"Witness Bloody Sunday"
On Sunday, January 30th, 1972, the British and Irish clashed on the streets of Derry, Ireland during a peaceful protest gone awry. The overanxious British military and breakout Irish protestors made this Sunday one of the most tragically memorable in history. Surprisingly, a Brit—Paul Greengrass—decided to take this story to the big screen in fiction form, Bloody Sunday. An Audience Award winner at Sundance and the object of many a critic's affection in 2002, the film is now out on DVD thanks to Paramount.
Facts of the Case
Two camps await a tense day: The Derry Civil Rights Association, led by Member of Parliament Ivan Cooper, and the British military. In the example of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Cooper is organizing a peaceful march against the lawless internment of Catholics by the British government. Aware of the rally, the British military are setting up stations of paratroopers and tell the media that they take no responsibility for any reactionary violence to the protest.
It's obvious a recipe for disaster has begun. The protest begins easily, with Cooper (James Nesbitt, Walking Ned) patting his fellow citizens on the back and riling the crowds with impassioned speeches from the motorcade. As more rambunctious protestors, including the young Gerry Donahue (Declan Duddy), break off and start throwing stones at the "paras," the military reacts from their ground control nearby. Rubber bullets start flying, dispersing the crowds. Two reactionary Irelaners fire their own shots. Chaos ensues, and in the end, fourteen people are dead and the paras involved are dismissed without any accusation of wrongdoing.
Mixing history with cinema can be tricky. Explaining too much back story or not enough for the uneducated viewer is the main danger; sapping up the story and playing to base emotions is another. It is apparent from the beginning of this film that writer and director Paul Greengrass commits no such transgressions. Greengrass begins the film by inter-cutting between two press conferences: Cooper defining the true peaceful approach of the march and the British military crisply denoting their lack of any responsibility for resulting discipline. Two things result—tension builds in nanoseconds, and the audience is also immediately aware of the core conflict of the film.
Here, overacting, drum rolling music, and hyperbolic script are unnecessary; history this dramatic is best left explaining itself as it happened. Greengrass understands that and shoots Bloody Sunday as it happened, with a handheld camera and no soundtrack. This gives it immediacy without the self-awareness that so often accompanies these techniques. Rather, I felt like I was watching CNN, an experience fresh in my mind after watching the war in Iraq from my TV set so recently.
There is no slanting to the story, though it's obvious the British committed a series of inexcusable errors beyond rational thought. But, we see both sides—the British military strategizing over a map, and Cooper trying to maintain order as it dissolves gradually. His foil is easily Major Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), who is in charge of making supposedly sound decisions in the war room about the protest. Over-reactive soldiers still wildly fire into the crowd at one point, and the Brits rarely show an iota of regret. Still, this is not pointed to or called to with any attention; Greengrass displays each side's response with cool documentation, leading the audience to make their own opinions. (And guess which one you'll make—yes, that the Brits were bloody pigs.)
The acting is superb. Most players are unknowns but perform like pros. The scene in the Derry hospital after the dead and injured are rescued is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I've seen in awhile; it's a testament to Nesbitt and his very realistic fellow actors that I was affected so deeply.
Technically, the disc is very well done sporting a fine looking 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Despite the rough camera work and dingy lighting of the cinematography, this is a clean print, lacking much grain or specking. Colors were appropriately subdued; even dark scenes avoided dullness for the most part, keeping browns and blacks relatively rich and true. Overall, this is a nice effort by the folks at Paramount.
The disc features both English 5.1 Surround of the domestic theatrical version and an English 5.1 Surround mix from the original UK theatrical version. Now, back in film school looong ago, t'ain't weren't none DVDs, and we sure as heck didn't study different countries' theatrical mixes, but, I'll give it a shot here. This is a movie with a lot of crowd scenes, lots of activity. The Domestic mix sounds hearty and layered, with a mix of background noise, mid-level activity (shouts, gunshots), and foreground dialogue making a seven-layer dip, if you will, of sound. The UK 5.1 Surround mix has a more two-dimensional sound to it, with the background noises more muted, and the mid-level and dialogue closer together in volume. In the case, the layers of said seven-layer dip were all kinda mushed together, but not to the point where the dip is a big gray mess. Uh, right. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Midway through, you'll need to turn on the handy English subtitles Paramount provides. The Irish accents are very hard to understand, so the subtitles are a lifesaver. And, they're yellow—thank you, Paramount. When all DVDs have yellow subtitles—the kind that never blend into white patches of background on the screen—I'll rejoice.
Extras were outstanding on this disc. Ivan Cooper himself tours Derry with James Nesbitt for "Bloody Sunday—Ivan Cooper Remembers." It's a short but touching view of the town itself, and it chills you a bit to see the actual site of the incident.
Also giving an inside perspective into the film is "Bloody Sunday—History Retold." Paul Greengrass, Don Mullan, and others are featured in this excellent behind-the-scenes featurette.
Two commentaries are generously included on this disc. The first, with writer/director Paul Greengrass and lead actor James Nesbitt, offers a mix of filmmaking details and historical perspective, though you rarely hear Nesbitt speak the entire time. This is fine since Greengrass is the big expert here, though he tends to talk methodically. Still, he doesn't bore, especially when offering details about the filming process, such as the influence documentaries had on him and why he split the point of view between the protestors and the military. He's one of the brave directors who admit that improvisation is a big part of filmmaking—no matter how much preparation one does.
Co-producer Don Mullan, who also has a small part in the film, narrates the other commentary. He was a teenaged witness in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and later wrote the book "Eyewitness Bloody Sunday" upon which the film is based. Silent for long periods but giving with his first-hand experience, he too sheds much perspective on the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bloody Sunday has few drawbacks, but there is a point, about 90 minutes into the film, where things slow down a bit. Like a documentary, all angles are captured, and since this isn't an action film targeted to the short-attention-span crowds, slow moments of confusion and deliberation in the 'war room' are dwelled upon.
However, once that restlessness envelopes the viewer, the story gets a shot in the arm and continues to its tragic ending.
Bloody Sunday is a dynamic film with impact—I'm still thinking about it days after its viewing. The chilling visceral feel of the Paul Greengrass' camera immerses you into that day in 1972 and, more importantly, educates you about this infamous day. Nonetheless, this is still a movie, and was absorbing and emotional from beginning to end.
A passionate movie, a disc loaded with extras—even the famous "Sunday Bloody Sunday" U2 tune over closing credits—you'll be glad you sampled a lesson of Irish history, as well as a how-to on how to make a good docudrama film. Free to go to peacefully protest poor filmmaking!
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Scales of Justice
• "Bloody Sunday History Retold" Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
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