Bloody Sunday and The Grey Zone both pitch themselves headlong into seething debates about the meaning of historical atrocities, and the propriety of re-enacting them. The former, writer-director Paul Greengrass’ hyperrealist re-creation of the 1972 massacre, by soldiers of the British Army‘s Paratroop Regiment, of 14 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers in Londonderry, simply could not have been made or shown in Britain in the 20 years after the events it describes. Because of government and BBC censorship, almost all dissent, indeed almost any debate, on the British presence in Ulster was muzzled until the dawn of the most recent peace process. Controversial television programming like This Week’s 1987 documentary Death on the Rock, about the shooting of three IRA members in Gibraltar by the SAS, was banned outright or delayed until its news-value shelf life had long expired. Broadcasts of fictional works by BBC directors like Mike Leigh (Four Days in July) and Alan Clarke (Contact, about British soldiers in South Armagh‘s ”Bandit Country,“ and Elephant, a brutally minimalist depiction of 18 sectarian shootings, one after another) were routinely denounced by right-wingers who freely admitted not having seen them, then rescheduled in the wee small hours. This vacuum was one of the sideshows of the 30-year ”troubles,“ and was only filled with dissenting voices at the turn of the 1990s, when it became obvious that there was more than one side to this terrible, intractable conflict.
The Grey Zone, on the other hand, is burdened with the kinds of issues that tend to promote self-censorship. How should one depict the Holocaust? Can it be done? Ought it be done? Claude Landesman, director of Shoah, believes the Holocaust should never be re-created, full stop. Others feel that not to memorialize it is tantamount to denial. Would not a true and accurate portrayal of life in Auschwitz simply be too revolting and harrowing to make, let alone watch?
Tim Blake Nelson — familiar as an actor in O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Good Girl, as the director of O and writer-director of Eye of God — doesn’t accept that the unshowable shouldn‘t be shown. His staging of the origins of Auschwitz’s only Jewish uprising (on October 7, 1944, when three crematoria were dynamited) has for its main characters a Hungarian-Jewish doctor (Allan Corduner), forced to assist in the medical experiments of Dr. Joseph Mengele, and the 12th Sonderkommando, men forced to clean the gas chambers and feed their fellow Jews into the furnaces. Concerned primarily with the terminal, soul-canceling compromises such men made to snatch a few extra months of life before being gassed themselves, Nelson apparently decided that, for his story to have any integrity, he must re-create everything. So we see the piles of corpses, the mass executions, the Jewish scalps drying on washing lines, the piles of gold tooth fillings, the hungry ovens endlessly fed with human flesh, and the gray ash that remains. It‘s grim stuff indeed, but somehow the horror never quite overwhelms Nelson’s sure-footed approach to raising all manner of frankly unanswerable questions — in particular, what would or could one have done in such circumstances? His ”survivors“ get by on brute cynicism and a total absence of illusion. The only readily available rationalization is, as one character tells a German officer (Harvey Keitel), ”It‘s not us pulling the trigger!“ Amid so much bad conscience, it’s not surprising that when a little girl survives the gas, the Sonderkommandos treat her like a talisman and swear they won‘t kill her, even if that ensures their own death.
Unlike the nauseating fictions peddled by such ”Have-yourself-a-happy-little-Holocaust“ movies as Life Is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar, The Grey Zone is honest enough to deny the possibility of hope in Auschwitz. Here everybody dies. Everything comes to zero — a legitimate, if depressing, means of uncovering the nihilism of the Nazi project. Incidentally, the presence of certain cute, rich Hollywood actors (Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, David Arquette) doesn’t capsize the project, as many have feared. Each name actor has a relatively small role, none hogs the limelight unduly, and the heavy lifting in the large roles is done by lesser-known character actors like Allan Corduner and Daniel Benzali.
