War through the eyes of a new British recruit has never looked more out of control. While in conventional war no matter how much one trains, one is never prepared for the happenstance of hellish circumstance. At least, the enemy is known. Spies and counterspies are not on the battlefield. In Northern Ireland in 1971 this is not the case. With the Irish “Troubles” as the backdrop, loyalty and discipline contort and reassemble again and again. Stunned and fear-filled,the lost and left Gary Hooper (Jack O’Connell) shows us what we ask of our trained soldiers. This is a new recruit’s story. This time there is no survivor’s guilt. Conversely, children taking part and dying is ’71 ‘s central motif.
The film begins in darkness. No images divert our attention from the sound of punches being thrown. Then the film explodes with UK lads boxing, and then running through a beautiful countryside,then crawling commando-style through rocky streams and glorious bubbling creek beds. There are culverts to be tunneled and constant teamwork. Platoon rifle practice,barrack and crested beret displays are all shown in silence. The entrance of dialogue comes in the emergency orders for in country deployment to Belfast, and Hooper consoling his pre-teen son with “I’ll be back soon”. War experience will deliver a changed father and a changed film-goer, I suspect.
Mothers lose control of their sons in this war. They collaborate,steal firearms, throw bricks and are primed to kill. Like in the Middle East and in Africa, child soldiers burn our sensibilities. When a fourteen year old named Sean is coaxed with “Come on,Sean, don’t think about it. Pull the trigger. We are at war here. I know you can. Pull the trigger.”,we wince.
There are impossible sets of loyalties. There are opportunists,infiltrated police,and “wee man” children whom filmgoers will never forget. One ballsy-talking eight year old swallows beer when Hooper is too traumatized to do so. Resigned his high voice proclaims “the IRA bastards killed my Dad; they are going to kill us all.” War in this child’s eyes is a game of division,the good is divided from the bad.
The music of Darren Holmes is its own dialogue in a film that has little. His strumming beat of anticipation never leaves us. The tension and fury of The Flats, the IRA stronghold is head-splitting with protesters banging trash can lids. Music is in riot overload, and it pushes out of control. As one character calls it: “David Bowie is for girls.” Women often try to subdue the men’s warrior passions in this film. They seem to breathe grief.
What viewers get in this directorial debut of Yann De Mange are opportunities to live the war in Belfast,Ireland. I can’t remember a film where I felt so in the midst of pushing, spitting and brick throwing riots. The hand-held camera makes the jostling visceral. When gun shots, flames and bombs surround our protagonist, we have inhabited the scene. This is unlike the war films “Unbroken” and “American Sniper” where we are watchers. Here we are made to feel like we are limping through hazy alleyways searching for a safe place to catch our breath.
The sepia dream-like sequence is especially backlit beautifully. Accolades from film festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and New York attest to this immediacy of event. The Sundance Festival noted its pacifist promise. No matter where your allegiance, the fog of street war looks untenable, undisciplined and crazy. This film says no more than that, but it says it memorably.