It’s rare to see an overtly anti-war film that drops more bodies than the ending of The Departed. But in a nutshell, that’s ’71, a film that got me sprayed with bottled water twice when the woman sitting next to me couldn’t control the volume of her fright flinches, not that I blame her (pro tip: bring a towel). Fun? Definitely, as long as your idea of fun involves a tight sphincter. God knows mine does.
’71 follows her majesty’s grunt Gary Hook from Darbyshire, played by Unbroken‘s Jack O’Connell, who gets packed off to Belfast straight from basic training along with all of his platoon mates. Upon arrival, the unit’s chummy commanding officer, just as green as the boys he’s commanding, tells them they’ve been sent to “restore order.” Which, naturally, sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. Keep the Catholics and Protestants from killing each other? Shouldn’t be too hard for fifty men in flak jackets and machine guns, right?
The film’s most enduring image comes on the boys’ first mission into the city. They’ve been sent on a house-to-house search of the Catholic separatists’ stronghold, and, knowing nothing about the terrain and with only the broadest understanding of the conflict itself, a handful of Belfast police tag along to show them the ropes. Or so they think. Regardless of the pacifist motives the soldiers may have had going in, “restoring order” soon turns out to involve holding an angry crowd of Catholics at bay while the brutal loyalist police beat the sh*t out of the Catholic’s compadres behind them. Yep, you’re in way over your berets now, boys.
With a conflict as seemingly petty and inexplicable to outsiders as The Troubles, making the fighting seem pointless is shooting fish in a barrel. But director Yann Demange, however much a conscientious objector he may be, he isn’t reductive. With only the slickest exposition, he gives us just enough telling details to understand why the separatists might be pissed, and an equal number to understand why the loyalists might be terrified.
’71 supposedly grew from the germ of the real-life image of a crying British soldier separated from his unit in the midst of sectarian riot, as related to a ’71 producer by a Loyalist gang member. As the bricks start to fly and Gary Hook rushes into the crowd chasing a child who has stolen a machine gun, he becomes that terrified teenage soldier. The rest of the movie sees him trying to navigate a complex web of loyalists, shady British intelligence officers, and warring factions within the IRA. It’s a big fookin mess, and Demange effectively communicates “no one in their right mind would want to be a part of this fight.” And he does it without painting the fighters as psychotic, bloodthirsty idiots. Not that the film skimps on the blood, mind you, because boy howdy, it does not.
If the movie has a villain, beyond intractable tribal tension and the cycle of retributive violence, it’s… well, “the man.” When a wounded Hook gets taken in by a former army medic and his daughter, the medic tells Hook the army is a lie. “Just rich c*nts tellin’ thick c*nts to kill poor c*nts.”
It’s the message of the film, and I must say, succinctly and colorfully delivered. Could it be a little more complex? A little less heavy-handed? Sure, but it’s not wrong, and you have to respect a film that tries to put you off fighting by making fighting look like an utter nightmare.