Hands Down, ‘‘71’ Was the Best War Film of 2014
Saving Private Ryan’ in Northern Ireland
Pvt. Gary Hook and his fellow soldier chase the boy through the mob. The boy stole a rifle from them. Lt. Armitage—the officer in charge of the peacekeeping mission—wants it back.
The two youthful British soldiers push through the crowd. The boy dodges them. The mob presses in on the soldiers. They are too many. The soldiers fall. The people strip the young men of their weapons. Their hands turn to fists.
A woman steps in, pushes the mob away and tells them they should be ashamed. The two soldiers stagger to their feet. Their faces are bloody from the beatings. The crowd separates.
A teenager lifts a pistol to an unnamed soldier’s head and pulls the trigger.
Armitage and his soldiers retreat. The crowd is too angry, too aggressive. Hook holds his fallen friend. Blood and brain pour from the dead man’s head. More bullets fly. Hook runs. The teenager with the pistol chases after him.
This is Belfast, Northern Ireland. The year and the film is ’71. The Troubles have just begun. Hook will spend the next few days navigating the politically complicated and morally complex streets of the province.
’71 was the best war film of 2014. It was a good year for war films, too.
Fury surprised everyone with its unforgiving depiction of a war usually viewed through rose-colored glasses. Fort Bliss gave audiences an honest depiction of the choices female soldiers live with. Korengal and The Last Patrol explored the mind of the modern soldier.
But none are as well directed, well acted and incisive as ’71.
Director Yann Demange and writer Gregory Burke have created something rare—an honest war film.
Jack O’Connell plays Hook, the British soldier lost on the streets of Belfast. He’s separated from his unit, doesn’t know the city and doesn’t understand its conflict.
He’s a vehicle for the audience. A semi-neutral party for viewers to witness the confusing political violence of 1970s Northern Ireland.
This movie could have been about a badass British soldier wandering the streets, righting wrongs and beating up bad guys. Writer Burke and director Demange don’t do that.
Instead, they show the audience a world with no heroes or villains. Everyone is out for themselves, and ideals are often tossed aside for the sake of violence or survival.
The young Irish Republican Army men are violent bastards, while the old IRA men try to keep the peace. Ulster loyalists work with the Military Reaction Force—British counter-insurgency unit—to plant bombs. A tactic they learned from the IRA.
The Military Reaction Force play both sides against each other, manipulating the power structures in both organizations. All three groups search the city for Hook. Add to this, Armitage and his soldiers try to find their fallen comrade.
It’s a recipe for disaster on screen. A confusing and complicated mix of politics ending in a jumbled mess. But the filmmakers pull it off. The tangling alliances make sense—even if the results are tragic.
The actors help make this movie. O’Connell as Hook leads the pack. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but he doesn’t need it.
Watching ’71 it’s easy to see why director Angelina Jolie cast O’Connell as the lead in her miserable adaptation of Unbroken.
Hook goes through so much in this movie. It’s hard to fathom one man surviving being shot, blown up, stabbed and strangled.
A lesser actor would play the part with a cool action movie reserve—like a stony-faced Sylvester Stallone in another Rambo film. But O’Connell wears every bit of the suffering.
Every other character is brilliant. Sam Reid plays Armitage as a confused and idealistic British officer. Sean Harris is the terrifyingly pragmatic MRF captain. Corey McKinley—who can’t be more than 12 years old—steals every scene as a loyalist kid. He spits, swears and bullies men three times his age.
I believed every bit.
The Troubles in Ireland shaped a generation. It’s a messy, horrible and recent conflict few people understand. ’71 doesn’t trivialize the war nor its combatants.
The filmmakers show us the Troubles. The good, the bad and the ugly. That’s an unusual thing in a war movie.