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Film Review: “Bloody Sunday”

James Nesbitt stars in Paul Greengrass' film

Credit: Paramount Classics

Above: James Nesbitt stars in Paul Greengrass' film "Bloody Sunday."

Most Americans probably know something about Bloody Sunday--getting their information from either the news media or from U2's popular song--but the details are probably fuzzy. Paul Greengrass' film "Bloody Sunday" (opening October 2) tries to bring those details into focus.

Bloody Sunday refers to January 30, 1972, a day that began with great optimism for Ivan Cooper, a Protestant Member of Parliament representing a mostly Irish-Catholic constituency in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He had planned a peaceful civil rights march to protest British internment without trial. But by nightfall, hope had turned to despair. The British Army had fired into the crowd of unarmed marchers, killing 13 and wounding more than a dozen. The official inquiry at the time overseen by Lord Chief Justice Widgery--failed to find any wrongdoing on the part of the army, which claimed soldiers were fired on first. But that investigation was later discredited. Bloody Sunday became a major turning point in the history of the modern Irish Troubles, pushing the conflict into a civil war, driving many young Irish Catholic men into the ranks of the IRA and fueling a 30-year cycle of violence.

The new film, "Bloody Sunday" attempts to bring this fateful day vividly back into the public mind, thanks to a collaboration between British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and Irish author Don Mullan. The film draws heavily on Mullan's book, "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday," which was a collection of 100 statements made by people who had witnessed the day’s events. Greengrass takes these statements and weaves in a British perspective as well. He lets the film unfold in a single day from dawn till dusk, from the arrival of thousands of troops on the streets of the besieged city to the violent confrontation between British soldiers and the crowds of civilian demonstrators. It focuses in particular on four men: Ivan Cooper, the idealistic Civil Rights leader who was inspired by Martin Luther King; Gerry Donaghy, a 17-year-old Catholic rebel, who wants to settle down with his Protestant girlfriend; Brigadier Patrick MacLellan, the commander of the British Army in Londonderry who was under pressure to take firm action to stop the march; and a young private in the Paras (the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment). Greengrass acknowledges that the film sides with the civil rights marchers but says the film also captures a major turning point in Irish and British relations, a day that would turn out to be a tragedy for both countries. Whether the films version of events does capture the truth still isn't entirely clear. A second inquiry -- under Lord Saville -- is currently underway and won't conclude for another two years.

In a sense, the film is only the tip of the iceberg, showing us a single pivotal day in a centuries old conflict between Britain and Ireland. Even the town’s name where Bloody Sunday took place is in dispute with Protestants referring to it as Londonderry and the Irish Nationalists favoring its old Gaelic name of Derry. Back in the 17th century, Protestants loyal to William of Orange held out against a long siege by the Catholic armies of James II. (And marches by the Orange men through Catholic neighborhoods today still causes conflicts.) In modern times, Derry had been the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement in 1968 and in 1969 saw Catholics in the Bogside hold out against an attack from militant Protestants, who were attempting to burn them out of their homes.

By focusing on a single moment in the longstanding conflict between Britain and Ireland, Greengrass hopes audiences can all learn a lesson, seeing how the story resonates for conflicts in the Middle East, Kashmir or the former Yugoslavia. The film ends with Cooper making a statement to the press; he points out that the British have effectively killed the civil rights movement and given the IRA their greatest victory, and they will reap a whirlwind. That whirlwind has since claimed the lives of more than 3500 people on both sides of the conflict. Director Paul Greengrass hopes that his film "Bloody Sunday" will remind people of a moment in time when moderate voices were drowned out by more extreme ones.

Interview with director Paul Greengrass

BETH ACCOMANDO: I read that before you began filming you went to Londonderry or Derry to ask the survivors of Bloody Sunday for permission of a sort to make the film.

PAUL GREENGRASS: Basically this film began for me when I went to Derry to talk to the families. There’s a group of people who waited 30 years for justice and here I was a British filmmaker saying I wanted to make a film about The Day and obviously they can be forgiven for being suspicious. But in the end, what I said to them was: This was a tragedy most of all for you, the families of innocent people who lost their lives, but its also a tragedy for the entire city of Derry, it was a tragedy for Northern Ireland, for Ireland, but also for Britain because this event--Bloody Sunday--has cast a shadow over all of us, whether British or Irish. You know, the Troubles--this 30 years of conflict--has cost thousands and thousands of innocent lives. So the idea of this movie was that myself--a British person, someone who's proud to be British, my image of Britain is as a lovely creative force for good in the world--would come and join with people of Derry, who had grown up with different perceptions of Britain’s role 30 years ago, join together with people from Dublin and together we would make this film as an act of reconciliation. It provoked intense soul searching, it was a hugely controversial, massive event if you like, but the energy was basically healing energy. It didn't stir up feelings of anger and vengeance and resentment. I think there was a tremendous sense both in Britain and Ireland, when this film came out, a sober moment of recollection that that was a story from the start of the conflict, from the heart of the conflict that was called the Troubles.

