Bloody Sunday (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #14

January 30, 1972
a day written in history
a day when innocence died
when truth was sacrificed
and lives were changed forever

Country: UK & Ireland
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 20th January 2002 (UK)
First Seen: TV, 20th January 2002

Stars
James Nesbitt (Millions, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Tim Pigott-Smith (The Remains of the Day, V for Vendetta)
Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire, Hamlet)
Kathy Kiera Clarke (The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, Cherrybomb)

Director
Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips)

Screenwriter
Paul Greengrass (The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, United 93)

The Story
Derry, Northern Ireland, 30th January 1972: MP Ivan Cooper leads a peaceful march to protest internment. British paratroopers observing the march, geed up after previous conflicts, respond to minor rioting by shooting into the unarmed crowd and at fleeing civilians.

Our Hero
James Nesbitt stars as MP and civil rights activist Ivan Cooper, a Protestant who was elected in a mostly Catholic constituency, and the organiser of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest march.

Our Villains
The British Army don’t come across in the best light, with Tim Piggot-Smith’s Major General Robert Ford issuing hostile orders, and the troops eager for a fight. The depiction is tempered by Nicholas Farrell as Brigadier Patrick MacLellan, battling his conscious even as he must carry out his orders.

Memorable Quote
“I just want to say this to the British Government. You know what you’ve just done, don’t you? You’ve destroyed the civil rights movement, and you’ve given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men — boys — will be joining the IRA, and you will reap a whirlwind.” — Ivan Cooper

Memorable Scene
After the day is done, Ivan Cooper delivers the above statement at a press conference. Intercut, at inconspicuous locations and under the cover of dark, young men queue up to join the IRA.

Technical Wizardry
Shot handheld on 16mm by cinematographer Ivan Strasburg, Bloody Sunday looks like news footage. It’s not trying to pass itself off as documentary, but rather it places the viewer in the heart of events. Clever shot selection and Clare Douglas’ editing mean that, even though a sense of confusion is evoked, the chronology and geography of events is maintained.

Making of
“Making the film Bloody Sunday was important for me, not only as an actor but for my understanding of myself as an Ulsterman. It helped me realise that this episode was the watershed, and that the ensuing 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland were in large part due to what happened that day in 1972. For it was on that night that young men all over the country joined up with the IRA in a sense of rage and injustice at what had happened.” — James Nesbitt, The Independent

Awards
1 BAFTA TV Award (Photography and Lighting)
4 BAFTA TV Award nominations (Actor (James Nesbitt), Single Drama, Editing, Sound)
2 British Independent Film Awards (Actor (James Nesbitt), Director)
3 British Independent Film Award nominations (Best British Independent Film, Screenplay, Technical Achievement (Cinematography))
4 Irish Film and Television Awards (Feature Film, Director, Script, Sound)
4 Irish Film and Television Award nominations (Actor (James Nesbitt), Actress (Kathy Kiera Clarke), Photography, Editing)
Won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (tied with Spirited Away).

What the Critics Said
“you have to remind yourself at moments that you’re not looking at a documentary. […] Filmed in 16mm, with a hand-held camera that seems to be breathlessly attempting to keep up with the chaotic events, the movie has a stunning immediacy. It doesn’t feel as if Greengrass has staged the events, but that his camera (in the expert hands of cinematographer Ivan Strasburg) happened to be there when the tragedy occurred, a witness to the British officers’ planning, to the marchers’ anger and panic, to the soldiers’ gung-ho macho and to the cover-up that followed.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“The film has been criticized by some as focusing too much on the Cooper character, encouraging a “great man” view of history. This criticism seems overblown when one considers the breadth of Bloody Sunday, but Greengrass does acknowledge an interest in placing Cooper at the fore as a kind of “man between worlds,” being a Protestant politician campaigning for peace across Northern Ireland and for civil rights denied to his Catholic countrymen.” — spinenumbered, Make Mine Criterion!
(Be advised, the Criterion Collection edition of the film described in this article is wishful thinking rather than a genuine release.)

