A boy trapped in a soldier’s life.
We’re always looking for someone to blame in war. Most of the time, the blame is directed at the soldier. Rarely do we blame the military, or the government, or those we are fighting, and even more rarely do we blame the people living stateside, in the warmth and comfort of their blanket and home and far away from the battlefield. No, if we are angered at travesties such as the Vietnam or the Afghan war, we don’t point at the general who gave the order to shoot. We point at the soldier who was following orders.
In ’71, the soldier is treated not as a cold-hearted, emotionless machine, but as a young man, a flesh-and-blood being full of heart and consciousness, but who is equally confused, hurt, alone, and afraid of the people he’s trying to protect. The controversy around another war film called American Sniper released a few months ago argued if we glorify war and the military too much. Those same people need to watch ’71 and realize there is nothing to glorify about it.
Taking place during the height of civil unrest in the Troubles, ’71 follows a young British army recruit named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who gets deployed into Belfast during his first few weeks of training. Him and his squad is warned of the great dangers in entering the territory. Protestant and Catholic Irishmen are living side-by-side at each other’s throats, each with starkly different ideas of what is better for them. The protestants believe that the United Kingdom is their home and it is their best interests to remain with them. The catholics believe Ireland can be it’s own land and wants to secede from Europe. Hook and his fellow soldiers are just looking to keep the peace.
On the day of deployment, Hook watches as both sides come to a boil. The KGB is entering houses, threatening and beating people with their billy clubs, while an angry crowd of catholics gather outside in retaliation against the military. One of the rioting crowd members throws a rock and knocks a soldier out cold. A kid no older than ten grabs the soldier’s rifle and runs. Hook and another soldier chase after him when the crowd assaults them and beats viciously. Hook watches as the soldier is shot in the face. Hook only narrowly escapes with his life intact.
Trapped in Belfast with no way to find his comrades, Hook must fight through the night to survive against the city that’s hunting him.
Functioning more as a survivalist-thriller than as a pure-blooded war movie, ’71 strikes the viewer with sharp imagery and intelligence alike, filling them with a deepening sense of dread as we watch this young man crumble into desperation as he tries to escape from the people who are seeking to kill him. One of the things I love so much about this movie is how expertly it orchestrates itself and its emotions. French director Yann Demange, who before this directed British television shows such as “Dead Set” and “Top Boy”, debuts here as a talented filmmaker, crafting an exciting thriller that efficiently balances action with context.
I am reminded of another film similar in direction and subject, and that is Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo. In both films, the main character evades their pursuer through the chaos of a collapsing political climate. The camera captures the essence of both perspectives, with the pursuer desperately chasing their target while the pursued is equally as desperate trying to get away. And through both highly exciting and pulse-pounding features, both directors have deeper things to say about those societies and what impact they’re leaving on the people around them.
To me, ’71 is the British version of Argo, with one big difference: coherency. In Argo, everything is crystal-clear and straightforward. We know who the characters are, why they are there, what they are doing, who is after them, and how and why they plan to get away. In ’71, all of that is focused in towards one character only, and that is Gary Hook. We know everything we can know about a novice soldier, we just don’t know the same of everyone else around him.
For instance, the leaders of both factions, the catholics and the British Military Reaction force, are both skinny gingers with mustaches as thick as their hair. How can you tell who is who under the dim view of the street light? A young boy helps Hook towards a bar after his initial attack, but he’s on the same side as the people who are hunting him. Why is he helping Hook when he so clearly has so much disregard for British soldiers? In another scene, a Protestant seeks to help Hook when minutes earlier he had the cold, direct eyes of a killer with purpose. What inspired him to switch sides so easily? And then, near the end of the movie, there is a twist that didn’t make much sense to me at all.
Still though, the movie is there, and Demange handles the senses of unease and desperation well with the film, especially when trusting Jack O’Connell to portray all of these emotions at once. O’Connell is really having a strong career packing in for himself. In the past year, for instance, he created a very compelling presence in the prison-drama Starred Up and in the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic Unbroken. He makes a very strong case for choosing acting as a career in all of these films, and in ’71 he clearly shows that he can pull off the role of a young, desperate, and inexperienced soldier who just wants to go home. Demange was wise to cast him in this role and trust him with the emotional complexity of the character: O’Connell was the best part of the film.
I’ll admit, I didn’t understand everything I probably needed to understand in the movie, perhaps the biggest one being more aware of what the Troubles were in the 1970’s. Take that out of it. Take all of the political facets out of the movie, and what do you have? You have a raw, emotionally-charged war thriller that challenges the viewer to see it not from their perspective, but from the soldier’s perspective. Everyone hurts during the times of war. ’71 makes me wonder who war hurts the most.