’71 isn’t meant to look like one continuous shot, as Birdman is, but it often feels that way anyway. Unfolding largely over one very long day and night in Belfast during the year of its title, it follows a fresh-faced British soldier thrust into a divided city whose peace he’s in no way prepared to keep. Movies about the Troubles have a strangely high success rate (In the Name of the Father, The Crying Game, The Boxer, and last year’s Shadow Dancer all come immediately to mind), yet Yann Demange’s directorial debut stands out even within that distinguished company for its hauntingly immersive atmosphere and minute-to-minute urgency.
Gary Hook (an excellent Jack O’Connell) arrives in Belfast under the command of a surprisingly mellow lieutenant who, on the new platoon’s first call out, opts to leave the riot shields and helmets behind. The judgment call proves lethal, as the equally young soldier standing next to Gary gets shot in the head at point-blank range when what was supposed to be a routine mission turns into a small-scale riot. Separated from the rest of his brothers in arms, Gary becomes a sitting duck in enemy (read: IRA) territory. For much of the film, Demange does the opposite of what’s currently en vogue for films of ’71’s ilk by making chaotic situations comprehensible, shooting impromptu skirmishes and foot-chases with a clarity that makes them all the more terrifying. It’s an experiential, largely apolitical take on a situation that’s not only inherently political, but among the most volatile of the last half-century.
There’s a fluidity to the way one small conflict bleeds into the next, with neither Gary nor us getting much of a chance to slow down and take a breath. The organization of his military unit is utterly mismatched against the controlled guerrilla chaos of the IRA, with no one on either end coming across as right so much as wrong to lesser or greater degrees. (“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts” is how a former army medic describes the military.) Alliances are temporary matters of convenience likely to be jettisoned at any given moment. Gunshots and mishandled bombs are dangerous, but so is trusting the wrong person—especially if he’s supposed to be on the same side as you.
The Telluride Film Festival ran from August 29—September 1.
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