Dir. Yann Demange. Starring Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, David Wilmot
If you think that more civilized discourse would go a long way to solving our political problems, if you are socially liberal and economically conservative, if you wistfully recall the dominion of uber-WASPs like George H.W. Bush, if you think “All Lives Matter” gets at the heart of something meaningful and true about human nature (or, heck, if you think human nature exists), then I’m glad to recommend ’71 to you. This is a safe movie, one which refuses to consider the Troubles with even the pretense of seriousness, and one that is sure that there were some very fine people on both sides. We’re all human in the eyes of screenwriter Gregory Burke and director Demange, susceptible to similar fears and flaws. A soldier can be as decent as Hook (O’Connell), as ruthless as Browning (Harris), as naive as Armitage (Sam Reid). An IRA member can be as bloodthirsty as Quinn (Killian Scott), as cautious as Boyle (Wilmot), as frightened as Sean (Barry Keoghan). And so on, until nothing is really anything at all, and we can have a thriller without stakes and a moral proposition without force. In short, this film is maddeningly neutral in the interest of some abstract idea of fairness. A movie like Odd Man Out, which ’71 borrows from rather liberally, is perhaps even more anti-IRA than this film is. Yet that movie has so many real people in it, written with empathy and fleshed out around the edges. Hook has no personality and O’Connell is at a loss to give him any; he has no despair colonizing his face the way James Mason has in Odd Man Out. This is not a movie which can afford a complete non-entity at its center, since the periphery is mostly scenery and hypotheticals.
Then again, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, and Burke manages to make non-entities out of the vast majority of the other characters in the story. The characterization is down to a single word for each person. Eamon (Richard Dormer) proves that he is humanistic when he patches up Hook despite knowing that saving the man’s life might get him killed by the Provos. Then he’s humanistic when he refuses to reveal his patient’s whereabouts. Then he’s humanistic when he’s concerned for his daughter’s safety. One is reminded of middle school language arts classes in which the students learn about “static and dynamic characters.” Burke appears to know the definitions of these sixth-grade terms, and yet he seems to have missed the lesson from seventh-grade in which we discover that “static” characters are dull. No one is changed by the events of ’71, unless it’s Hook, and if that’s the case we run out of time to see it. (What we do see a fair bit of is Hook’s little brother, who he does older brother stuff with because their parents are out of the picture. I don’t know if the younger brother makes Hook more sympathetic or makes us root for him to come out alive any more. Frankly, I forgot about him as soon as he was out of the frame and rolled my eyes when he returned.)
What moral complexity ’71 is willing to get into doesn’t get much further than “Everyone does bad things sometimes.” It’s not much of a message, one that could probably be gleaned within a roughly equivalent amount time of children’s television. The soldiers do bad things, as when they take a man out of his house and beat him. The citizens of Belfast and the IRA members they shelter do bad things, as when they take soldiers out of their line and beat them. All constituencies are represented somehow, all sides are heard from, and yet the most memorable and likely thing any one of these many characters says is Eamon’s proposition that the military uses the dumb to kill the poor. Not only is it an idea made trite by the millions of repetitions of it over the preceding years, but the film isn’t even willing to get into the idea. It’s simply another piece of the taupe jigsaw puzzle the movie is making, mistaking a variety of perspectives for intrigue.
It’s clear very quickly that ’71 doesn’t have the guts to kill Hook, and it’s also clear that Demange thinks that a moving, shaking camera is a marker of realism. These two things don’t mix particularly well. (The second one is a mistake that better filmmakers have made, but it’s the first that’s especially egregious.) There’s a strong command of color in the movie—fluorescent whites, muddy greens, new tungsten—which might have been used to better effect if the movie were more interested in making Hook into Jack Ryan. (As it is, Hook is the Troubles’ equivalent to a Flying Wallenda.) There’s a world in which Hook, a surprisingly effective, knife-wielding, grenade-toting recruit, fights his way out of hostile, colorful Belfast and ’71 is at least entertaining if not taut. Then the interesting and oppressive color scheme plays out as a style choice as opposed to mere stylishness, and the film takes on something like the quality of a tough level in a video game. They make the opposite choice, of course; Hook is meant to be an everyman plucked from the Midlands who tries to survive the toughest night he could ever imagine, all the while learning some lesson about the mutability of virtue. Yet Hook wears the invulnerability of the protagonist, or the endlessly respawned avatar, and so he survives an IRA member who can’t shoot straight, the accidental bombing of an Ulster bar, the wound he sustained in the gut from said bombing, nearly getting shot again by the IRA, being captured by the IRA (and becoming the weird test for Sean, who can’t shoot him and thus I guess he doesn’t get to join the big boy club?), and being strangled by an undercover British officer. All of these deaths are dodged in about eighteen hours by Hook, and each new miracle that preserves him feels more ludicrous than the last, a new kick in the pants for this pseudorealistic odyssey.
Aside from the movie’s sense that we should root for him to live, an opinion not unlike pulling for one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalrymen, the movie simply won’t let him die. With the increasingly ridiculous twists and turns ’71 becomes a parable, not a story, and one more likely to have been told by Bar-Jesus than Christ. The film is far more interested in the performative toughness of “realism” than considering what reality might have been for someone in Belfast in the early ’70s; humanity is set aside for the sake of a merciless plot engine. Sean refuses to shoot Hook, is shot down by a British soldier, rises from his prone position to shoot the British soldier choking Hook, and then is shot by a different British soldier. (No one learned about double-tapping in the British Army, apparently. Should’ve watched more zombie movies.) The message is that the goodhearted are likely victims in such a fraught conflict with so many sides, and like, sure, but this is also a literal case of overkill.