Bloody Sunday is writer and director Paul Greengrass’ reconstruction of the events of January 30, 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland. On that date, Ivan Cooper, the member of Parliament for the area, tried to lead 15,000 of his constituents in a peaceful civil-rights march protesting the curfews and internments implemented by the British government. Confrontations between rock-throwing demonstrators and British troops escalated into gunfire—first rubber bullets fired over demonstrators’ heads and then lead fired directly into the crowd. By the time the smoke cleared, 27 marchers had been shot, and 13 were dead.
The march was held in defiance of a ban on such demonstrations. Greengrass opens his film with scenes of Cooper (James Nesbitt) addressing his followers and planning the march, juxtaposed with others scenes of Major-General Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) laying down the law to the local press. It’s as if the two men already are drawing the lines on which the day’s clash will occur. In these very first minutes, Greengrass draws a picture of two mindsets on a collision course, and then he lets the wreck come.
Greengrass doesn’t avoid taking sides, however. He shows members of the Irish Republican Army as cynical observers on the sidelines of the march, sneering that it will serve no purpose and stashing their guns against the opportunity to use them. Still, he makes it clear that he doesn’t buy the results of the British inquiry and the self-serving stories of the soldiers after the massacre (none of those involved were disciplined; some were decorated). In Greengrass’ telling, the soldiers go into the situation with chins thrust belligerently out; maybe they’re looking for trouble, maybe not. In any case, they’re expecting it, and the trouble they expect comes in just the way they expect it; the crisis is self-fulfilling. Cooper pulls together all the elements of the march—talking always about Gandhi, Martin Luther King and nonviolence—while Ford moves his troops into position, snarling about “hooligans” and “yobbos.” Greengrass makes us squirm as we see events spiral out of control.
In fact, at times it almost seems that the film itself is spiraling out of control. Greengrass’ camera moves restlessly through his scenes. His microphones skitter around the outskirts of the frame—sometimes catching the dialogue and sometimes missing it. Between muttered whispers, overlapping conversations and glutinous Irish brogues, we catch maybe three words in 10. Part of the effect, of course, is pseudo-documentary: We feel not as if we are watching events reenacted, however expertly (think of Black Hawk Down), but as if we are seeing the events themselves as caught by news teams first roving the offices of the British Army and Cooper’s Derry Civil Rights Association. We feel as though we’re marching with the locals and then finally cowering behind walls and fences when the bullets begin to fly. Greengrass gives us the impression that he set out to make a documentary about a peaceful march back in 1972 and then simply left the cameras rolling after things got ugly.
The film’s apparent chaos is part of Greengrass’ technique; by making us wonder if the film is getting away from him, he dramatizes how the march got away from Cooper and the military response got away from Ford. Not only does Greengrass capture the sights and sounds of the events of the day, he also gets under the surface to embody the fury, frenzy and panic that seizes everyone.
Given the style in which the movie works, it hardly seems pertinent to talk about performances. We don’t think about Nesbitt playing Ivan Cooper; we don’t think of him as Nesbitt at all. The actors all merge with the characters they’re playing. We almost expect them to glance at the camera and say, “Turn that thing off.”
Bloody Sunday has been rightly compared to movies like Costa-Gavras’ Z, about the assassination of a Greek politician, and Gillo Ponticorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, about that French colonial uprising. Like them, Bloody Sunday doesn’t dramatize or re-enact history so much as throw us back into it and make us feel it in our bones.