"And you lot, you bleeding journalists, do nothing."—Shaugnessy (Pete Postlethwaite)
The stunning and tragic real-life story of a courageous journalist fighting drug crime in Dublin is turned into a run-of-the-mill thriller. So what else is new?
Facts of the Case
Sinead Hamilton (Joan Allen) is a woman of the '90s, juggling a family and a career. Her career: journalist covering the drug trade in Dublin. When one of her leading informants (Pete Postlethwaite, in a disappointingly brief role) is assassinated after she uses his real name in an interview, Hamilton begins an investigation that will lead her through a complex web of criminal conspiracies. And it will eventually cost her life.
Based on the real-life exploits of Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, who was murdered in 1996 for her exposés on the Dublin drug trade, When the Sky Falls tries hard. It throws Hamilton into a tricky relationship with a cop (Patrick Bergin) willing to bend the rules to catch his nemesis, an untouchable drug lord (Gerard Flynn) just released from prison. Hamilton's investigation of Shaugnessy's murder and Mackey's attempts to bring down Hackett begin to converge, and they find themselves unwilling allies, using their particular skills to pursue the case. The story seems to meander at times, with threads suggesting connections between the heroin trade, the IRA (who are secretly fighting the drug dealers in their own brutal way), an armed bank robbery, and a host of suspects.
There are moments when the story generates genuine tension. For instance, a bust on a rave club turns chaotic when a group of crooks steal a police car and lead Mackey on a chase, which ends with a fiery backlash when the crooks hole up in a flat and throw Molotov cocktails at the police. But this potentially gripping scene ends rather abruptly, and we never find out how, or even if, the crooks are stopped.
In fact, much of the script for When the Sky Falls seems to consist of pieces of unfinished scenes that do not clearly hang together. The entire film packs up shop suddenly with the violent assassination of Hamilton—and don't start complaining about spoilers here: this is a biopic and Guerin's death was a top headline throughout Ireland.
But much of the tension that director John MacKenzie might have generated out of this story, even if its ending was already preset, seems rendered flat. Joan Allen gives a serviceable performance as Hamilton, but does not exude much intensity. Her relationships with both her husband (Kevin McNally) and Mackey are rather vague, and she seems to do inexplicably inept things like bring her son along when she faces down drug dealers. In some ways, this all seems to make Guerin's real courage and accomplishments a bit dull: Hamilton publishes a bunch of articles, but no one is ever arrested (except offstage), no lives are saved, and little seems to get done—except a lot of drug dealers end up killing each other. Always a bad sign for any script: we are told (not shown) by a text coda that her murderers were imprisoned and that laws binding the police in drug cases were loosened up as a result of her actions. But a script that has to establish its sense of closure through text rather than the action of the film itself really needs work.
In addition, while When the Sky Falls might play as a solid thriller on a rainy day, it does not feel much like a "real" story. Everything looks far too slick and clean for a real underworld in a major city. Dublin practically sparkles, and both the police and the newspaper have cleaner offices than mine. The bright color scheme seems pumped up on the transfer, to the point where there is even a little bleed. The photography and lighting are pretty to look at, but this looks a little too unreal to make Hamilton's story believable as it is assumed to be. The film appears matted to widescreen, but I cannot determine its aspect ratio (nor is it listed anywhere), but I am guessing it is 1.66:1.
There are a few extras included here, including a full-frame trailer produced specifically for Trimark home video (the film never played theatrically in America)—but why is there no original UK trailer? The "featurette" is pretty weak, 20 minutes (cutting off abruptly at the end with no credits) consisting mostly of clips from the film, interspersed with some interview segments with the cast and crew. If you do not already know the story of Veronica Guerin, it all comes across as pretty vague. The director's commentary by John MacKenzie tends to drag, with long gaps and meandering stories. He talks enough about Guerin to make it worth a skim, but you will not learn much about the filmmaking process or any real behind-the-scenes gossip.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Worst of all is the audio mix. Touting itself as 5.1, it certainly cranks up the sound effects and music with a nice punch, but often mixes the dialogue down to a whisper. And there are entire scenes where the dialogue does not sync up with the actors, making this hard to watch without the subtitles on. I'm not talking about the Irish brogues here (which are not particularly thick compared to many Irish films—in fact, Allen's is often indiscernible)—I am talking about sloppy production on the DVD itself.
Are there two editions of this film? The screener I watched was matted in widescreen format, but Amazon lists the disc in full-frame and 2.0, with no director's commentary or featurette. Oh well, I was really hoping for a better film here: Guerin's life and work could have made for an important and exciting film about a courageous journalist trying to hold her personal life together while exposing crime and saving lives—which is exactly what the real story was all about. But somehow, When the Sky Falls turns into a mediocre thriller that does not seem to go in any particular direction or in the end, arrive much of anywhere. Rumor is that Jerry Bruckheimer is courting Jodie Foster for another attempt at Guerin's story. Here's hoping it won't be plagued with testosterone-fueled car chases.
The real Veronica Guerin is commended for her work. Director John MacKenzie is admonished by this court for trivializing a potentially gripping story. And Trimark is hereby remanded into custody for shoddy work on this DVD.
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