Movie Reflection: Bloody Sunday Analysis

In the movie Bloody Sunday, writer and director Paul Greengrass1 reenacts the day of “Bloody Sunday,” a 1972 incident in Northern Ireland that involved military troops killing 13 residents of the area, as well as injuring 14 others. While the movie is a fictional account, Greengrass adheres to historical accounts tightly, and presents the movie in a harshly realistic manner – while fictional, the movie attempts to portray actual events.

This immediately runs into some problems, starting with the lack of an agreed upon set of events. The first official (British) government inquiry by Lord Widgery has been thoroughly disputed, and the second official government inquiry—the Sawville enquiry—is still writing its findings (and had not even completed the investigation when the movie was released)2. The movie largely does not follow the accounts of the Widgery enquiry, but instead follows the popular accounts by civilian eye-witnesses.

Does this then make the movie bias towards the republican residents of the Bogside area in which the events took place, and away from the British government? The movie ends on description of the results of the Widgery inquiry, directly contradicting the events shown in the movie – the British government is unequivocally portrayed as lying about the events in movie. The creation of the Sawville inquiry lends credence to the Widgery inquiry being unreliable, and the mass of evidence collected since the 1972 events is generally understood as the truth. With that view, Greengrass could be seen as taking the most reliable narrative of events available, unofficial or not.

Greengrass’s choice of conflicting narratives is not the the only way in which the movie skirts the question of bias. Portrayal of the characters and parties involved with the set of events used also matters. In this area, however, Greengrass generally avoids pinning the blame on any one party, but also avoids idealizing any side as without fault. The soldiers, arguably the villains of the day, are deeply flawed, but not plainly scapegoated. The protesters are mostly innocent, but ill-organized due to changes, additionally, among their ranks are hooligans and provisional IRA members, both of which are given partial culpability in the events that follow. As a whole, the movie does not portray a calculated military attack on civilians – rather it is a tragedy unfolding, a train-crash in motion, with many parties responsible, but none seeking the end result.

Throughout most of the movie, the actions of the parties involved are, if unfortunate, at least understandable. The major exception is the portrayal of the soldiers as they shoot the civilians – while Greengrass does film from their limited perspective, and to some extent portrays the emotions felt by the soldiers, the actions are inexcusable from the reasons presented. While the terror of the civilians is palpable, the viewer does not enjoy the same empathetic connection with the soldiers, and their conversation by the vehicle comes off as guiltily producing a cover story, rather than a horrified rationalization of what they had done in the heat of the moment.

While a clearer understanding of the factors pressing on the soldiers’ psychological state would have provided a clearer and more rounded understanding of the events3, such an explanation would fall outside of the style that Greengrass wields to produces the impression of blood-chilling realism. The movie starts in the wee hours of the morning of Bloody Sunday, and ends late that night, prologue and epilogue excluded. The entire movie is strictly in chronological order, a point which is driven home by the constant switching of perspectives as events unfold. No music is added to the footage, and the camera always films from the possible perspective of a human – even the wide shots of the crowd use the perspective of on top of the truck. The narration giving sparse context to the events is composed of press conferences and other recordings. Save for the camera’s ability to instantly switch places, the entire movie uses only what the viewer would have if he or she were there during the events of Bloody Sunday.

This approach not only makes the movie incredibly visceral and heart-wrenching, but also gives the reader the sense that the images he sees are truly what happened, making the movie into a sort of documentary. As a documentary, the movie functions surprisingly well – what are made to appear as real events are also made to be as close as possible to real events. The downside, as noted by the Washington Post, is that there is no point in which to step back and provide the viewers with an analysis or wider view of events – all that exists is what the camera can show. The camera can show the actions of the commanding officers in the military headquarters, but cannot explain them.

The film is slanted, in the end – the actions of the military commanders and troops, particularly in the coverup, leave guilt on their hands. While Greengrass does show at least two gunmen trying to attack the troops, the end impression the viewer is left with is that while the military was not malicious, it had botched the operation inexcusably. Barnett and Reynolds4 cite studies finding that information retention is boosted immediately after viewing graphic imagery, particularly images invoking anger and outrage. After the graphic imagery of the shooting and the killed civilians, the rest of the movie contextualizes that by showing the soldiers in the inquiry, the grief of the community, the speech by the MP, the arming of the youth, and finally setting the tone with the cynical epilogue.

However, this slant is completely understandable, and could easily be attributed purely to the content of events. Greengrass portrays the generally accepted set of events, and those generally accepted set of events are slanted against the military. Realism involves portraying both sides fairly, not portraying both sides as equals.

Overall, Greengrass uses filming techniques to allow the viewer to experience the events of Bloody Sunday, resulting in a vivid and emotionally gripping film. Greengrass’s film attempts to be realistic both in feel and in content, and succeeds at providing an informative and unforgettable experience of Bloody Sunday.

Works Cited

1Internet Movie Database. “Bloody Sunday.” (Accessed February 18, 2010)

2British Broadcasting Company. “Saville Inquiry Judges Retire.” (Accessed February 18, 2010)

3British Broadcasting Company. “Brave Attempt to Tackle the Troubles.” (Accessed February 18, 2010)

4Barnett, Brook and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An uneasy relationship. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), 83-85.