The beauty of creating a piece of complete fiction, especially in the film industry, is that the director has the freedom to create a story without limitations. The characters, the events, and the way the story unfolds is in the hands of those who envisioned the work.

On the other end, when a film is based on an actual event of historical proportions, the intense scrutiny a filmmaker faces leaves little margin for error. In the film “Bloody Sunday,” director Paul Greengrass uses documentary-style storytelling to invite audiences into the 1972 tragedy, while delivering the events in an utterly real yet fair assessment of the still unsettled controversy.

Because the term “documentary” is reserved for a body of work that incorporates footage and interviews of the actual event and people involved, the film “Bloody Sunday” is masterfully crafted to appear not as a piece of Hollywood fiction, but as a documentary itself. One critic wrote: “by setting up this style early on, we get the real feeling of chaos, uncertainly, horror and dizziness that would most-likely accompany the experience of living through that horrific day” (efilmcritic.com).

While Ivan Cooper is trying to calm the “hooligans” who have broken off from the peaceful march, his raw emotions of panic and desperation hit the screen from many different camera angles, leaving the audience feelings as if they are in the middle of the crowd, rubbing shoulders with Cooper as he pleads with the men to abandon their misguided strategy.

As the events head toward the violent climax, Greengrass continues to invoke that same urgency by depicting the back and forth between the British military Commander and the soldiers on the ground that have been charged with disrupting the protest. The quick flashes of black as the scene changes, from the military behind the wall to the protesters outside, gives the audience a real life perspective.

Each fade to black bounces the audience back into the chaotic scene, never allowing the viewers to feel as if they have all the information. This creates an uncertainty for the audience, similar to the uncertainty the real-life characters faced.

When rocks from outside produce rubber bullets from the inside, and the bricks produce the sound of gunshots, the use of handheld cameras perfectly captures the sense of panic. As the cameras are scurrying through the combat zone, it’s just as if the viewer is the one who is racing for cover.

Echoing the view of those involved, one critic praises the pace of the editing, which gives the audience little time to react, because “once the bullets start flying, they don’t have time to think: we don’t either” (efilmcritic.com). After the dust has settled, and Ivan is seen comforting families in the hospital, the camera approaches the scene from what could be a window, with the viewer as an unintended guest who is being exposed to the brutal reality of the aftermath.

Instead of trying to explain the events as many films would, the audience is given another real-life moment: some things can’t be explained. “The climax of a movie needs to tie together all the elements of the story in a meaningful way, but life doesn’t usually work out that way. In life, innocent people may be arrested, detained, tortured and even killed, and these acts may seem random” (studentfilmmakers.com). While these acts were senseless and unnecessary, the creators of the film do an impeccable job of engaging the audience with the documentary-style shooting, editing, and dialogue.

The execution of the film is especially successful because of the fairness with which the facts of the tragedy are delivered. First, the basic facts of the story are incontestable. On January 30, 1972, 13 unarmed civilians were killed and many others wounded when British soldiers opened fire during a civil rights protests.

Not only were the officers involved found without fault after an investigation, they were also decorated as “heroes.” However, instead of constructing a finger-pointing blame game, Greengrass chooses instead to focus on the tragic nature of the event, as well as the future ramifications it had for conflict in Northern Ireland.

The character of Ivan Cooper turns from a confident leader into a helpless bystander, and yet even his character is not used to “throw stones” at the perpetrators. “As he shifts from cocky politician to ashen-faced witness, he helps the audience to understand that this is a human tragedy that goes beyond the sectarian divide” (empireonline.com).

The film highlights the effort by the British commanders that launch an immediate internal investigation into what caused their soldiers to begin shooting at civilians.

When one solider admits to having fired 22 rounds, the officer questioning him says, “22 rounds? How did you fire 22 rounds? That’s more then you’re issued with.”

Another solider is asked, “Did you at anything see the target?” The answer: “(pause)… We saw what we thought was a gunman, sir.”

The audience can somewhat to sympathize with the soldiers involved, only because the film depicts their clear inner-struggle as they answer for the innocent people they have just gunned down. While the director clearly disagrees with their unnecessary force, “his humanism affords compassion for confused Parachute troops that may or may not have been incited to violence because of the ineffectual chain of command between the field and the British Army’s headquarters” (slantmagazine.com).

On the other side, the pain of Ivan Cooper and those who worked for a peaceful protest is clear at his final press conference, where he painfully articulates the future for those he was trying to protect. Speaking to those that oppressed his non-violent demonstration, he says “All over this city today young men will flock to join the IRA. And because of this, you will reap a whirlwind.”

Cooper speaks of the soldiers “attack now, figure out why later” strategy that will ultimately lead to an escalation in violence from those who decide that a violent rebuttal is unavoidable. This film does a unique job of clearly stating that regardless of who is to blame, a non-violent, dialogue rich battle is the only one where there ever can be a winner. Given the facts of the events, that conclusion is unquestionably fair.

Not surprisingly, “Bloody Sunday” was deemed “biased” and “propaganda” by many in the British government and press. This is the same British government and press that did not have much credibility when it came to conflict with the IRA.

“A study of British coverage of IRA bombings found that when the bombings by Irish terrorists resulted in death or injury to British military or civilians, political motives for the bombings were not discussed, and only British rather than Irish officials were interviewed for television reports” (Barnett and Reynolds 117). Likewise, it’s likely the death of 13 unarmed civilians at the hands of British soldiers would be told differently in Britain then by opposing groups in Northern Ireland.

While each media and government has spun this story for almost 40 years based on their own personal bias, “Bloody Sunday” created a real and fair assessment of the events. In this version, there was no winner: humanity lost.

Works Cited

Barnett, Brooke, and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

Dorrity, Danna. “Using Documentary Techniques to Craft Stories”. Student Film Makers. 15 February 2010 <http://www.studentfilmmakers.com/news/article_1693.shtml>.

Gensch, Trevor. “Bloody Sunday”. E-Film Critic. 15 Feb 2010 <http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5763>.

Gonzales, Ed. “Bloody Sunday”. Slant Magazine. February 14, 2010 <http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/bloody-sunday/440>.

Morrison, Alan. “Review of Bloody Sunday”. Empire Online. 15 February 2010 <www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=7611 >.