Bloody Sunday‘s realism is of a different order. Greengrass earned his spurs on Granada TV’s investigative-journalism show World in Action, where he specialized in Irish issues. He co-wrote Spycatcher with MI5 spook Peter Wright, and has since made well-received dramas about the framing of the Birmingham Six and the bungled Steven Lawrence murder investigation. Here, he‘s determined that his material shall be as faithful to the factual record as possible. And if 1972 seems a long time ago, bear in mind that the events of Bloody Sunday are currently being re-examined by a British government inquiry, that no immunity from prosecution has been extended either to the paratroopers or to their superiors, and that powerful military and political figures may still face prosecution. The film partakes of a very contemporary debate about Britain’s role in Ulster, and cannot be accused, as such efforts once routinely were, of lending aid and comfort to the enemy. Far from it. Bloody Sunday is a scrupulously even-handed account, free of ideological or tribal partisanship, based on eyewitness accounts by survivors and the anonymous ”Paras“ themselves. Marchers are played by Bogside residents, soldiers by ex-soldiers, and victims, in some cases, by their surviving relatives.
Greengrass‘ cinematic model is Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 movie The Battle of Algiers, which also featured a former colony in revolt, a battalion of paratroopers, internment, torture, and armed struggle by nationalists. Replication of Pontecorvo‘s style — a brilliant faking of newsreel and documentary techniques — is what interests Greengrass, and he has adopted it wholesale, his camera inserting itself again and again into the thick of things, shuddering, flickering, and so on. The result is a remarkably plausible facsimile of faded BBC news footage from the period — all too familiar to British and Irish viewers — with the primaries bleached out, olive drabs, grays, greens and browns constituting the full color spectrum. The only exceptions are the Paras’ distinctive purple berets and the spilled blood they foreshadow. Yet despite the stampeding crowds and the bullets flying overhead, Greengrass achieves a remarkable clarity of exposition, never letting the confusion of events obscure what actually happened.
The filmmaker limits himself to one day, January 30, 1972, and to one place, the Bogside Catholic ghetto of Londonderry, where the events transpired. Relying only on verified eyewitness accounts, Greengrass focuses on figures from all sides, each chosen because their stories bridge the sectarian divide (as does the movie itself, a British-Irish co-production). There‘s Gerry Donaghy, a young Catholic marcher with a Protestant girlfriend (he’s played by Declan Duddy, whose uncle died on Bloody Sunday); a conscience-stricken Para (Mike Edwards, an ex-soldier) who fears what his fellow soldiers, hardened by a tour in Belfast, will do when let off the leash; and a Catholic officer of the mostly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Actor James Nesbitt, himself an Ulster Protestant with no time for Orange bigotry, plays Ivan Cooper, leader of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association, a middle-class Protestant spearheading a working-class Catholic movement. NICRA strove to maintain its ideal of nonviolent protest to secure access to decent public housing for Catholics and the end of internment without trial, which the British had introduced the previous summer. The British Army command meanwhile sought to use the Paras as a snatch squad, believing that firing on marchers would disperse the part-timers and leave only IRA regulars, who would then be interned. Unfortunately, the IRA had honored Cooper‘s request to stay away, and it seems likely that the Paras did run amok on this, their first day in Londonderry, in part as revenge for the recent bombing of their Belfast barracks. All hope of nonviolent protest died on Bloody Sunday, as embittered survivors joined the IRA en masse that very night. The Ulster Question was thenceforth to be asked and answered with gunfire and explosives. Bloody Sunday is both an admirable reconstruction of terrible events, and a fitting memorial to the dead of that day, and of the thousands thereafter.
BLOODY SUNDAY | Written and directed by PAUL GREENGRASS, from the book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday by Don Mullan | Produced by ARTHUR LAPPIN and MARK REDHEAD | Released by Paramount Classics | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Westside Pavilion
THE GREY ZONE | Written and directed by TIM BLAKE NELSON, from a memoir by Miklos Myiszli | Produced by NELSON, CHRISTINE VACHON and PAMELA KOFFLER | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Landmark‘s Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, NuWilshire, Laemmle’s Town Center 5