In 2002, Bloody Sunday premiered to almost universal critical acclaim introducing Americans to British journeyman director Paul Greengrass, whose previous work included mostly television movies and two feature films. In the years since, Greengrass successfully graduated to Hollywood (United 93, The Bourne Franchise) and Bloody Sunday has become noted as a fine beginning for an important film artist.
But for whatever reason, Bloody Sunday does not get mentioned much anymore, especially amongst the canon of great films. Ironic, considering the film specifically functions as a lasting cinematic memory for a crucial traumatic event: The Bogside Massacre of January 30, 1972 in Derry, Ireland. To this day, it still makes quite an impression both as a cinematic historical document and emotional/political tragedy.
Re-watching Bloody Sunday for this project harkened the intense emotions I felt upon first viewing, the haunting feeling history was unfolding in front of my very eyes, paralyzing my senses with authenticity while illustrating the contradictions and gaps within a disastrous situation. The film confronts the very idea of memory, perception, and reality, challenging our historical timeline as a clean, linear roadmap. It creates a confused state, leaving us with cluttered observations and distinct anger, ultimately shaken more by what we don’t see that what’s actually on screen.
When considering the best films of the last ten years, Bloody Sunday remains a landmark achievement for many reasons. Like no other film in recent memory, it masterfully recreates both a specific physical time and place and the defining emotions and tensions running under the surface. The impact is substantial, even when history tells you what to expect.
This detailed structure regarding social and political contexts immediately defines Bloody Sunday. The film opens with a stunning sequence crosscutting between Derry Civil Rights Leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) and British Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), each embroiled in a press conference addressing the political climate of Northern Ireland circa 1972. Cooper stresses non-violence as the only option, promoting a massive protest march with the backing of the populace. Ford yearns to send a message of force due to the increasing violence perpetrated by the IRA, vowing a crackdown if the march goes forward.
These two contrasting ideologies evolve into representations of collective stories on both sides, foreshadowing the innocent loss of life for the protestors and the indelible guilt felt by some of the British soldiers and high command. Greengrass utilizes a deceivingly simple editing technique – fading to black after each scene – overtly illustrating the breaks and gaps within memory and trauma. The final goodbye between sister and brother, the casual conversation between preacher and disciple, the last embrace of two lovers, all represent the small, but devastating human toll of the event itself.
Aside from the meticulous editing, Bloody Sunday brilliantly displays the improvisation and realism inherent to the Cinema Verite style of filmmaking. The gritty hand-held cinematography by Ivan Strasburg evokes an immediate, on-the-ground vantage point, positioning the viewer in a delicate and fleeting position to watch the characters interact before the heart-wrenching ordeal, throughout the panicked bloodshed, and finally during the grief-stricken haze of the aftermath. History unfolds through minute details, and this documentary-style approach captures them with stunning clarity.
Even as the massacre occurs, the camera becomes an extension of the viewer’s incomplete point of view, capturing a collection of sporadic shocking moments. Shots are fired, but rarely are bullets seen hitting the protestors. The camera simply pans and finds bodies lifeless, bleeding, suffering, focusing on the horrific aftermath instead of the act itself. Most impressionable are the moments when the camera stops, holding on the cowering survivors screaming and crying, watching in disbelief as their loved ones disappear from this world.
Bloody Sunday remembers a complex and shifting community battling for a sense of identity. We get all the inner workings of familial structures and relationships, between loyalty, religion, and revolution, while constructing these contrasting visions within a society connected by collective angst.
But the film also delves into the procedures of military occupation, all the miscommunications, inactions, and moral ambiguities inherent with such a venture. The panic of young soldiers, the brutality of seasoned officers, and the regret of guilty subordinates make up a startling mosaic exposing military hierarchies and contradictions.
Bloody Sunday shows the devastating culmination of a society slowly ripped apart by fear, two sides moving away from peace because of human miscalculation and arrogance. Greengrass’ masterpiece stuns the viewer with moments of hope and tragedy, violence and calm, and in the process constantly reminds how easily one can shift to the other in a single heartbeat, by the sound of a gun, or a cry for peace.
Note: The Filmist’s epic consideration of his #10 choice, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, can be found here.
– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.