Americans can barely be bothered to care about civil unrest and violence currently unfolding on their own soil, let alone on another continent…let alone a conflict that has since resolved years ago. Thus, even though the lasting peace that was brokered between dissidents and the British government in Northern Ireland should be of interest to the United States, if only because it would serve as a potential model for how to mediate urban sectarian conflict in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, very few folks here remember “The Troubles.” Hell, Americans got pissed when U2 gave them a free album, so it’s not likely many remember what “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is actually about.
’71 is a taut, crippling thriller set at the height of the ugly Protestant v Catholic brawl that turned Northern Ireland into a warzone. A young soldier, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), is deposited on the front lines of the conflict fresh out of boot camp. Even seasoned officers find it difficult to comprehend being “deployed” on a military operation within a country their government technically oversees, so Gary has little chance of grasping just how fundamentally borked the situation is.
In a gripping sequence, the military rolls into an unfriendly neighborhood replete with burning cars and women banging trash can lids to confuse and disorient the soldiers. As police move house to house checking for illegal weapons, the military tries to hold a human line against a sea of protesters. When officers began beating on suspects, the crowd goes apeshit, hurling rocks and other objects. A child grabs a soldier’s weapon, and Gary runs after him. Separated from his squad in a neighborhood filled with people who would love to kill a British military man, Gary must navigate literal and figurative explosive situations in an attempt to simply survive.
Writer Gregory Burke and director Yann Demange have crafted a thriller burdened with the weight of horrid real history, packed with more breathless scenes than should be legally allowed. To watch ’71 is to test one’s ability to withstand soaring heart rates and the torrential downpour of sweaty palms. O’Connell is mostly limited to dialogue-free, mouth-agape reaction shots, but his natural charisma means you sincerely hope he doesn’t get his brains ‘sploded.
If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that the film is pretty demanding of viewers to understand the crossing and double-crossing of pro-British and anti-British figures who all kind of look alike and who are introduced in fleeting fashion. The point, of course, is that loyalties were messy and the conflict was, to use the film’s term, frequently “confused.” And yet, a more salient historical reminder could have further enhanced an already crackerjack thriller, had it been a bit clearer.
Still, ’71 is a potent, powerfully entertaining work of intensity and action set against a darkly operatic real-world backdrop. You can keep your Liam Neeson action tripe and Jason Bourne-inspired shenanigans. We need more of the smart, savvy, sophisticated suspense that ’71 has in spades.
Grade = A-