Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
When I was in film school, my love for movies took on a kind of evangelical fervor. It wasn’t enough for me to love Scorsese, or Allison Anders, or Douglas Sirk, or John Carpenter — everyone else had to as well, and if they didn’t, I assumed they were morons. I was convinced that everyone would see the greatness in the movies I loved if only they had access to them and saw them with an open mind; in the early ’90s, I frequently could be heard making ridiculous claims like “Abel Ferrara and Charles Burnett would be as popular as Chris Columbus if only their films were booked into the multiplexes!” When a movie came along that I felt was unjustly maligned or overlooked, like De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities or Bogdanovich’s Texasville, I was willing and eager to spend hours defending it in the hope that everyone around me would see the light, or at least see the movie.
At 43, I’ve lost a little of that passion. Nowadays, when I go see a movie like The Loft and think it’s a nifty little thriller in spite of near-unanimous negative reviews, I just kind of shrug it off and am happy enough that I got some enjoyment from it — I don’t need to sell anyone else on its pleasures. Every once in a while, however, the old fire reignites; I see a movie so great that I become a true believer again, the apostle who needs to drag the unconverted into the church until they join my religion. Yann Demange’s feature directorial debut, ’71, is such a movie. Not that it needs my help in any kind of critical sense — unlike my usual pet causes, it has received rapturous reviews. But that’s not enough. I won’t be satisfied unless ’71 finds an audience as big as that of any Marvel movie or Lord of the Rings sequel or spinoff. That’s because I really, truly do believe that if only people can be convinced to enter the theatre to see ’71, they’ll be as blown away by it as I was — it’s a film whose greatness is virtually incontestable.
It’s also a movie that’s as thrilling as it is thoughtful; it hits that sweet spot that I’m always aiming for (and usually missing) in my own work, where there’s a purity of expression that allows for the most profound ideas to be expressed using the simplest, clearest, most entertaining means. A cursory plot description does little to convey just how riveting ’71 is: over the course of one night in 1971 Belfast, a young British soldier is separated from his unit and must survive on hostile streets where enemies lurk around every corner. That’s the logline, but what it doesn’t explain is how Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke take their basic premise (a kind of After Hours in wartime) and build outward from it, creating a spider web of shifting allegiances and parallel storylines that converge in a climactic shoot-out that both invites and earns comparison with the best of Sam Peckinpah and Kathryn Bigelow.
The opening 15 minutes or so are remarkable in their subtlety and purposeful misdirection. On first viewing, the early scenes seem aimless and half-formed, as Demange and Burke drop in and out of various characters’ lives and circumstances for apparently disconnected episodes. We see the soldier who will ultimately be the focal point of the story, Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), in training and interacting with a young boy who might be his brother; we also glimpse random (or so it seems) characters from both sides of the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, and sit in on a British training session in which the filmmakers slyly slip in expository information that will become essential for the audience to recall once the action kicks in. These various strands then start to come together, albeit loosely, in a riot sequence during which the British soldiers come face to face with an angry mob. This sequence is its own self-contained masterpiece, a virtual clinic in how to provide a viewer with vital information without them knowing it; in it, Demange creates the illusion of chaos but expertly guides the audience’s eye and ear to specific people in the crowd, so that once the story proper begins we will understand who everyone is and how they relate to each other and their larger social context.
The riot sequence ends with an act of ugly, clumsy, brutal violence that forms a clean tonal break between the prologue and the rest of the movie; where the first act has the apparent narrative formlessness and freedom of something like Love Streams or Opening Night, the rest of the picture is rendered with the air-tight structural rigor of a Walter Hill action flick or a Cronenberg horror film. Hook, the young soldier who is separated from his unit and forced to fend for himself on Belfast’s mean streets, becomes a focal point for a wide array of people who either want him rescued or want him dead; there are not only the two sides of the overall conflict, but warring factions within those sides, as well as informants and spies. Demange and Burke navigate all of the interconnecting storylines and relationships with a concision and clarity that would do Kurosawa proud, and as the action unfolds the genius of their opening act becomes more and more apparent. The relaxed quality of the early passages allows the audience to breathe and become acclimated to the characters’ surroundings before all hell breaks loose, and thus even when the movie is piling on the action with sequences involving dozens of characters, it never becomes confusing or muddled. We understand where every character is coming from, and we are tortured by every complicated moral and ethical quandary that arises.
Yet using the word “tortured” overlooks how flat-out exhilarating this movie is, and the reason why I genuinely think that if mass audiences could be persuaded to see it their world would be rocked. For while ’71 is a supremely intelligent film that examines serious issues — like the fact that soldiers on both sides of a conflict tend to have more in common with each other than with the men sending them to war, or the increasingly convoluted moral arguments men and women at war have to invent for each other and themselves — it is also a more kinetic, kick-ass action film than the last three Marvel movies combined. (Come to think of it, if Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has any sense he’ll offer Demange a bag of money to direct the recently announced Spider-Man reboot — I can’t imagine anyone better suited to take on the combination of large-scale action and adolescent character study that that franchise requires.) The movie is jammed to the hilt with set pieces that don’t feel like set pieces — they feel real, immediate and terrifying, and each one is more viscerally affecting than the one that came before.
I’ve seen ’71 twice, and I honestly can’t quite put my finger on how Demange achieves his end results here; his technique is invisible but undeniable. He’s also a master director of actors, another trait he shares in common with action auteurs like Hill and Peckinpah — every single part here is cast impeccably, and there isn’t an inauthentic moment in terms of performance. Come to think of it, there isn’t an inauthentic moment period, yet ’71 delivers all of the emotional satisfactions (and then some) of a more conventionally constructed Hollywood entertainment like Saving Private Ryan. In many ways, ’71 plays like that film’s far darker doppelgänger — it’s another war movie about a group of men dying in the service of one lone soldier, but Demange shares none of Spielberg’s belief in the redemptive, heroic side of war. The film’s conclusion echoes another iconic war film, John Ford’s Fort Apache, though lacks Ford’s belief in honor and legacy. The upshot is that ’71 is that rare achievement, a violent action film of great moral seriousness that plays the audience like a piano but doesn’t glorify or glamorize its carnage — it’s spectactular entertainment that doesn’t require the viewer to disengage his or her brain. Eternal optimist that I am, I still think that there’s got to be as big an audience for a thinking-person’s action film as there is for anything else; if only Demange could get his film booked into the multiplexes, he’d be as big as J.J. Abrams.