One of the strange things about war is that purpose is largely irrelevant. Nations and world leaders have their reasons for war, but foreign policy is irrelevant on the ground level, in the thick of it. The “Band of Brothers” mythos does not refer to a common goal, exactly, except to vanquish enemies and survive. The hardened men of the thriller ’71 are like that: they’re in so deep that there is no discussion of what they hope to achieve, and only look to the most immediate goal. Working from a screenplay by Gregory Burke, director Yann Demange looks at one night of The Troubles at their worst, and most chaotic.
After starring in Unforgiven and Starred Up, films that are both set primarily in prisons, Jack O’Connell is once again our entry point into a group of violent men. He plays Gary Hook, an English soldier who is abruptly sent to Belfast. His posh commanding officer has good intentions, but does little to prepare his men. Or should I say boys instead? They’re barely old enough to drink. Gary’s unit wanders through a neighborhood, ostensibly to police the local population, and of course the tense environment escalates (neighborhood kids use bags of piss to welcome the English interlopers). After Gary witnesses the IRA murder an English soldier in cold blood, he hides in the ensuing scuffle and unknowingly becomes a bargaining chip for both sides. This is not a hostage situation, exactly, since Gary can still fend for himself, yet he serves a catalyst for the compassion/inhumanity of those who encounter him.
Demange sharply divides ’71 along enemy lines. The opening passages are relatively idyllic and controlled: there is a lengthy sequence where Gary kicks around a ball with an orphan, perhaps his brother, and soldiers follow orders dutifully. There is not much dialogue here, which a roundabout way of making Gary seem innocent. O’Connell does not speak much in ’71, so he mostly serves as an avatar for the audience’s experience. That is not to say, however, that O’Connell’s performance lacks specificity. Through terrific non-verbal acting, we feel each hardship and injury that befalls Gary; there’s a particularly harrowing scene where an amateur surgeon stitches up a gaping wound. Still, what happens around Gary’s periphery is weirdly more important than his individual experience.
Once he’s behind enemy lines, Demange drifts away from his Gary’s perspective. He does not make an effort to distinguish between English spies and IRA fighters, and that’s exactly the point. They all look the same, really, which adds the hopelessness and confusion of the situation. Aside from the English soldiers, none of the characters wear uniforms, and the cinema-verite style denies the characters an opportunity to self-identify. The most recognizable face is Sean Harris’, who plays a forceful leader, and that’s because it’s so taciturn and angry. While I’ll keep his allegiance a secret, part of the film’s power is that he could fight for either side. The remarkable thing about ’71 is its confident storytelling throughout the chaos. The climax of the film involves guerilla style-battle in an apartment complex, and the visual storytelling is clearer than the goals of the opposing factions. Many warm films thrive on confusion – the enemy comes from all sides in Platoon, for example – and here is one that has order, except in terms of allegiances. The effect is miserable, and also sort of exhilarating.
One of the more sobering things about ’71 is how Belfast looked back then. Aside from the occasional child playing, which does not last long, the whole city looks like a hollowed-out warzone. There is no sense of affluence or community, and that partially explains why these men felt they had no alternative beyond violence. Burke and Demange wants us to forget about the gung-ho nationalism of war films, and instead they focus on how war corrodes everything, whether it’s an individual or an entire city. Gary has little to show to his long night in Belfast, except for the difficult wisdom that he gets from the military pales in comparison to what they take.