BA: Do you think that the fact that you were British helped to make the film seem more balanced in its perspective than if it had been made by an entirely Irish crew?

PG: Yes absolutely. Bloody Sunday was the darkest day of the Troubles. It was the day that 13 innocent people lost their lives; it was the day that drove many young Catholic men into the arms of the IRA; it was a day that sowed such bitterness that it would take a generation before the conflict could even begin to be solved. So the whole essence of this movie was to deal with those differences of opinion by bringing people together. So yeah, its absolutely vital to achieve balance and not to stereotype people. This movie essentially tells the story of four people at the heart of that conflict, all of whom wanted the events of the day to pass off peacefully. But it shows how their good intentions were undone by immoderate voices around them.

BA: The tone of the film is a mix between having a distinct perspective on what happened along with a voyeuristic objectivity that just seems to be catching things as they happen.

PG: What I wanted to do was to balance these characters so that you understand all the forces at play. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a film that doesn't have a point of view. I think the point of view of this film is quite clear--it’s on the side of the civil rights march. The civil rights movement in Ireland had tremendous optimism and tremendous idealism and, more to the point, I think it was the one movement that held the seeds of solving the problems of Northern Ireland. Today, 30 years later, when Northern Ireland is building at peace, we have returned to the ideals of the civil rights movement because the way were unlocking peace there is on the basis of shared rights and not contested nationalities. The dreams and idealistic visions of the civil rights movement of Northern Ireland, which had as its inspiration in the American Civil rights movement, is urgently relevant today because those ideals are applicable to many other places in the world.

BA: When you make a film about a real event, you have to deal with not only the artistic decisions of how to film it but also with the obligation to depict those events with accuracy. So how do you strike a balance?

PG: It’s a movie that’s not afraid to be unclear, it's not afraid to portray the chaos of events. The truth is you can have a chaotic event and yet you can be clear ultimately about what happened. That’s the kind of balance I tried to strike.

BA: So how did you want to depict the violence? How graphic did you want to be in showing the murders so that you were not sensationalizing them?

PG: I think the answer is that my best guide was my experience as a filmmaker. When I started as a young filmmaker I made documentaries. I’ve been making dramas but you never forget your roots. I remember being in places like Beirut or El Salvador or the Philippines--places where there were tremendous conflicts--and what a camera does in a conflict is become skittish. You very rarely see people shot on camera for one good reason, when guns start going off, nobody really knows where the shooting is coming from and no one can predict where the bullets are going to land. And then eventually when the camera settles, you see the cost, you see it there and that was really how I tried to do it. I tried to imagine in my mind what this scene would have looked like to me if I had been there that day thirty years ago, and somewhere we succeeded in conveying this ringside quality, that’s the thing that grips people.

BA: Toward the end we see a line of young Irish Catholic men waiting to join up with the IRA, and I couldn't help but think of that line from Shakespeare: "We but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor."

PG: Yes without a doubt. The conflict in Northern Ireland, all my adult life, has been believed to be insoluble. Bombs would go off, people would be shot, innocent people would die. And there would be outrage and anguish and pain, and three days later we would move on until the next one, as if that was just the price we had to pay.

BA: Do you think this film could have been made earlier or did it need to have this distance?

PG: I mean a film about Bloody Sunday could have been made at any point but it hasn't been, and that’s interesting, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think if a film had been made earlier about Bloody Sunday, it probably would have been a much angrier film, a film that was a call for vengeance, a call to arms, and that would not have been helpful. I think that the fact that this film was made at a time when peace is being built in Ireland allows you the space to look back at the conflict and address its key factors, its key turning points. So in any conflict there comes a time when you make the peace, when you have a reckoning, and this movie is part of the reckoning in Northern Ireland, the sober reckoning of what went wrong and why.

BA: In the U.S., 9-11 has seemed to make us focus on this single terrorist event on our soil and almost to the point of blindness to what has been going on in places like Northern Ireland.

PG: I know what you're saying, but I don't think I quite agree in that I don't think there’s a blindness. What I think is, when I went down to ground zero, I was very struck thinking there’s probably no two nations in the world that would consider themselves closer friends and closer supporters of the U.S. than England and Ireland, and yet we have had this immensely troubled modern history And, in a way, you stand at ground zero and actually the reverse, curiously of what you're talking, about happened. I felt suddenly that we had probably been very parochial in our view of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. You know we had become so engrossed--whether you are British or Irish and particularly if you live in Northern Ireland--with the human cost, and the tragedy, and the intractability, and the impossibility of finding any progress in your own backyard that you become blind to the wider world. In Britain and Ireland, it had a tremendous impact in making us suddenly think our differences were petty and minor and if we couldn't resolve our differences, how are we going to begin to address the challenge of 9-11, the challenge to all of us, not only the U.S. but Britain and Ireland and Europe and all the rest of us.

