Monday, March 23, 2015

'71


'71
Dir. Yenn Demange

3.5 out of 5

In the opening scenes of '71, Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is part of a regiment of young British soldiers training for their eventual deployment overseas.  But the action they see will not be far from home - just across the Irish Sea, in fact - as the soldiers are ordered to ameliorate the internecine conflict between Catholic and Protestant militias in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early years of what would quickly become known as the Troubles.  During his squad's first mission in the field, Gary becomes separated from his unit and embarks upon a dangerous journey through Belfast that exposes him to the ethical complexities and diverse combatants in this tangled sectarian conflict.

While Yenn Demange's film has an academic interest its many different factions vying for power in Northern Ireland - staunch Protestant loyalists, shady British military intelligence agents, and two squabbling groups of fiery IRA nationalists - it's ultimately about the corrupting nature of war in general.  Seen through Gary's relatively innocent eyes, the brutal violence is an almost apolitical byproduct of base human impulses that go beyond the immediate 20th-century concerns of government and religion.  Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke aren't creating a historical document here - they are crafting a passion play within the structure of an urban action thriller, replete with stunning escapes, double-crosses, and unlikely allies.

Indeed, labeling '71 as simply a "war movie" belies its focused intensity and would muddle the broader message its creators are attempting to convey.  Its ideals are not glory or honor but a certain humanity - albeit a tragic one - that persists in some of the most hopeless situations.  On the other hand, the film's scale sometimes tips too far into the symbolic; the deeper Gary falls into his predicament, the more he functions as a plot point than as a character.  Demange also seems to squander '71's specificity in the characterizations of the supporting cast, whose motives either remain unclear or are spelled out in a somewhat clich├ęd language.  Still, '71 is absolutely captivating whenever lives hang in the balance and Gary is on the run - which is to say almost the entire time.  The filmmakers' general political ambivalence turns out to be a wise choice for the type of movie that '71 so frequently is: a tense, protracted chase sequence through a maze of crooks, charlatans, and collaborators.

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