Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Bloody Sunday.

criterion logoWith breathtaking verisimilitude and startling immediacy, Bloody Sunday re-creates Northern Ireland’s most controversial contemporary tragedy.  Director Paul Greengrass presents the events of January 30, 1972, in convincing verité fashion, based on Don Mullan’s influential account Eyewitness Bloody Sunday.  Civil rights leader and Member of Parliament Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) leads a tense march through Derry’s Catholic “bogside” community protesting the British practice of internment without trial.  He watches in horror when his peaceful march splinters and unarmed protesters are gunned down by British paramilitary soldiers.  Told from the perspectives of both the civil rights movement and the military authorities, Bloody Sunday commemorates the 30th anniversary of the massacre at Derry and offers a cathartic statement on its long contested history.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by director Paul Greengrass, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring writer/director Paul Greengrass and actor James Nesbitt
  • Audio commentary featuring co-producer Don Mullan, author of Eyewitness Bloody Sunday
  • History Retold, interviews with cast and crew
  • Ivan Cooper Remembers, interview with Ivan Cooper and James Nesbitt on location in Derry, Northern Ireland
  • Q&A session at London’s Curzon Cinema, with Paul Greengrass and James Nesbitt
  • New interviews with Irish rock band U2 and producer Steve Lillywhite on Bloody Sunday, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
  • Inside Story Special: Remember Bloody Sunday, a 1992 BBC 50-minute documentary special on Bloody Sunday
  • Blood Sunday – A Derry Diary, Margo Harkin’s 85-minute documentary following the course of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry from the perspective of the victims’ families
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring new essays by actor James Nesbitt and film scholar Duncan Greenlaw

Bloody Sunday launched director Paul Greengrass’s Hollywood career, putting the filmmaker in the position to make the 9/11 memorial United 93 (2006), the piracy thriller Captain Phillips (2013), and 3 Matt Damon vehicles, The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Green Zone (2010).  A Golden Bear winner at the Berlin Film Festival and recipient of the Audience Award at Sundance, Bloody Sunday depicts the events of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland.  The incident is well documented and so, sufficed to say, the film represents the tragic unfolding of a peaceful march for civil rights that ended with British Army paratroopers firing on demonstrators and killing 14 unarmed marchers.  The film is a visceral, tense experience, as the events of January 30, 1972, are presented with a startling realism primarily evoked by Greengrass’s now characteristic shaky-camera which emulates a verité style despite the omniscience of the narration.  Greengrass, a former journalist himself, based the film on Don Mullan’s influential book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday.  Mullan’s book was a key catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision in 1998 to convene a new inquiry on the shootings in an effort to redress previous government whitewashes of the incident.  While it was the longest and most expensive one in British history, the Saville Inquiry’s report was eventually released in 2010, leading to Prime Minister David Cameron’s formal apology for the incident on behalf of the British Government.

The shockingly tangible sense of reality in Bloody Sunday is achieved through a strange set of paradoxes and intertextual citations.  Greengrass creates a film that very much feels a product of direct cinema.  He creates a palpable immediacy with long takes, long shots, imprecise framing, and in-the-moment performances assisted by spontaneous events (gunshots, phones calls, etc.) uncued and unexpected by the actors.  Performances, of course, do not simply happen naturally, as filmmaking is a most unnatural of processes.  Greengrass rehearsed scenes extensively to allow the actors to make the script second nature and then enable them to forget it, relying on the script only as something to fall back on and then navigate away from once again.  James Nesbitt, in the film’s principle role as march organizer and Member of Parliament Ivan Cooper, describes feeling ill at ease with the process in the early stages, being unsure what Greengrass was hoping to achieve; no doubt enhancing the portrayal of his harried and tense character.  The film has been criticized by some as focusing too much on the Cooper character, encouraging a “great man” view of history.  This criticism seems overblown when one considers the breadth of Bloody Sunday, but Greengrass does acknowledge an interest in placing Cooper at the fore as a kind of “man between worlds,” being a Protestant politician campaigning for peace across Northern Ireland and for civil rights denied to his Catholic countrymen.  Nesbitt’s casting is a kind of intertextual statement itself, as Nesbitt is a Northern Irish Protestant, cast against type from the lovable everymen with whom he was often associated.  Interestingly, Tim Pigott-Smith’s portrayal of military leader Major General Ford relies heavily on an association with his role as the malevolent police officer Ronald Merrick in the TV series The Jewel in the Crown.  In fact, Bloody Sunday is rife with intertextual references that both lend authenticity and credibility to film while also putting viewers familiar with the incident at arm’s length.  While filmed in Dublin to better capture the look of the time, Greengrass casts in the film a variety of the actual Derry marchers and their kin, individuals recognizable to those involved in the march and its aftermath.  Don Mullan is even cast in the film as a bogside priest as an acknowledgement of his contribution to the film and the cause.  All of this is suggested as counterpoint to the seamlessness of Greengrass’ verité world.  While a masterwork in realist style, Bloody Sunday‘s production is anything but and its casting speaks directly and unequivocally to the Derry residents who both appear in and respond to the film.

