Bloody Sunday is one of those films that you know immediately has only the best intentions. Focusing on the massacre of peace-marching civilians by British troops on one bloody day in early 1970s Northern Ireland, the film aims to expose in the most raw way the horror of the event.
Using hand-held cameras to lend a documentary feel, the filmmakers may even lead you to believe that the movie uses actual footage. In theory this method is impressive, but on a big screen, the reality is that you may end up clamping your hand over your mouth to keep from vomiting within the first five minutes (one man in the theater lasted about half an hour, then fled for the lobby).
Bloody Sunday follows roughly a 24-hour period on the day of the fateful march on January 30, 1972. Two characters slowly begin to stand out from the bunch of marchers: politician Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), an amiable yet savvy man of the people who is organizing the peace march; and a young man Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy), who has just been released from prison for IRA activities, and wants to stay out of trouble to avoid getting sent back. Plus Tim Piggott-Smith, who is so good at being bad (see The Jewel in the Crown), shows up as badass British military top-dog Major General Ford, who blows in to bark all the orders at headquarters, but steps back and proclaims himself just simply a bystander when blame needs to be assigned.
The actual march fills up the majority of the film, where it almost begins to feel real-time. You see the military headquarters, planning on a map where they will cut off the “hooligans” and use force if necessary. And you see the marchers, people of all ages, men and women and children, marching peacefully and defiantly, protesting against internment without trial. When all goes wrong, and you know it will, it is truly hard to watch the chaos of soldiers shooting fleeing and frightened people as they are cornered in an apartment cul-de-sac.
But Bloody Sunday has much of the same problem that I found with the similarly-structured Black Hawk Down, which also showcased a 24-hour period in a horrible conflict of confusion where much life was lost. For an event that I was hoping to be educated about, I ended up with more questions than answers or opinions. Sure, it was obviously horrible to see these people people slaughtered like cornered animals, but I know that the “Troubles” in Ireland went on for many years before and after that fateful day. There was obviously a deeper context leading up to the demonstration than wasn’t even hinted at in the film. I wanted to be more moved than I was, but ended up instead feeling like I was watching a newsreel without the accompanying narration to clarify the bigger picture.