Fifty Dead Men Walking
Running time 117 minutes
Written and directed by Kari Skogland
Starring Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press, Rose McGowan
Five Minutes of Heaven
Running time 90 minutes
Written by Guy Hibbert
directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Mark Davison
Is anyone as tired of the endless stream of movies about the war in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics (still to this day referred to as “the Troubles”) as I am? The conflict between the violent Irish Republican Army’s quest for Catholic independence from British dominance and Margaret Thatcher’s violent Protestant soldiers who fought the insurrection for more than 30 years goes all the way back to Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Some things, like cricket and table wine, don’t travel. Movies about machine guns, mass murders and bombs going off in Belfast pubs and hospitals are about as fascinating to American filmgoers as every movie about the Civil War except Gone with the Wind is to audiences across the pond. But directors from the U.K. never run out of new ways to get “the Troubles” off their chests. Movies continue to proliferate about the IRA (usually by Jim Sheridan and Terry George) no matter how much money they lose. This week, two new ones.
Having only recently survived Hunger, the harrowing, detailed depiction of IRA martyr Bobby Sands and his ghastly 1981 hunger strike inside the draconian walls of the infamous Maze Prison, we are now treated to Fifty Dead Men Walking, the true and shocking story of Martin McGartland, a poor Catholic boy from the slums of west Belfast who was recruited by the British police to spy on the IRA and feed information to his British “handler,” a mysterious man with the code name “Fergus,” at the same time he was acting as a trusted volunteer for the IRA. According to his best-selling memoirs, the information Martin passed on to the British saved at least 50 lives before he was exposed, captured and almost tortured to death. He miraculously escaped the IRA mercenaries (some were buddies and close family friends, all were fellow Catholics) by leaping through a glass window on the top floor of an IRA torture hideaway, hitting the pavement below and breaking almost every bone in his body. Leaving a girlfriend, a grieving family and two children behind, Martin was assigned a new name and sent to a clandestine destination. Eleven years later, the IRA riddled his body with six bullets and labeled him a “dead man walking.” He never saw his family again; he dictated the book on which this movie is based while in hiding, and even though times have changed, he is still on the run from the IRA.
Canadian director Kari Skogland made Fifty Dead Men Walking as more of a political thriller than a documentary-style history lesson, but she has, I admit, invested the story with a focus on the human element and true grit. The movie is aided immensely by the inspired performance of versatile young actor Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland. To get under the skin of a hustler turned hero, he worked hard to perfect a Northern Ireland accent that sounds like mud, and succeeded so well that I couldn’t understand half of what he said throughout the entire movie. Authenticity is nice, but not if it costs the film every hope of a profit. Ben Kingsley is also fine as the wily British agent who explains there is no such thing as the “right” side of the war (“The price of a conscience is death”), and Kevin Zegers as Martin’s friend, Natalie Press as his girl and Rose McGowan as a hearty broth of an Irish colleen–turned–lethal IRA intelligence agent are equally splendid. They impart an exact feeling of what it was like to be in the middle of Belfast’s dangerous war zones in the late 1980s. Still, the despair doesn’t really amount to much more than what you might expect from a routine action thriller. Not exactly profound.
FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN, also based on fact, shows how, among the bombs and riots, a fever developed that sent men, women and children into the streets to test their patriotism. In 1975, a 17-year-old Protestant boy named Alistair Little kills a 19-year-old Catholic named Jim Griffin—a pointless assassination witnessed by the victim’s 11-year-old brother, Joe. Alistair serves 12 years in prison for the murder and when he rejoins society, he’s a changed man—guilty and haunted by remorse. He is also Liam Neeson, which somewhat stacks the decks in his favor automatically. This much is true. The movie reenacts the crime, then takes a fictional turn as it poses the question: What would happen if the two survivors came face to face on a TV talk show? Alistair began a new life, but the family of the boy he killed never recovered. Thirty-three years have passed, but some wounds never heal.
The point of the TV show is to capture truth, stage a reconciliation and build ratings. A responsible citizen who paid his debt to society, and a symbol of a changing Ireland, noble Alistair (Mr. Neeson) seeks redemption. Still raging with fury and loss, Joe (James Nesbitt) wants revenge, and he’s even concealed a knife to guarantee it. Will they seize the opportunity to reconcile? Or will their meeting on camera only provoke more violence? Five Minutes of Heaven was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the terrific German director who brings to the aftermath of the Irish struggle the same wisdom of nuanced observation that informed his brilliant Oscar-nominated 2004 film Downfall, a catalog of the last 12 days of the Third Reich in Hitler’s Berlin bunker from the keyhole view of the Führer’s secretary, Traudl Junge. It has less conflagration and combat than Fifty Dead Men Walking, but both films try to be as neutral as Switzerland in showing both sides of the sectarian conflict, but let’s face it. There ain’t nothin’ funny about the IRA. Both films could benefit from a little less of the balanced historical context and a little more of the movie madness of Quentin Tarantino.