So what might we take from Greengrass’ effort to achieve an authentic and realistic depiction of the Bloody Sunday shootings through a cinema verité aesthetic on the one hand and a citational and intertextual explicitness on the other?  We might start by considering Bloody Sunday as an informal inquiry in its own right, made 30 years after the Widgery Tribunal’s whitewash and 8 years before the Saville Inquiry’s reconsideration.  The film could be thought of as a form of reportage by Greengrass that uses its casting as both a type of witness testimony in the case of the Derry citizens and as something of a post-modern shell-game by its reliance on its stars’ constructed celebrities to manage viewer sympathies.  We might consider how determinations on history, including those legally made, rely on reproductions of the past written like a palimpsest over the actual event, requiring a reconstruction that both relies upon and replaces the event itself.  Some accounts of the film’s reception by those actually present at Bloody Sunday describe a sense of partial catharsis from the limbo-like state they were left in by official accounts of the shootings, leaving us to consider the film as a sort of effort in truth and reconciliation.  Is the hegemony of cinema and popular culture such that its representation of an event is itself sufficient to providing some claim of authority to historical and social discourse?  Is that catharsis true or even desirable?  It’s easy to think of numerous examples where cinema has run rampant over historical accuracy, leaving us more entertained and less knowledgeable than when we went in, but Bloody Sunday may be a rare example of film’s social conscience as a positive influence, even if its contribution cannot fully resolve the issues it addresses.  Bloody Sunday is not a retrospective, an elegy, or a memorial.  It takes on an event that remained an open wound in the culture of Northern Ireland and did so in an effort to offer a voice with some authority to an unrecognized experience.  That alone make Greengrass’s effort admirable.

Bloody Sunday PosterBloody Sunday would be Paul Greengrass’s first film in the Collection and Criterion’s only Irish film thus far.  The film has had a lot of posters and cover treatments, but we’re partial to this foreboding red one sheet with its image of Nesbitt shot from behind, a recurring image in the film.  It’s consistent with Criterion’s minimalist approach and is a less seen example of Bloody Sunday‘s promotional art.

Credits:  The commentaries and the History Retold and Ivan Remembers features are all holdovers from the Paramount R1 DVD release.  The Curzon Q&A is taken from the R2 UK edition of the film.  Bloody Sunday concludes with U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (naturally) and so a feature on the band, the song, and the significance of the Derry shootings seemed like a natural.  (See Bono discuss the track here.)  The documentaries on the event seemed necessary to assist viewers unfamiliar with the incident and to complete a special edition of the film.  James Nesbitt is tapped to provide an essay based on his 2010 article for The Independent.  There, Nesbitt canvasses the significance of the event to him personally, as well his own private process for determining he should take on the role of Ivan Cooper.  Duncan Greenlaw was chosen for his essay “‘Until Justice is Done’: Authenticity and Memory in Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and United 93 to which this post owes its thanks as well.

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