The title and setting of ’71’ suggests that audiences are about to settle in for a political drama about one of the most troubled times in Irish history. Indeed the film is steeped in historical baggage and even has a message to impart through allegory. But make no mistake: this is a white-knuckle thriller filled with ever-mounting suspense and dread designed to leave audiences beaten and breathless. It’s a highly accomplished piece of work with some brains behind the brawn. Just don’t settle down in front of the movie unless you’re prepared for palm sweat.
Jack O’Connell stars as British soldier Gary Hook in the midst of the worst day of his life. (The actor is fresh from his rounds of military misery in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ and is ready for more.) He opens the film in army training camp when he’s suddenly pulled from drills and sent to Ireland on a presumed peace keeping mission. The streets are filled with warring political factions divided up into so many subcategories that simply listing them all is enough to make your head spin.
The situation is somewhat humorously simplified during a brief mission statement that lays out the physical and political geography of the clusterbomb Hook and his team are about to be dropped into. All the explanations go out the window when they’re are spat into the area with no street signs and crowds of indistinguishable protestors. What was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission at a protest soon explodes into a riot, and suddenly Hook finds himself alone in the back alleys of Belfast completely unarmed. He’s immediately chased by gangs of kids with guns and spends the rest of the afternoon and evening hiding out with various factions in the conflict that are constantly about to erupt into bursts of unexpected violence.
The movie is episodic by design, but with a solid through line. O’Connell is onscreen for almost every minute of the running time, so his confusion and constant state of endangerment quickly become our own. He has no dog in the many fights taking place, even unsure if he’s Protestant or Catholic when asked. Everyone he encounters is aligned to a team, but their motives are impossible to understand and they could just as easily be lying. Any time a moment of safety, comfort or characterization slows down the action, it only adds to the tension. It’s always clear things will go wrong; the question is when, and the uneasy anxiety that provides is palpable.
The movie’s script comes from Gregory Burke, who wrote the award-winning play ‘Blackwatch’, which dealt with the politics of this era in Irish history far more overtly. He knows this time period well, so to favor action over debate in ’71’ is no accident. In fact, it’s allegorical. The confusion and world of backstabbing, murder and betrayal that O’Connell experiences mirrors that of the time. There’s a clear historical portrait being painted, it just occurs through action, which proves to be a brilliant choice.
Longtime television director Yann Demange (‘Dead Set’) makes his feature debut with ’71’ and kicks down the door for what could be a solid filmmaker career. He shoots exclusively in handheld cameras, but always with purpose and always with a clear sense of special geography (even when it’s distorted for effect). The style is similar to what Paul Greengrass employed as harsh realism in ‘Bloody Sunday’, while also working as the visceral action style Greengrass used in the ‘Bourne’ movies or Kathryn Bigelow used in the alley chase sequence in ‘Point Break’.
Demange uses faux documentary realism to shove the audience into the middle of the action with the protagonist and cameramen. You run down those streets with those characters, while the lack of conventional visual suspense grammar of that technique helps make the gearshift explosions of violence all the more intense.
O’Connell is essentially an audience surrogate and unwilling victim throughout, and holds the movie together with relatable battle-scarred exhaustion. The other actors that pop up to share the screen with him throughout are strong enough to maintain the film’s tone of dirty nosed realism, yet never make much of an individual impact because they aren’t supposed to. It’s all one big unhappy mess impossible to sort out, and Demange ensures that the viewers have just enough information to relate to every situation without ever feeling ahead of the action.
Ultimately, ’71’ has more in common with movies like Walter Hill’s ‘The Warriors’ than the stylistically and situationally similar ‘Bloody Sunday’. The film might have an acidic point to make about the messy political situation that serves as its setting, but it’s by no means a preaching history lesson. No, ’71’ is a “trapped behind enemy lines” escape thriller that takes less than ten minutes to establish a suspenseful situation and then milks as many thrills, spills, shocks and kills out of it until the closing credits provide a merciful sigh of relief.
Some might consider that to be an exploitative take on a tragic moment in history, and they may have a point. The filmmakers have turned a genuine tragedy into a thrill ride, but at least that thrill ride has a message behind the madness. It’s a clever bit of genre filmmaking that rises slightly above the pack through subtext without ever becoming pretentious or transcending its genre roots. Yann Demange hasn’t made a masterpiece with his directorial debut, but he has delivered a visceral bit of nasty entertainment that deserves attention from both genre nuts and history hounds. It’s an impressive little movie made by a collection of talented British filmmakers who just might have a big impressive film in them if they get a chance to do this sort of thing again.