I've been to Belfast, Northern Ireland on three occasions: in the 1970s, the '80s and the '90s. On my first visit, in 1979, I heard someone say the Gaelic phrase "Na Triobloidi." I certainly knew of "The Troubles" and, quite frankly, considered it to be a passive term for the sectarian violence that defined Northern Ireland from 1969 through the late 1990s, spilling into Ireland, England and even mainland Europe.
My first memories of Belfast are the ones that have remained the clearest: like the day I saw the guard towers at the Ireland/Northern Ireland border laid out in a serpentine design to hinder car bombs plowing through the checkpoint.
"We're nothing more than cannon fodder," a too-young British soldier told me that same day in a Protestant-friendly pub, dreading the British military orders that had placed a target on his 18-year-old back.
Those words and that boy's face, indelibly etched in my mind, rushed to the surface the other day while I watched '71, one of the best—if not the best—narrative film concerning The Troubles. '71 is a bracing, non-stop thriller without a political agenda and is required viewing for anyone concerned with this little-chronicled chapter in contemporary history.
The choice by screenwriter Gregory Burke and director Yann Demanges (both making their feature-length debut) to not make '71 a character study and instead focus on the events of one fateful night in 1971, when a British soldier is separated from his unit during a Belfast riot months before the Bloody Sunday massacre, which left 26 unarmed civilians dead.
We know little about protagonist Private Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) as '71 begins, with the exception that he's parentless and acting as a surrogate father to a younger brother who has been sent to a miserable foster facility. On Hook's first day as a soldier in Belfast he is inspecting homes for firearms when things turn ugly fast. In a matter of minutes, Hook and another soldier are separated from their squad; the second soldier is assassinated by a street thug and Hook becomes the prey in a hunt through an urban setting as dangerous as any war zone. I promise, you'll need to remind yourself to breathe.
'71 is gritty and streetwise, and there are moments that harken back to 1957's Paths of Glory, 1979's The Warriors and even 1981's Escape From New York. '71's breakneck speed is intense without being overbearing and, to that end, it's far superior than many other contemporary thrillers. It's an astounding first-time-out-of-the-gate achievement from Burke and Demange, whose use of 16-millimeter camerawork for day shots and digital equipment for night scenes is highly effective, especially considering how this particular saga takes place in a single night—a familiar choice for an Irish storyline (i.e. James Joyce's Ulysses).
Ultimately, '71 is O'Connell's movie. Audiences may know him better as the star of 2014's big-budget Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. However, in '71, O'Connell's quiet intensity is a wonder to behold and will help rocket him to the top of the list of must-see actors.
When '71 opens at The Flicks in Boise on Friday, March 20, many of us may still be nursing a St. Patrick's Day hangover—perhaps from downing one too many Irish Car Bombs, that particularly American (and particularly offensive, considering the bloodshed stemming from The Troubles) concoction of Irish stout, Irish cream and Irish whiskey. More sobering will be the conclusion '71, which reminded me of my last visit to Belfast, when I took note of several memorials to the slain that had been erected in the city. Many chose not to erect statues or plaques and instead opted to leave untouched a few of the craters caused by The Troubles bombings. No memorial could ever fill the holes—in the ground or in their hearts.