Directed by: Yann Demange
Premise: British soldiers travel to Northern Ireland during an uprising in 1971. One young soldier (Jack O’Connell) gets abandoned in hostile territory and becomes the target of Irish Nationalists and undercover British Unionists.
What Works: At its most basic level, ’71 is a chase movie like Black Hawk Down or No Escape in which a character must get from point A to point B while eluding people who want to kill him. As a survival story this movie is exceptional. The film does just enough to establish its main character. Jack O’Connell plays a young man who has joined the army out of economic necessity to provide for his younger brother and he has no ill will toward the Irish nor any discernable political agenda. He’s just a young guy trying to do a job. That’s enough to make him an empathetic character and put the audience on his side. This young soldier, as well as a squad of other green troops, are dropped into the middle of a violent civil conflict for which they are unprepared. While escorting the police in making an arrest things get out of control and when the troops come under fire O’Connell’s character is left behind. Pursued by violent Irish Nationalists, he must run through the streets of an unfamiliar town and try to find a way back to the base. Filmmaker Yann Demange handles the action exceptionally well. The early arrest and riot scene that incites the story is terrifically staged. The events play out very unpredictably and the filmmakers find ways of blocking and photographing the action so that it’s clearly from the soldier’s point of view. The subsequent action is also very well shot and edited. The filmmakers utilize Hitchcockian ideas of suspense, establishing a threat and then letting the scene play out so that the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance creates the tension. The film has a gritty and visceral look and the action is photographed so as to capture the horror of the violence. Were this all the movie had going for it, ’71 would be a commendable action picture but in the midst of all of this action the filmmakers also manage to pack in a lot of complexity. On the outset the soldiers are established as the good guys who are out to get the bag guys. But upon throwing the hero into a civil war it’s revealed that everything is much more complicated. The Irish Nationalists are split into two factions, one of young overzealous upstarts and the other of older leaders who are more measured in their tactics. That kind of complexity also exists among the British forces and the Unionists and the occasion of this abandoned soldier sends everyone scrambling to protect or enhance their positions. This complexity gives the story and the violence of the film a lot more meaning and nuance than it would otherwise have.
What Doesn’t: For the majority of its running time, ’71 is a chase movie in which the abandoned solider must elude people who want to kill him. About halfway through the story the soldier gets wounded and is taken in by a local medic. From that point on the protagonist of the movie does not do very much. Fortunately, the filmmakers have smartly set up a complex weave of parties who are in search of this soldier and his physical incapacitation heightens the suspense. However, as a matter of storytelling the movie does have a protagonist who does not have very much volition in the last third of the picture. The very end of ’71 is a bit inconclusive. Without giving too much away, the film presents its surviving characters with some ugly and complicated truths about the nature of the Northern Ireland conflict. That ought to force the characters into a final decision or at least a moment of epiphany but the very end of the story isn’t as strong or as evocative as the rest of the picture.
DVD extras: Commentary track, trailer.
Bottom Line: ’71 is an exceptional movie that is a satisfyingly edgy action thriller but also a thoughtful story about life in a war zone and what violent conflict does to a community. This is one of those rare pictures that simultaneously achieves narrative perspicuity and thematic complexity all while being extremely entertaining.
Episode: #558 (September 6, 2015)