What is it about a bright, clear day that invites tragedy? The real Ivan Cooper (played by James Nesbitt) remembered the morning of the civil rights march as being a beautiful day with no hint of the hell unleashed later on.
Directed and written by Paul Greengrass, Bloody Sunday is just a freaking great movie. Based on the novel Eyewitness Bloody Sunday by Don Mullan, this film recreates the events of the Bloody Sunday massacre on 30 January 1972 in the town of Derry. Greengrass utilises cinéma verite style of filmmaking and with a cast of extras who were in Derry on that fateful day, the utter sense of reality is remarkable.
Bookended by press conferences, the film introduces us to the opposing perspectives that shaped that day. Firstly by the British Government, and secondly by the civil rights group led by local MP Ivan Cooper, a Protestant entrusted with leading the march against internment by a mostly Catholic Derry. Wounds inflicted by life can happen in a moment, in half an hour, and you see this ingrained in Nesbitt’s face in the press conference of the final scenes.
What Greengrass does so well, and always seems to excel at, is thrusting the audience in the whirlwind of the chaos and anarchy of that day. It is really quite astonishing.
The film starts during the 24 hours leading up to the march. We get snapshots of the citizens of Derry in their everyday lives but nothing overly sentimental; Greengrass just gives a taste of their lives as ordinary people and not as plotting members of the Provisional IRA, as the British Paramilitary claimed.
You sense the presence of the British building in the area and a buzz of excitement around the upcoming march. People who were there at the time have described it as like going to a football final. There was a sense of community and camaraderie, nothing sinister or illegal. The people of Derry break into song with ‘We Shall Overcome’ which seems to be a universal tenet of hope.
I think what Greengrass also touches on quite beautifully is the importance of politics and debate. We eternally bemoan, whine and criticise our politicians but what is unique and indeed pleasing about this film is it shows a passionate, hard-working politician in the heart of his Derry constituents trying to peacefully change their lives for the better. It emphasises that this process is much better than the blunt tool of violence. This film emphasises the importance of the political process, serving as a reminder that politicians, our representatives, play such an important part and many work tirelessly for change. We see this encapsulated repeatedly in scenes where Nesbitt (who is absolutely outstanding) is constantly juggling time with the press, police, fellow party members, personal life in the atmosphere of sectarianism. At one point we see Ivan walk past a cinema with the film Sunday Bloody Sunday playing. This wasn’t a glitch as Ebert said; the film was actually playing in Derry on that day.
There is a great scene where Ivan Cooper is marching through the streets and tries to negotiate for more elbow room from both the British Paras at one end and the Provos at the other. This symbolic centre wonderfully encapsulates what the civil rights movement were trying to achieve and the environment they were wrestling with. It also, frustratingly, reminds us of the centre that the Troubles have finally returned to after 25 years of horrific violence.
This action around Ivan is cross-cut with the British paramilitaries getting into position and various barricades in preparation for the march. Their purpose is to round up 300-400 of the so-called Derry Young hooligans to teach the community a lesson and show who is boss. They have suffered loss of life in their own ranks and now they would inflict their harsh and devastating power. For them this is war and they are psyched up to the point that the word ‘ceasefire’ means nothing.
The DVD commentary by Greengrass is excellent – he highlights how the rules of engagement changed mid-game on this day. The marchers of Derry and other areas in Northern Ireland knew the rules from precedent – they were used to throwing stones at the British and the British would respond with rubber bullets. Only if the marchers produced nail bombs or guns would the British respond in kind. This changed on Bloody Sunday. Rubber bullets were replaced by live rounds, and 13 unarmed civilians were gunned down. These were mostly young men but also many peaceful citizens like Barney McGuigan, who whilst brandishing a white handkerchief was shot in the back of the head. Many of these devastating images scar the people of Derry to this day.
In the aftermath of the fatal shootings that took place in the space of half an hour, we see the British paras go through the process of the cover-up. Nail bombs were even planted on the body of a young dead man, Gerry Donaghy. The superb editing by Clare Douglas absolutely grips the audience as it takes you into the immediate axis of the confusion. Just like the marchers, you have no sense of where you are or where you should go, but more potently you have no sense of where the British Paras are and it’s terrifying. The editing also creates an agonising pressure cooker of escalation from ordinary exchange of stones and rubber bullets, to gas, to interjections from the RUC, to increasing numbers of people, then a few shots of fire from members of the Provos and so on. It’s just such a heady dizzying tailspin that spectacularly visualises the randomness and acceleration of violence.
Many would see this as purely from the perspective of the marchers, but Greengrass was earnestly trying to recreate that day’s reality, for which Mullan’s book and the subsequent, albeit bloated Saville Inquiry have shed light on this atrocity. The significance of this day was that it effectively stopped the civil rights movement dead in its tracks. There is a chilling scene in the aftermath of the massacre, where in an anonymous dilapidated building in the dark of night, groups of young men queue up to join the IRA. The massacre proved to be a recruiting bonanza for the IRA. Greengrass is able to show the challenge of the path of non-violence. What he also seizes is the mood and climate of the times that inspired young men to seek justice by any means. What is shocking, as you watch this queue of faceless young men, is that there is a part of you that completely understands their anger.
When I was doing my journalism degree (before I abandoned it to study law), I had to do a feature story. I decided to do a piece around the announcement by the Oglaigh na hEireann to commit to putting arms beyond reach in 2005. I eventually decided to focus on the events of Bloody Sunday and I had the privilege of interviewing a gentleman by the name of John Kelly, whose brother Michael was killed on that day. Remembering that the British Paras defended their actions by saying these young men were a front for the Provisional IRA and were throwing nail bombs at them, John told me that Michael was non-political and his only interests were his work, his girlfriend and the 12 pigeons he reared with the help of his mother. That he was just joining the march with friends like so many young men do. This is the first time I’ve seen Bloody Sunday since that exchange with John and it hit me quite hard. He also highlighted that very little support has been given to the families and they have had to support each other. It just highlighted for me the very personal and anonymous victims and what Greengrass and Don Mullan were trying to achieve, to give the citizens of Derry a voice and allow them to heal.
Many are sceptical about the power of art, but what I love about the achievement of this film is its healing property. In the final scene, one of Ivan’s offsiders warns the British press they will not rest until they get justice. The Saville Inquiry continues to this day with a report expected in 2010; but as even Ivan Cooper has said, this film was able to initiate the healing.