BA: Your film tries to bring a sense of balance to the discussion of terrorism. Now I’m not drawing any parallels between the IRA and al Qaeda--yet what you're doing in your film seems in conflict to the way George Bush wants us to see terrorism as a clear cut case of good and evil, we have the Evil Doers and the Champions of Truth, Justice and the American Way.

PG: I agree with you. Bloody Sunday is a story from our war against terror--if you want to call it that--innocent people died in Bloody Sunday and many, many innocent people died in Britain at the hands of the IRA. I think you're right, there’s no parallel between the IRA and al-Qaeda, but certainly there are lessons from history and Bloody Sunday is one of them. And one of the mistakes that the British government made, and, in a sense, and without for a second justifying what was done on Bloody Sunday, the truth is that if you're a democracy, its very hard to respond to terrorism. Terrorism is a very potent weapon against democracies because essentially it induces collective nervous breakdown. Were not very well equipped to deal with small groups of people who slaughter innocent people. Very quickly civil rights get eroded and very quickly democracies can be led to militarize and overreact, and very quickly you run the risk of alienating--in societies that they're in conflict with--the very moderate people who they would most like to engage in dialogue with. And of course that’s part of what terrorists try to do, that’s why they use the weapon of terror, because it destroys the possibility of dialogue. And that’s one of the stories of Bloody Sunday. It was a terrible mistake, it was an immense catastrophe for the British because we alienated the very moderate people in Northern Ireland that we most needed and wanted to talk to. And so to that degree I think its an interesting film from a post 9-11 perspective.

Interview with writer Don Mullan

BETH ACCOMANDO: Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were writing the book?

DON MULLAN: I wrote it with a general audience in mind and also to give voice to the people of Derry. I was very conscious of the fact that the eyewitness statements, which are the primary ingredient of the actual book, had been all but ignored by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, as part of his Inquiry. It was quite an extraordinary exercise that had been engaged in by the members of the civil rights movement and the National Council of Civil Liberties movement, they came up with the idea that they would get people to immediately commit to paper their recollections of what had happened. So between two hours and 48 hours after Bloody Sunday, people came forward and made statements. I was one of those who made statements because I had been in the vortex of the killing fields and Id been in fact literally two feet away from Michael Kelly when he was shot dead and I mean I know that Michael Kelly was unarmed. So it was really in a sense to give voice--on coming up to the 25th anniversary--to those primary source historical documents that I actually did the book.

BA: What's the evolutionary process of a real event getting translated to a book and then to a movie?

DM: I think that the film has been very, very true, particularly when it comes to the point where the paratroopers are moving in, and the way they dealt with the demonstration on that particular day. Again I think if Irish people, on their own, made this film, it would just simply be dismissed as propaganda. The fact that Irish and British people together worked with integrity to make this film, that is what makes it powerful, and I think that in terms that my two English counterparts and colleagues, Paul Greengrass and Mark Redhead, I think they showed tremendous courage.

BA: I heard a statistic that said the same number of people have died in the 30 years of the Troubles as died in the World Trade tragedy. How do you think the events of 9-11 will affect the way Americans see the events of Bloody Sunday and its aftermath?

DM:. I was here in the U.S. when 9-11 actually happened and I visited the crash site of flight 93 about four hours after the plane went down. I feel that there is a justifiable anger in people for the way that civilian aircrafts were turned into flying bombs that were used to attack, in a sense, soft targets. It was absolutely horrific. I think that the response to that has to be very measured and I think one thing that Bloody Sunday should teach is that one should be very careful about committing the military to try and bring about a solution long term. Long term, if we want a peaceful society, if we want a peaceful world, it has to be underpinned by justice and human rights and that requires dialogue, it requires understanding, it requires patience. And I think that there is a tremendous need with regards to American foreign policy that it looks at the wider Islamic world and recognizes that its a world that must be engaged in a respectful way. In regards to the numbers, in terms of 9-11 and 13 having died on Bloody Sunday, the only thing I can say is how can you compute the worth of any life. You cant. Bloody Sunday was an individual tragedy for each of the families of the thirteen who died, just as it was an individual tragedy for each of the 3000 who lost their lives on 9-11

Interview with Ivan Cooper

BETH ACCOMANDO: How do you feel about the way you've been portrayed in the film Bloody Sunday?

