When I visited Belfast a couple years ago, I was struck not just by its beauty and industrial history, but by the uneasiness that hung in the air. The tension from The Troubles lurked over the place like fog. Tragedy and bloodshed felt fresh, like the city still had an open wound. The “Good Friday” Agreement, after all, was signed in 1998, and the violence has lent a permanent aura of frustration. The Troubles, a conflict between Catholic nationalists who wished to secede from the UK and join a united Ireland and the Protestant loyalists who wanted to remain a part of the UK, lasted for thirty years, and is one of the most underreported conflicts in history.
In a brutal 99 minutes, Yann Demange captures the torturous conflict, in an astounding theatrical directorial debut highlighting the sociopolitical trap that every side was in, from the youthful radicals of the IRA to their more conservative (yet no less dastardly) forebears, the British Army, RUC (Northern Ireland’s police force), the Machiavellian soldiers playing both sides and Belfast’s citizens submerged in what feels like a gang war fighting an ultimately meaningless battle over their turf.
’71 hurls audiences into the eye of this complicated storm, and the result is gut-wrenching. This lean and feral film is the first great one of 2015, deserving of a much bigger audience than it will likely receive. Demange’s film opens with a British Army montage, of troops going through hairy obstacles, in it together, helping one another through it (which becomes a tease, a lie once in battle; teamwork and comradery collapse in the face of politics). While the conditions and insane drills the soldiers go through are grueling, this opening scene lulls you into a false sense of security. This is going to be like every other war movie, you might think.
When the British Army learn that they’re heading to Northern Ireland, the unease and trepidation with which they receive their first post is palpable. It was a Civil War equivalent: Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom; most soldiers have relatives there and for some, it is home.
Their first day, the troops’ painfully young and naive Lt. Armitage (Belle‘s Sam Reid) sends them into the Troubles without their riot gear. He wants to show Belfast that they’re there to protect, not instill fear. Their presence is greeted by literal shit raining down upon them, as kids throw their feces at the forces. It’s unfortunate, gross, a little hilarious, yet again, Demange is toying with you, because soon Irish nationalists start throwing rocks and crowding the overmatched, green group. You’re wincing, screwing up your eyes, waiting for the inevitable spray of retaliatory gunfire in response. Instead, a kid steals a rifle from the Army, two soldiers (including our presumptive hero) run after him, separated from their platoon, and get swallowed up by nationalistic vitriol. Amid the fracas, Armitage is forced to retreat, unwittingly leaving two of his men behind amongst a mob. And the young, radical members of the IRA haven’t even arrived. Yet. It doesn’t end well (nothing does in this movie), leaving Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) alone in Divis Flats, ground zero for unrest and political turmoil and the most dangerous neighborhood in Belfast, especially for a British soldier with everyone looking for him.
And that’s when the movie really gets started, leading into an incredibly shot chase scene, the camera struggling to keep up, everyone hyperventilating. It’s hard to find movies with the capacity to surprise you nowadays, but ’71 has two moments that legitimately floored me, tremors of violence that shatter Hook’s world.
There are moments of brief serendipity that felt like Hollywood movie contrivances, except like everything else, they were fake outs, methods to put Hook through even more pain and suffering. During another disturbing scene, Eamon (Richard Dormer, or Beric Dondarrion of Game of Thrones), a former Army medic, tells Hook, “you’re just a piece of meat.” This was clearly screenwriter Gregory Burke’s central point, with Belfast and its political factions serving as the meat grinder.
Unbroken was hailed as Jack O’Connell’s breakout role, a surefire notice of his impending stardom. For many reasons, it wasn’t. But ’71, his other insane survival story, is. Unbroken glorifies Louis Zamperini, and touts the heroism and survival of one man in a war that saw millions of people die. Whereas ’71 doesn’t care to share Gary Hook’s name until he’s been left behind, until the army realizes they have to cover their ass by finding this kid. The point is clear: this could’ve happened to any soldier, and likely did. Hook is this film’s hero, but he’s just like everyone else, lost and torn every which way by a conflict with innumerable sides, alliances and political motives.
O’Connell doesn’t have a lot to say, but he doesn’t need to. He just reacts, and the terror and disorientation leaps from his face. He has a lot to react to. ’71 does an incredible job of juggling characters and showcasing the various sides and allegiances and machinations at play. It’s tough to follow, but that’s the point. Hook finds himself pinned down in Belfast, pulled every which way by the IRA, the British Army, RUC, and the seemingly infinite factions splintered between them. It was like watching a man stuck in a limitlessly pronged Chinese finger trap. The more Hook struggled, the tighter the coil wrapped around him. Staying still didn’t really help either, so it’s a shitty metaphor.
Hook wasn’t the only one trapped. Sean (Barry Keoghan), we’re led to believe, is a good kid, but participating in the Troubles doesn’t seem like a choice; it’s like a gang initiation, a tragedy waiting to happen. Eamon and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) try to do what’s right, but that’s impossible when whatever decision you make could bring you death from the side you piss off. Calvary’s Killian Scott brings a unique energy to the radical and ambitious IRA soldier Quinn, impatient with the old guard, represented by Boyle (Ripper Street’s David Wilmot). Then there’s the conniving Captain Sandy Browning (The Borgias’ Sean Harris), the mustachioed manipulator seemingly springing the trap.
’71 does so many things right, a portrait of the lies and meaninglessness of war and Army brotherhood, a necessary companion to American Sniper. I would argue the film ends a few minutes too late, but I also imagine the movie’s beginning and ending were amended to interject a small amount of light to such a disturbing, grisly, real movie.
’71 is in theaters now.