Doing such a directly political film is tricky business because, although the microcephalic right and the witless left would disagree, there are fundamental differences between art and politics. That's why Triumph of the Will is a great movie, whereas Nazism is not a great political philosophy. The fact that two things so ideologically wedded could have such different values is one of the many reasons that the combination of art and politics has a strong tendency to produce either bad art or insipid politics. In short, art and politics are the Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger of vocational pursuits: It's hard to marry them.
Writer/director Paul Greengrass wisely avoids the twin pitfalls of political simplicity and aesthetic earnestness that ruin so many attempts at engaged filmmaking (which is to say that Ken Loach and John Sayles should take notes while watching this film), instead relying on what film does best: visual narrative and dramatic imagery.
Greengrass's vision is bleak, his film shot with a dark lens that gives the rubble-strewn streets of Derry a grayed-out feeling of despair. The actors are dressed in the worst of 1970s fashion, but the bright colors popular in wardrobes of that time have been replaced with browns and dirty off-whites. The tightness of the small apartments inhabited by his Catholic characters is emphasized by having the camera stay just in the doorways, but still reveal the entire expanse of the room. This trick gives the interiors a claustrophobic feeling that explains the motivations of a people whose movements are being increasingly restricted by the barricades and army checkpoints that have sprouted around their city.
The mood of realism that this produces in enhanced by the use of documentary-style effects, such as handheld camera, loss of focus on zooms, and, most effectively, having the action often happen just off-screen. In many instances, when a violent act occurs, the camera seems like an actual bystander, who, hearing a shot ring out, turns to look where it came from.
This adds to the narrative in two ways: First, there are conflicting stories of what precisely happened on that day, and by not showing the moment of violence, the film expresses the confusion that could allow the soldiers version of events to differ so strongly from that of all the other eyewitnesses. Second, it creates a frightening mood, a you-were-there feeling, since the camera never telegraphs where the violence will hit.
The sense of chaos created by the ingenious camera work (a product both of Greengrass's direction and cinematographer Ivan Strasburg's thoughtful shooting) is matched by the vast cast and mélange of stories. Hundreds of extras recreate the civil rights march that preceded the violence. Dozens of soldiers appear in the distance, occasionally faceless behind their helmets, occasionally close-up, evincing a weird mixture of fear and the kind of single-minded violence that often overtakes "peace-keepers" in tense situations.
The vastness of the cast prevents the film from being the kind of human story that most moviegoers like. No character really takes the lead, and no one person's story is told in depth. This is not about someone's struggle for recognition; rather, it's about a people struggling for recognition, and that's something that moviegoers may find off-putting.
Still, I think it's a worthy experiment. It was no doubt difficult to try to put together a movie about an event that shaped so many lives, and Greengrass had to make a number of compromises to get his story on film. The version of events presented is essentially that of the Catholic protesters, and I could imagine that some might think the British have been overly vilified. Nonetheless, with no soldiers even injured and 13 unarmed civilians lying dead, it's hard to think the army reacted with the greatest of grace.
In the end, the fact that Bloody Sunday refuses to become a personal narrative does not take away from its emotional impact. The naturalness of the film causes the deaths of the unnamed victims to carry more weight than a two-hour crying scene by Julia Roberts in an American melodrama, and we're spared the speechifying and sappy music that most Hollywood films use to yank your emotional chain.
Bloody Sunday is a bit slow to build, and the initial scenes are hard to understand due to the heavy Irish accents, but it's definitely worthwhile. It's approach to narrative is so unlike most of what you see in the cinema, and its story is so forceful, it almost makes you want to forgive the Irish for Sinead O'Connor. Almost.