IVAN COOPER: It was quite an uncanny experience. But the entire film for me was a difficult period because when I first saw it, I viewed the film with the relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday, and the film itself is so realistic from every perspective that I was right back there on the streets of Derry--the terror, the fear, and most important of all, the hopelessness--it was all there. In regards to Jimmy Nesbitt's portrayal of me, first of all he’s an extremely fine actor, but to play the part, Jimmy had to have a sensitivity. My religious persuasion is that I am Church of Ireland, I am not Catholic, I was elected by a substantially Catholic, nationalist population and Jimmy Nesbitt comes from the same sort of background as I come from, therefore I think he gave real expression to the part he was playing.

BA: How do you feel the film captured the events of Bloody Sunday?

IC: When Paul first came to see me and talk to me about the events of Bloody Sunday, I was a little bit careful because the idea of Englishmen portraying one of our great tragedies, had to be approached with a great deal of care. But I looked at some of the work that he had been identified with prior to this particular film, I listened to the man and the passion that he had about portraying on film the events which happened, and I felt that it would make a contribution toward alleviating some of the pain felt by the relatives, and not only the relatives, because when this happened 30 years ago there were 20,000 people at that march and those 20,000 people saw what happened, and we all knew that these people were innocent. We knew that the people who were shot dead were totally innocent, and that murder had taken place on the streets of our city on that day, and this murder was carried out by a regiment of the British army.

BA: How do you think people would have reacted if Bloody Sunday had been made by an all-Irish crew?

IC: Well, the British political interests would have immediately said that this was propaganda on the part of the Republican movement. But this film is not propaganda. It’s not about propaganda. It’s about examining the events of that particular day, and I believe it is being done in a brutally accurate way. And its a sign of maturity of any society or any community that it can look at the wrongs that were done in their name and attempt to put it right, and that’s what Paul Greengrass has done with the film.

BA: The film made me think of the Shakespeare line: "We but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor."

IC: Well absolutely. Because what happened immediately after that, we had a very powerful civil rights movement in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1971, the whole ethos of non-violence was embraced, but immediately after Bloody Sunday young men were coming to me and saying to me Forget about your non-violence stance there’s only one way to cope with this problem and that is by the use of the gun and we’ve got to get our revenge. And what happened after that was we had 25 years of violence.

BA: In the U.S. people seem to know but not really know what Bloody Sunday means. Do you think the film will clarify that for them?

IC: I advise American people to take a look at this film because there are lessons for the governments of the world but there are also lessons for people as individuals and their attitudes toward how a government operates. It’s an extremely powerful film. For me it has been an extremely difficult and traumatic event, to have to have recreated it but I believe it will play its part in making the world aware of what happened on that day and the mistake the British government made.

Interview with John Kelly

BETH ACCOMANDO: How old were you on Bloody Sunday?

JOHN KELLY: I was 23 on Bloody Sunday. And my brother Michael was killed that day.

BA: How do you feel about the way the events of Bloody Sunday have been translated to film?

JK: I feel the film was a very strong portrayal of what happened at that time. I remember the first time Id seen it was at the forum in Derry and I was very uptight and anxious because I didn’t know what it was going to say. But by the time the film was over and done with, I was certainly relived and overjoyed that that the film portrayed Bloody Sunday as it actually happened. That was vitally important to us, to the families. What Paul Greengrass and Mark Redhead did was a fantastic job in relation to the killings. I know it might sound morbid but it was vitally important to us, we knew that this was a great medium to get the word out to the world, and it was vitally important that the killings be portrayed as they were and as they truthfully happened. I was totally relieved, happy and joyful at the fact that Paul Greengrass produced a film and put Bloody Sunday back on the map again and a portrait that no one can get away from.

BA: To me, the film seemed to capture a moment when hope got lost.

JK: What actually happened, and what I’ve always maintained, is that the Paras [the British Army’s 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment] not only murdered 13 individuals on that day and attempted to murder another 14, but in the aftermath of what happened on Bloody Sunday, and as everyone knows now, young people joined the paramilitary and young people joined the IRA, and I honestly believe that Bloody Sunday enhanced the Troubles.

BA: Do you think its better that an Englishman made the film so that it can be perceived as more balanced than if it had been an entirely Irish production?

JK: Well naturally so, because I think at the end of the day these two men were very brave to take this project on. You also have Jimmy Nesbitt [the actor playing Ivan Cooper], who’s a Protestant who came from Northern Ireland as well himself, and you have Ivan Cooper, who’s also a Protestant. But these people when they looked at the Bloody Sunday issue, knew that there was a wrong done. I think they felt that they had to do something about it.

BA: Do you wish this film had been made 20 years ago?

JK: I don't know if it could have been made 20 years ago. On the 25th anniversary we had Don come up with this book and it just seemed to be a logical progression right through the last ten years. The result is we have a large film which is running in America, we have books written about Bloody Sunday, so the time is ripe, the time is right, and also because were right in the middle of this new Inquiry as well. So we reckon we have a long time to go on that as well, so the time is definitely right because its about awareness and about educating the world and letting people know, and educating them to the extent of what Bloody Sunday was all about.

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