Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, "Bloody Sunday" plays out its narrative without any substantial embellishment: Minute by minute, hour by hour the fateful day is allowed to unfold, with occasional glimpses into the personal lives of participants and the activities of march organizers and British police interspersed throughout. Most of the time it feels more like newsreel footage than staged cinema, a quality that immediately places it alongside such efforts as "The Battle of Algiers" and "The Killing Fields."
Much of the subsequent violence over the Northern Irish matter, in fact, owes directly to the incident that began when hooligans disrupted an otherwise peaceful march, prodding British soldiers to respond with criminally unmeasured force. At the end of the day, 13 unarmed civilians lay dead with nearly as many injured.
James Nesbitt turns in a stoic, penetrating performance as politician and civil rights leader Ivan Cooper, a hopeless idealist whose commitment to non-violent protest is clearly doomed from the start. Mutual distrust and simmering contempt between poor Irish youths and British soldiers catalyze a situation that grows from rock throwing to a hailstorm of bullets in a matter of minutes.
The greatness in "Bloody Sunday," however, is not in its staging of the event but in its treatment of the figures involved. The fighting actually consumes relatively little screen time; as with most such tragedies, it begins and ends in a flash, leaving the participants to pick up the pieces, literally and figuratively, in the days, months and years that follow. That the film is able to make audiences feel just as much a part of the aftermath is Greengrass' real triumph, the proof that there is more to filmmaker and film than mere technical bravura. But neither is Greengrass interested in fostering purely pro-Irish propaganda. Blame for the tragedy is laid not only at the feet of the British soldiers but also on the hooligans who initiated the violence, thereby giving the British a pretext for their overreaction.
Worth mentioning, too, is the support the film has received from a host of noteworthy Irish entertainment figures, from executive producer Jim Sheridan to rock band U2, whose famous song of the same name plays over the picture's end titles. Starring James Nesbitt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell, Gerard McSorley, and Kathy Kiera Clarke. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Paul Greengrass. Produced by Mark Redhead. A Paramount Classics release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 110 min