A man is bleeding on the streets. He’s been shot and will die without your help. You pick him up, take him to your house, and discover he’s a soldier fighting for your opposing side. Is his life any less valuable now that you know his identity? Do you hand the soldier over to the rebels who will most likely kill him or do you protect him despite his association?
The new war film,’71, follows the civil unrest on the streets of Belfast during the titular year by telling the story of a British soldier who gets trapped in the Catholic side of the city. More importantly, it’s a film about how everyday people deal with civil unrest and the hatred of their enemy.
Movies sensationalize war by turning soldiers and freedom fighters into caricatures. Depending on the viewpoint (whether they are seen as heroic or not) they are depicted as charismatic figures who stand up for justice in the face of tyranny. If you are against the hero, you are the villain. Think of American Sniper where every Arab in the film is a terrorist, or Lone Survivor where the terrorists are long-bearded crazies. I don’t doubt that some Arabs are terrorists or that there are long-bearded crazies. My objection is that in order to be objective, there has to be ambiguity. There are good soldiers and bad ones, virtuous freedom fighters and rash ones. To reduce the opposition to a villainous caricature is to pick a side in war where heroism is often difficult to determine.
These kinds of films reinforce what those at war already think of each other; they reduce their opposition’s humanity to one-dimensionality as if the enemy is only their politics or morals. War reduces people to a sub-humanity where killing is ethical and the perception of human worth is gone. War movies are often the same: the higher the body count, the more the protagonist is heroic.
The presentation of the opposing viewpoint is the power infused in almost every frame of ’71; none of the characters are icons or outright heroes, but everyday people who try to act their best given their situations and moral principles. Some are nationalistic rebels while others are government soldiers. Both see injustice, yet both fail to empathize with the other. The tragedy is that they hate without understanding. A young and thoughtless boy in the film has a strong hatred for Catholics despite being around ten years old. He’s been taught to hate despite having no understanding of the real conflict. The hatred is completely blind and not worth the cost. Whenever a character comes to realize this it’s always too late.
During the most powerful scene, the British soldier that is caught behind enemy lines is armed only with a knife as a Catholic man instigates his own demise by chasing after him with a gun. The Irishman is stabbed by the soldier (out of self-defense) and lies on the ground, spitting up blood and taking his last few breaths. The soldier kneels down and the men grab each other’s hand and stare at each other with a revelatory sadness. Is blind hatred worth the loss of life?
Regardless of whether you agree with the message, ’71 is visceral filmmaking with meticulous action set pieces and precise plotting. It employs techniques that have been used very poorly in other films and rejuvenates them with careful artfulness. Shaky-cam cinematography has become synonymous with poor cinematography in movie reviews. The needless disorientation and nonsensical editing that normally accompanies these kinds of shots has been used in countless movies after The Bourne: Identity without any appropriate intentions for the technique. The shaky-cam shots in Hollywood blockbusters could be replaced with ones that use more traditional framing and the results would be far more intense than the nauseating counterpart. Thankfully, that is not the case with ’71.
The film uses many handheld and shaky cam shots but it never falls into the formally mentioned trapping. The aesthetic has been carefully thought out to create a different sensation in different scenes. The shaky cam shots are sometimes hard to follow, but they work because they are contrasted with static shots and contribute to an overall mood that is unpredictable and thrilling. For example, in one notable action set piece involving a bombing, the shots before the explosion are stable or static while afterwards they are shaky and intended to match with the character’s wounded gait. Shaky cam is used when it’s appropriate and stable shots are used when they are appropriate; that’s what separates ‘71’s action scenes from other ones in the post-Bourne era.
The plotting has had an equal attention to detail as the film tracks five different groups and their relation to the soldier who has been caught behind enemy lines. Each scene builds on the tension of the last, as stories intersect and eventually all come together in a series of final confrontations. I’m not sure if the film even wastes a single scene on extraneous details. It’s brutally concise, told in some of the shortest 90 minutes at the movies this year so far. Even still, the characters feel well-rounded because they are developed through the action and the building up to the final confrontation.
’71 has none of the long bearded crazies of Lone Survivor or the one-dimensional caricatures of American Sniper. All the characters have reasonable causes shaped by injustice that they have experienced. The problem is that each group fails to put themselves in their enemy’s shoes. They thirst for violence until they realize the taste is not what they were expecting.
As a re-creation of history, a peacemaker’s message, and an action movie, ’71 is powerful and accomplished filmmaking from Yann Demange in his feature-length debut.