Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday is a startlingly immediate re-creation of the January 1972 Derry massacre occasioned by an Irish protest held in defiance of a British ban.
Establishing the inevitable collision, Greengrass cuts back and forth between the spirited Irish Catholics preparing to march through their republican neighborhood and the grim, gray-faced British command making plans to stop them.
The nominal protagonist is Protestant MP/pacifist civil-rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), who cheerfully orchestrates the march and then is overwhelmed by the unfolding catastrophe. All characters are encountered on the run. The movie is shot verité style as a detailed mass of hectic vignettes—jagged jump cuts, sudden blackouts, overlapping everything. The "you are there" faux combat photography, a sequence that runs nearly three-quarters of an hour, is as remarkable in its staging as Black Hawk Down's, except that Bloody Sunday was shot largely on 16mm, Greengrass is frequently closer to the action, and here, for the most part, the victims are unarmed civilians. (Thirteen were killed and 14 wounded, although it feels like many more.)
The spectacle of British paramilitary firing point-blank into a running, crawling, cowering crowd—executing one wounded man at close range and putting a bullet in the brain of another who's frantically waving a white handkerchief as he attempts to rescue a comrade—is as visceral in its way as any such staged atrocity since the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.
Bloody Sunday doesn't surrender its grip on the viewer even after the action shifts from the streets of Bogside to a local hospital where the weeping masses are still under the guns of the war-painted British soldiers. The film, which was attacked as "viciously anti-British" by one Conservative MP when it was televised last winter, compounds its shock value by showing the Brits planting evidence and then leaving us to ponder the decorations that the officers responsible subsequently received from Her Majesty the Queen.
BLOODY SUNDAY WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY PAUL GREENGRASS; AND STARS JAMES NESBITT, TIM PIGOTT-SMITH, NICHOLAS FARRELL AND GERARD MCSORLEY. OPENS OCT. 18 AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.