did, or didn't do, innocent British people, too, lost their lives. For the British, the film is a way of saying we made these terrible mistakes."

Here's more of what Greengrass had to say about "Bloody Sunday":

QWhy no subtitling?

AI was opposed for two reasons. First, I come from London and, in the late '60s and early '70s, my British family would have reacted to the thick, often impenetrable Derry accent as you probably did. But I didn't want to allow language to continue marginalizing that community. It tends to be the disadvantaged that have the impenetrable accents, and in a sense that dynamic is part of what led to the escalation of the Troubles.

QYour movie has been compared to "The Battle of Algiers" for its visceral documentary impact. But there's a big difference: Everything in "The Battle of Algiers" is geared to justify or at least to provide a rationale for political violence. Your movie argues for conflict resolution and non-violent protest.

AI first saw "The Battle of Algiers" when I was 17, and it was one of the seminal things that fired my imagination. When I came to do "Bloody Sunday," I screened it again; it's a cinematic masterpiece, and its power is undiminished. But its message is a message from 1965. Then the world was filled with revolts against colonialism [filmmaker Gillo] Pontecorvo's message was that even if you destroy the terrorists' cell, you can't stop the historical inevitability of their cause. He's a brilliant director, but his message is no longer true.

We live in a different world, and I think Northern Ireland is truly representative of it. Today, the major clashes are between two peoples trying to occupy the same bit of land. And armed nationalist campaigns, in conflicts over shared terrain, can only turn oppressed minorities into oppressive minorities.

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