Review: '71 (2014)

Yann Demange’s ’71 is a rare contemporary example of cinéma vérité action done right. It’s a taut political action movie, taking place in war-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland in the titular year when Protestants and Catholics were throwing molotov cocktails at each other and blowing up pubs. Every shot shakes and wobbles as it follows Jack O’Connell’s British soldier Gary Hook as he tries to survive in the hostile streets after his unit abandons him during a raid. ’71 is first and foremost intense, and its constant intensity justifies its aggressive use of shaky-cam in every frame.

The film starts with a montage of the training regimen Gary undergoes in the army. We see him sprinting with a heavy backpack on, crawling through sewer pipes, and wading in a creek. At one point he vaults a large wall with the help of his fellow soldiers. His instructor yells at Gary as he does so, telling him to rely on his comrades and work as a team in order to survive. In the next shot three soldiers run towards a small ridge in the woods. Two of the soldiers mount it and get into defensive positions, but the third soldier stumbles, prompting the other two to lower their guard and pick him up. This time the instructor berates them, telling them that there’s no time in the heat of battle to pick up the slack of other soldiers. The juxtaposition between these two shots outlines the thematic tension that dominates the film: the army says one thing and does another.

In fact, every faction in ’71 preaches one thing and does another. The IRA militias spend more time infighting than dealing with their Protestant counterparts or searching for O’Connell’s vulnerable soldier. Undercover government agents, headed by Sean Harris’ Captain Sandy Browning, plot ways to disarm the IRA, but they actually spend most of their time covering their tracks and settling scores for informants in order to gain leverage. Even Gary’s unit is untrustworthy. They’re in Belfast for reasons that are never justifiably explained and even their well-intentioned commander, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), is too naive and incompetent to protect his men.

This constant level of distrust keeps the tensions running high, as Gary allies himself with various people he encounters in the Belfast streets, wary to reveal his identity but eager to find a way home. As Gary, Jack O’Connell again demonstrates that he’s one of Britain’s brightest new talents. As he did in both Starred Up and Unbroken, O’Connell delivers a mostly physical performance. The way he carries his body and watches the various people he finds himself with says far more than the few lines he delivers. As the trust he puts in others erodes, his body hunches closer to the ground, as if the knowledge that he’s truly helpless is crushing him. There are many shots late in the film of Gary scrambling his way along the floors of a hostile apartment block, holding the wound at his side, breathing heavily, his eyes darting across the screen. The shots shake and tumble along with him, but they always keep Gary’s eyes in focus, alerting us to the enormous stress this individual is suffering.

It’s strange that a soldier would be our entry point into this story full of political intrigue and historical tension in the embattled Ireland of the 1970s. Surely, an IRA commander or one of the undercover British agents would be a better focal point, better able to clarify the context of the situation. But Demange’s intention is not to clarify anything. The situation only becomes more muddled as the narrative progresses, with any notion of good guys and bad guys obscured, and any moral justification for involvement in the situation erased. Ironically, a soldier in Gary’s position is the most helpless individual of the lot. He is neither personally motivated by ideology to be there, nor is he equipped with the knowledge to navigate the environment on his own. He doesn’t even have personal geographic or cultural stakes in the outcome. He’s just an outsider, helplessly pulled into the mire. He may be a soldier, and, thus, a representative of the British government, but as the narrative progresses, the film strips him of this symbolic authority until it’s inconsequential.

In one of the film’s closing scenes we hear the words, “the military takes care of its own.” ’71 is Demange and writer Gregory Burke’s argument for how that simple aphorism is a blatant lie. It hits home the film’s blunt thematic interests. Like its tense storytelling and chaotic camerawork, it’s not subtle, but it fits.

7 out of 10

’71 (2014, UK)

Directed by Yann Demange; written by Gregory Burke; starring Jack O’Connell, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Charlie Murphy, Paul Anderson, Paul Popplewell.