There are many different types of war movies. They run the gamut from traditional (Saving Private Ryan, which defined the modern template), larger-than-life biopics (Patton), exploitation takes (Inglourious Basterds) and deadly serious ones (Schindler’s List). And as we’ve moved further away from the most filmed conflicts (WW2 and Vietnam), there’s been a slew of war-on-terror films ushering in a new era of kinetic and brutal war pics (like Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor). The Belfast-set ’71 bridges both types of films and shellacs them in the slick veneer of a stylish thriller, creating a visceral experience that rarely lets up and never loses sight of the brutality of armed conflict.
Set during 1971 (obviously), ’71 follows a young British soldier’s abandonment in hostile Belfast at the height of The Troubles and his subsequent struggle to make it home alive. Think Judgment Night combined with Bloody Sunday, although far less heretical than that description makes it sound. Rising star Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, Starred Up) is Gary, a young recruit in the British Army who’s continually told that he won’t be put in harm’s way as Northern Ireland is “still in the country”. After a brief (and nearly wordless) training sequence, the movie goes about systematically dismantling that assumption of safety.
When Gary and his neophyte brothers-in-arms are thrown onto the front lines in Belfast things quickly get FUBAR and spiral out of control. Their earlier innocuous run-in with piss-balloon-throwing kids gives way to a full scale riot that escalates swiftly, stranding Gary in enemy territory away from his squadron and any security. ’71 quickly sets the stakes during the first clash between the British Army and Belfast residents. The Provisional IRA, made up of young radicals unwilling to capitulate to any sense of compromise or non-violence, shoot a soldier point blank and then set about hunting Gary throughout the streets of Belfast.
It’s shocking and claustrophobic, shot with a roving camera that stays tight on its subjects (like Paul Greengrass’ style) but still manages to convey immediacy while avoiding too much shakiness. O’Connell is stoic as Gary, conveying much but saying little. The character thankfully doesn’t make stupid decisions that would lose audience sympathy, but is instead mostly a template – a young man in an impossible situation, trying valiantly to retain his humanity and stay alive. There are, of course, tough decisions to make in order to survive, and to the movie’s credit it represents both sides of the conflict in a fair manner. There’s older members of the IRA who are looking to keep the peace along with the more unhinged young members that relentlessly hunt and kill the interlopers. The British army is also presenting in shades of grey – Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) is noble but inexperienced (which sets the plot in motion), while Captain Sandy Browning (Sean Harris) operates undercover and often outside the law, trying to finagle peace by any means necessary.
Multiple twists and turns pad out the runtime and provide some Machiavellian scheming amongst the various factions to accompany the more primal thrills of Gary and his Sisyphean quest to get home. There’s some great set pieces, including the first time the shit hits the fan which segues into a pounding foot chase, a horrific bombing scene that mercilessly drives home the futility of war, and the final climax that takes place amid a crumbling tenement in the drizzling Belfast dark. The digital cinematography provides graininess to the nighttime scenes and director Yann Demange presents a orange-bathed city obscured by smoke and narrow streets, with danger around every corner. It’s pulse-pounding material that elevated by stellar production design and genre elements, which often leaves the deeper philosophical underpinnings of war to other (more verbose) films.
’71 is a stripped-down thriller at its heart, which makes it a novel setting for a dark-night-of-the-soul type movie. It even feels like John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York at times. ’71 isn’t allegorical and is much more serious, but it does have a Carpenter-esque synth theme that floats in and out, and its central conceit of a stranded protaganist against a hostile city bears more than a little resemblance to Kurt Russell’s plight as Snake Plissken.
As circumstances get increasingly dire the pressure mounts and ’71 builds to a bombastic climax with significant moral implications. While the film often uses its background as mere window dressing, it’s during the bleak coda that it most engages with issues of right and wrong amid times of war. There are no easy answers and the film doesn’t pander to or placate audiences, but ’71 does take some time out from white-knuckle action to provide some slight framework on which to ground its ample thrills. Indicative of a growing trend of almost unbearably intense war films and imbued with a distinct sense of place and a capable lead, ’71 succeeds first as an action film and second as a slight rumination on war.
Director: Yann Demange
Runtime: 99 minutes