The Troubles in Northern Ireland are both important enough and historically recent enough that movies depicting them tend to prop themselves up as sweeping, Very Important summations of the times. So ’71 is at the very least an interesting experiment, taking as it does the form of a taut thriller with tonal cues borrowed from Black Hack Down and No Country For Old Men.
It’s 1971, a time of ugly wallpaper and enormous mullets. Belfast is seething with barely-contained sectarian violence and the IRA and their loyalist equivalent are stoking the flames with bombings and assassinations. The British army have been called in to try and keep the peace, and as the movie opens rookie soldier Gary arrives in Belfast and is placed under the authority of an idealistic and naive commander.
During the regiment’s first deployment a riot erupts and due to a twist of fate Gary finds himself alone and unarmed deep in the most tumultuous area of Belfast, surrounded by outbreaks of violence and pursued by gunmen from the younger, more bloodthirsty faction of the IRA who want nothing more than to bag themselves a British soldier, consequences be damned. Intertwining with Gary’s struggle to survive the night is a developing feud between the paramilitary factions in the area and some shady business involving his own superiors.
’71’s plot goes through a few obvious contrivances to keep Gary in danger (this is the sort of storyline that would be rendered instantly obsolete by mobile phones), but they’re easy to dismiss in the all-pervading aura of tension and dread the movie conjures from the moment he arrives in Belfast. This is a movie where very bad things are either happening on-screen or are about to happen, and the tension of the latter is almost worse than the horror of the former. When the violence starts it’s abrupt and un-glamourised- the unflinching depiction of the aftermath of a bombing is probably the movie’s most powerful and disturbing moment.
Like all highly politicized events, The Troubles tend to attract either ideologues, subtly or not so subtly skewing history so it will conform to the story they want to tell, or avowed fence-sitters whose efforts to avoid taking any side and boil the conflict down to its roots end up being uncomfortably similar to that infamous episode of Captain Planet. ’71 eschews either approach, deciding that its sympathies lie very firmly with the ordinary people of Belfast, regardless of what side of the ideological schism they fall on. There’s a moment early on where Gary, running away from two men who dearly want to put a bullet in his head, accidentally careens into a woman pushing a pram and knocks her to the ground. The brief snippet of film acts as a kind of summation of the movie’s portrayal of the Troubles as a kind of parallel reality of violence and terror that existed below the world where ordinary people went about their daily lives; when the two worlds collided it was always the innocent bystanders who suffered the most, even as the inhabitants of that other reality could be both victim and victimiser as the situation dictated.
When Gary is given shelter by a Catholic family we get to see a point often forgotten in depictions of the IRA: that they were a source of intense fear even among the people on whose behalf they claimed to be fighting, as anyone seen to be collaborating with “the enemy” could become a target. And the fact that the movie even includes the UVF is unusual, as many people don’t seem to be aware of loyalist paramilitaries or the fact that the Troubles didn’t just consist of the IRA trying to blow up Northern Ireland indiscriminately.
This nuanced approach does come with several flaws. In order to avoid taking sides the movie essentially turns Gary into a non-entity, a purely neutral observer who comes into the situation with no pre-conceived opinions and leaves it without ever having formed any (ask yourself if that seems realistic for a British soldier). The fact that he’s so one-dimensional makes it somewhat hard to care about whether or not he survives, which is a problem considering his survival is the entire dramatic lynchpin of the movie; there are other plot threads involving in-fighting between the older IRA and the younger Provisional IRA splinter group, and delving into some of the shady activities of the army’s undercover unit, but they either stop abruptly before the end of the movie or are implied to continue after Gary’s story concludes.
The other big mis-step in the movie is the depiction of the British army as clueless chumps who are completely unprepared for either the unstable situation among Belfast’s populace or the brutality of the local authorities in dealing with it. I’m not sure if the film’s intention was to essentially absolve the army of guilt, but given incidents like Bloody Sunday even straying too close to that territory feels irresponsible.
While we’re on the subject of the film’s political backdrop (and I use that word knowingly- this is much more an action thriller than it is a think piece on the Troubles), if you’re not already familiar with what was going on at the time you might want to do a quick Wikipedia trawl before going into ’71. Almost no attempt is made to catch audiences up on anything more than the most basic facts of the conflict, so if you don’t do outside reading some of the plot and a lot of the dialogue will be completely incomprehensible (the accents alone are going to be a challenge to some).
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a fast-paced and grounded thriller than ’71 will scratch that itch perfectly. Just don’t go in expecting either a character piece or a statement on an important recent historical event, because this isn’t either of those things.