One of the interesting questions in the realm of film philosophy centers on the question of genre. Generic texts, whether written or filmed, pose a quandary insofar as they should prove to be boring to audiences, as the form and formula of the text must have a certain consistency across the various iterations of the genre. Indeed, if a film lays claim to being part of a genre, audiences will punish it should it venture too far off the track. Yet, should a film do nothing more than effectively connect the dots of its genre, audiences will lambast it for offering nothing new. Thus, a paradox seems to emerge: genre films draw an audience that both wants what it expects and is upset if it doesn’t get something different.
As a film buff, nothing tickles me more than a genre film that somehow manages to be both a perfect enshrinement of its genre and, without violating the beats and expectations of its literary type, manages to transcend it and almost become something else, something deeper than its form and formula would have us believe. Such is the joy of watching ’71, a new film out of England that depicts the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a new recruit in the British Army, whose squad has been deployed to Belfast due to the escalating violence between the Catholic Irish Nationalists and the Protestant Ulster Loyalists. Hook, an orphan whose only human connection in life is to his younger brother, goes out on a routine patrol that quickly turns ugly due to the well-intentioned, but naïve niceties of the squad’s Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid). Ill-equipped, the British soldiers are unable to withstand the rioting citizens and Hook winds up left behind, hunted by the IRA’s most radical elements in a land he doesn’t know, hoping to survive the night and make his way back to safe territory.
On the surface, director Yann Demange (making his theatrical film debut) and screenwriter Gregory Burke have composed a straightforward chase film. However, the two of them use this formula to craft a sober examination of humanity. Both director and writer realize there is no easy answer to Hook’s plight, for the events of a night in war-torn Belfast are shown to rob the isolated British soldier of any firm understanding of safety or threat, as both Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant at various points alternate between existential threat and safeguard of life. Credit must be given to Demange and Burke for creating a work of fiction that plays more true to life than such films as Unbroken, American Sniper, and Selma–all of which are “based on a true story.”
’71 is an exhilarating experience, consisting of heart-stopping chases through the alleyways of Belfast, a gut-wrenching emergency surgery, unexpected twists, and a full-throttle momentum towards a conclusion that is far from certain. However, thanks to the excellent work of the entire cast–especially O’Connell’s visceral lead role and the subtle posturing of Sean Harris (playing the deep cover Capt. Browning, running operations shrouded in shadows for the British)–and the deeply humane direction, Burke’s script speaks volumes about the nature of violence, the fog of war, and the moral dilemma of modern man. When violence bursts in this movie–and burst it does both often and with unannounced force–there is an emotional resonance and a pain that people’s lives have been forever damaged or even ended.
I have now seen ’71 twice and cannot wait to see it again, though sadly I will need to as it is no longer being screened at any nearby theaters. Demange has helmed a film that rightly deserves serious academic study, adroit social conversations, and deliberate mental contemplation. Simultaneously, it stands as one of the most entertaining films in years. Not a single frame in this film rings false, but rather draws the audience further into the broken world of 1970s Belfast. Seldom do films manage to work both as exemplary art and first-rate entertainment, but ’71 is truly an enthralling and enlightening work of cinema.