In its urgent, passionate manner, Bloody Sunday offers itself as a piece of dramatic reportage.
Recreating the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, it whisks us from early morning preparations for the civil rights march led by Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) to the strategic build-up of British military troops all around the city streets.
Once the British open fire on innocent marchers, we follow in minute detail every second of the escalating tragedy.
The film is careful to show all the different players involved, refusing to reduce the situation to a bare British vs. Irish conflict. Thus, we are given glimpses of British officials who oppose the plan, as well as local hooligans who inflame the tensions.
There are also some beautifully judged moments of intimacy. These reveal, as in a Ken Loach movie, how political events are complicated by factors of family, class and religious belief – not to mention the unpredictable impulses of individuals.
Between all the Dogme movies of recent years and real-time television events like 24, it is easy to feel a little weary the moment that handheld cameras start shaking and scenes begin stretching out in a headlong, chaotic blur.
However, writer-director Paul Greengrass (The Theory of Flight ) reinvigorates this contemporary, realist style. A sustained, one-take scene showing Cooper working the streets as he hails neighbours, hands out pamphlets, breaks up minor skirmishes and sizes up the military presence is a small classic of narrative economy and verve.
Films that tackle political subjects are often criticised for a lack of fairness or impartiality. In the case of Bloody Sunday, such a critique would be well and truly beside the point. The film unambiguously takes a stand. Both its drama and occasional black comedy are ferociously anti-British.
Major General Ford (Tim Piggot-Smith) is surely the most loathsome figure in recent cinema. His cold, cruel, detached manner sets the tone for British military behaviour as depicted by Greengrass. At every level of this operation evasion is encouraged, deceit institutionalised and senseless hatred condoned.
A key moment offers a behind-the-military-lines hypothesis as to how innocent Irish civilians were framed in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. And the listing of subsequent events in the final credits, such as the fact that no British soldiers were ever convicted and that they were even decorated by their Queen, hammers home the horrible ironies.
On the other side of the barricades, we come to see Cooper as less a heroic than a tragic figure. For all his admirable commitment to pacifism and skill as a mediator, he realises, in a moment of shattering disillusionment, that his ideals amount to little in the face of irrational violence.
Bloody Sunday does not proscribe a better way than Cooper's to approach these events, but it does manage to sketch for us the complexity what unfolded on that fatal day.
© Adrian Martin October 2002