Directed by: Yann Demange.
Written by: Gregory Burke.
Starring: Jack O'Connell (Gary Hook), Sam Reid (Lt. Armitage), Paul Anderson (Sergeant Leslie Lewis), Sean Harris (Captain Sandy Browning), Richard Dormer (Eamon), Killian Scott (Quinn).
Yann Demange’s ’71 is an excellent war time thriller, set during the “troubles” in Ireland in 1971 – which was the year before the most violent year this conflict saw. The film follows one British soldier – as he goes in with his unit to serve a simple search warrant, and ends up getting trapped in the city by himself. There are multiple factions involved – some want to kill him, some want to save him, and there are undercover agents who may want to do either, or both, at any one time. The remarkable thing about ’71 is how it keeps all of this straight, with very little in the way of exposition. The screenplay, by Geoffrey Burke, provides us with just enough information, before heading off in another direction at breakneck speed. The result is an exciting film – but also one that takes a confusing situation, and shows us the chaos that caused it, without becoming mired in it.
The film opens with a training montage of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell – last seen in Unbroken, but much better here and in Starred Up), a young British soldier, from a poor background. He and his fellow soldiers are training in the woods, with camouflage and traditional war tactics – basically everything they do NOT need when their unit gets assigned to help out the police in Belfast. Their commanding officer (Sam Reid) is inexperienced and naïve – and has no idea what is about to come crashing down on them. Then again, to be fair, no one really does. They head out on a routine mission, and things quickly turn sour – with the local populace starting to throw rocks, and threatening to riot – and Hook and another soldier soon find themselves alone in the chaos. When the other solider is shot, Hook takes off – and thus begins a long night when his life is in constant danger.
The film is directed by first time filmmaker Yann Demange, who shows an expert sense of pacing and action from the start of his career. Early in the film, the constant, shaky, handheld camera work made me worry that the film would be yet another sub-Paul Greengrass (if you’re generous, Michael Bay is you’re not) thriller – but it’s anything but. Even in those early scenes, with the shaky camera work, Demange favors longer takes rather than rapid fire editing to place us inside the action. The effect is certainly chaotic, but also clear eyed – so we actually understand what is going on. As the movie progresses, we get fewer of these types of shaky camera work – as Demange changes his style for whatever set piece he is currently working on.
The resulting film is exciting and tense in part, but also intelligent. There are so many different factions – all of whom may be ready to kill one another at any given time, and many also willing to team up at others – and yet the film never loses the audience in the details. It is crystal clear at any one moment what precisely is going on – and where the biggest danger to Hook is coming from.
The film also works as an anti-war film. Most of the characters in the film – and all of the ones that truly risk their lives – are young men, who do not really understand the fight they are becoming involved in. Hook has no real clue what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it – and he may well have more in common – economically anyway - with those who want to kill him, than those who want to save him.
There have been a lot of movies about the “troubles” over the years – some very sympathetic to the IRA, some, not so much. ’71 is not really either here – it looks at a situation that was about ready to explode, and finds more than enough blame to go around. And then it wraps it up in an entertaining, expertly made package.