Most movies bend over backward to explain everything to the audience; not so with “Bloody Sunday,” Paul Greengrass’ uncompromising recreation of Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972 — the day British soldiers shot 27 unarmed protesters, killing 13.
The accents run thicker than Guinness, and everybody talks at the same time; the handheld camera stays right in the middle of the action, never pulling back for a god’s-eye view of the proceedings; and the pace is relentless.
By placing you right in the thick of things, writer-director Greengrass elicits the frustration and confusion of the participants on both sides. There’s no time to catch your breath, no time to step back and reason through what’s going on.
The movie begins by cutting between plans by Derry’s Catholics for a peaceful march and the British army’s plans to contain it. Led by their member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), the people of Derry are marching for basic civil rights, protesting the mass internment without trial of suspected Irish Republican Army members.
Greengrass portrays naivete on both sides leading up to the confrontation — Cooper’s belief that the march can go forward peacefully, and the army’s belief that it can arrest hundreds of young “hooligans” and send a proper message. The film is not without sympathy for the soldiers, who feel out of their depth as they try to contain, not engage, an unruly crowd.
Violence erupts quickly and chaotically. Facing resistance as they try to forcibly alter the parade route, a few soldiers hear what sound like gunshots — we never learn for sure what they are. Fearing that the protesters are armed, they open fire and begin mowing them down.
Nesbitt anchors “Bloody Sunday” with his forceful, ultimately heartbreaking performance as Cooper, a Protestant who sees his Catholic constituents enduring basic human injustice. Cooper begins the day as a cheerfully harried politician who sees himself as a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. (The protesters even sing “We Shall Overcome.”)
But he becomes grim and taciturn as he’s forced to console distraught families while digesting his personal failure to effect peaceful change. At the end of the day, he articulates his own helplessness, telling the British in a press conference: “You’ve destroyed the civil rights movement, and you’ve given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have.”
Other recognizable British and Irish actors pop up in pivotal supporting roles: Gerard McSorley, who specializes in stern, slippery Irish authority figures, has a sympathetic turn as Derry’s police superintendent. With a smattering of dialogue and a handful of wordless close-ups, he communicates the frustration of local authorities who know they could have done a better job preventing the violence.
Greengrass’ just-the-facts approach falters when he attempts a Romeo-and-Juliet subplot, involving a Catholic lad trying to distance himself from the hooliganism in his past for the sake of his Protestant girlfriend. Since the movie provides no context, the romance has no depth; they’re just two pups in love.
For its blow-by-blow account of a military operation gone wrong, “Bloody Sunday” could be called a “Black Hawk Down” for the Troubles. But as the stirring U2 song about the events in the film plays over the closing credits, it becomes an elegy not only for the Derry victims but for everyone who died in the senseless violence that followed. “Bloody Sunday” is tightly coiled, powerful and terribly sad.