Verdict

Bloody Sunday is a tough film to write about in a somewhat frivolous format like this one. It’s a film about a terrible moment in history, a shameful day for the British Army and a tragic one for the people of Northern Ireland, which it presents with documentary realism and an objective perspective, more concerned with presenting the facts as best it can than with apportioning blame. Even given that, it’s an inescapably emotional and affecting film. Powerful moviemaking.

#15 will be… extreme ways.

What makes a film a film?

What makes a film a film? I don’t mean “as opposed to a book”, or “as opposed to a pile of rubbish”; but rather, “as opposed to a TV special”, or different to a direct-to-DVD movie — indeed, is there a difference?

This is the sort of thing that’s bothered me for a while, mainly thanks to the Radio Times. The Radio Times’ film section frequently features reviews for things they label as “US TVM” — translation: an American TV Movie. Not everything falls into this category. The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (the clue’s in the title) was just listed as a TV special, as was the recent one-off episode of 24, Redemption. Why are these different to other feature-length made-for-TV one-off dramas? The former was a British co-production, perhaps, but the latter wasn’t. The latter is part of an on-going series, made between seasons, however. But then, one-off editions of other (older) series have been reviewed as “US TVM”s, so why are they different? It’s not even a hard rule in that instance, as some old series have their feature-length episodes screened as a matter of course among other repeats.

On a different tack, what about Paul Greengrass’ excellent Bloody Sunday, simultaneously screened on Channel 4 and released in cinemas? Or more recently, Ballet Shoes — just part of last year’s Christmas schedule in the UK, but it received a limited late-summer theatrical release in the US. So is that a film, or ‘just’ a TV special? Is a cinema release the key? Well, no — at least as far as the Radio Times are concerned — because Ballet Shoes wouldn’t now feature in their film review section were it repeated, while those other “US TVM”s will continue their circulation. [2015 note: A few years after I wrote this, Ballet Shoes was indeed repeated, and not listed as a film. Whenever Bloody Sunday is on, the Radio Times list it as a film.]

Is length the issue? Clearly not — look at the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses, some of which struggle to make the hour mark, a running time that Midsomer Murders or Poirot tops with every new episode.

And all this without even considering direct-to-DVD movies!

Perhaps it’s not a scientific rule-driven process, but just a “feel”? But that’s rubbish too — I’d wager 24: Redemption is at least twice as cinematic as most of the ’80s “US TVM”s awarded a proper film section review. Maybe it’s production method, then? But Redemption was produced as an individual piece, outside of the series’ production — much as a ‘proper’ 24 movie would’ve been, though surely with a smaller budget. So too was the Doctor Who TV movie, and obviously all one-off UK productions are made in a similar vein. And many of them, like Ballet Shoes, are surely just a theatrical release away from being a ‘film’ rather than a one-off TV drama, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s stylistic conventions — production company logos at the start, for example. But that seems a tad arbitrary to me, and plenty of independent films dispense with such.

Or perhaps, in this modern world, IMDb is the decider — whether it has that little “(TV)” after the title or not (it does for Ballet Shoes and 24, but not for Bloody Sunday). But then, why are the people at IMDb — and, we should remember, most of their content is user-generated anyway — any more qualified to decide than you or I?

It’s all down to the individual then, is it? Perhaps. If I declare 24: Redemption a film and review it as a numbered entry in 2008, would anyone care? But would it mean that, ‘morally’, I should go back and review Ballet Shoes as part of 2007? Or last month’s Einstein and Eddington as part of 2008? Or afford any of the countless other feature-length TV specials I’ve seen in the past two years the same treatment?

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. I’m not going to go back and review Ballet Shoes though. Nor am I going to add Einstein and Eddington, or this Christmas’ The 39 Steps when it comes around. I may well count 24: Redemption, though [I did]. I don’t have Sky, so as far as I’m concerned it may as well be direct-to-DVD, especially in its extended DVD-exclusive form.

And direct-to-DVD movies definitely still count… don’t they?