' Cinema Romantico: 71

Monday, March 23, 2015

71

Melding the politically charged docudrama style of Paul Greengrass's “Bloody Sunday” with the elegant commotion of his two entries into the “Bourne” series, Yann Demange's feature film debut “71” is a full-blown frenetic chase movie with political overtones. It lso bears much in common with Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”, a recounting of The Battle of Mogadishu, in as much as “71” follows a British Private, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), inadvertently left behind by his unit in the middle of an op gone bad. Yet “Black Hawk Down” took great pains to justify America's presence in Somalia in the first place – “that’s not war, that’s genocide,” Sam Shepard helpfully councils. There is no such explanation in “71”, not to us, and particularly not to Hook. Prior to his fateful mission, the plan of attack is hardly made clear, and is illustrated on a map with the dividing line in Belfast between areas of Protestants and Catholics and, well, what else does anyone need to know? And besides, in this context, what do those demarcations even mean? At a delicate moment, Hook is asked which one he is, Protestant or Catholic. He admits he has no idea.


The film’s introductory sequence include Hook’s time in boot camp, and all we see is him crawling through the mud and being yelled at by the drill sergeant. Ideology is immaterial. Do what you’re told. And they will, as the film quickly moves to the inciting incident, a troop deployment to a hostile area in which the tension is raised swiftly, piercingly, as locals beat to arms with garbage can lids against the cement. Within moments a mob has formed, spitting, cursing and cajoling the British army, a sequence in which Demange effectively documents how powerless a cluster of heavily armed men can sometimes feel. Suddenly, a young boy lifts a soldier’s machine gun and runs away with it, and Hook and another British Pvt. are dispatched to retrieve the weapon. In the ensuing confusion, Hook’s cohort is shot dead and the army is forced to hastily abandon its position. All alone, and with a pair of armed IRA sympathizers on his tail, Hook runs for his life.

The sequence owes a significant debt to Kathryn Bigelow’s back-alley “Point Break” foot chase, one which is more fluid and steady as well an unwitting reminder that at the movies, dependent upon a filmmaker’s acumen, the plight of a bank-robbing surfer in a Reagan mask can be rendered just as affecting as a British soldier on the run because of The Troubles. Still, Demange’s remix of that sequence is effectively gripping, the kind that draws you in so subtly and forcefully that you lean forward without even knowing it, hanging on every hairpin turn. And when it’s over, it only gets worse, as an Englishman finds himself essentially abandoned in a nighttime apocalyptic hellscape, one of burning fires and eerie voices and befuddling loyalties, like he’s Snake Plissken in “Escape From Belfast.”

What follows not only pointedly refuses to lionize its protagonist but resists brazenly demonizing those on his tail. Case-in-point: Sean (Barry Keogan), a teenager embedded in the posse hunting Hook, is afforded a crucial flourish of backstory in the form of an apparently peaceful home life where we see him helping his young sister with homework. It’s a slight but indelible stroke suggesting that in spite of all the turmoil there is still a choice to be made about the way one leads his or her life.

Historian Douglas Brinkley once wrote “the only way to understand D-Day fully is as a battle at its smallest: that is, one soldier and one reminiscence at a time.” In effect, that’s what “71” does, showing The Troubles at its smallest, one soldier and one (fictional) reminiscence. O’Connell never plays the part with the inevitability of an action hero, but with honest fear for his survival and confusion of the situation into which he’s been thrust. The people and places and shifting alliances his character are made to face become confusing, yet that’s precisely what makes them effective. That he's all alone isn't just a device to raise the dramatic stakes but a rendering of each individual's place in a war over which they have no control, tangled in a web of flummoxing politics. By the end we find ourselves rooting not simply for the protagonist to emerge with his life, which oddly begins to feel almost inconsequential run up against the machine of war, but with his virtue.

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