Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is having a bad day. A British soldier stranded in Belfast as the Troubles reach their zenith, he is inexperienced in the ways of war and has no idea who to turn to and as night falls, his fear turns to utter panic. The Irish are out to kill him, and, as it turns out, the British have a bone to pick with him too when he witnesses something in a Protestant bar he shouldn’t have.
Determined to go back home to his little brother Darren (Harry Verity,) Gary must be willing to power through a night in hell and even kill for the first time if he is to survive. But Gary finds some unexpected friends in Bridgid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamonn (Richard Dormer,) and Irish ex-military medic disgusted by the senselessness of war and his daughter.
There is scarcely a dull moment in ’71, an intense and realistic wartime drama that chronicles Gary’s frenzied attempts to simply survive the night. The film captures a atmosphere of chaos and ongoing panic like nothing else I’ve seen, creating a world where the foggy motives of both Irish Catholics and British Protestants seem to meld together into one incomprehensible mass.
’71 is fair to both political sides of a messy, tragic conflict, and although I didn’t like Jack O’Connell in the 2008 horror-thriller Eden Lake, I thought he was excellent here. Far from being an action hero, Gary is green as can be. His inexperience mirrors that of another character, a teenage Irish Republican terrorist named Shaun (Barry Keoghan) who pauses helping his younger sister with her homework long enough to grab his hidden assault weapons and heads out, evading his mother’s watchful gaze.
The movie asks the question; what makes us so different that we have to continue hurting and killing each other in bloody, senseless wars? We are taught in times of conflict by the omnipresent propaganda machine that our adversaries are different from us, vile, unrelenting in the savagery. At one point, Eamonn, Gary Hook’s good Samaritan, says that war is nothing more than ‘posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.’ For me, this was the high point of the movie. Has war ever been more aptly described in a more concise mannersince the first person who spoke the famous adage, “War is Hell?”
What makes us so damn different? We want the same things; financial security, our family’s unconditional love and acceptance. We feel the need to matter. And even if there are those few human beings that are irredeemably, utterly evil, why should political doctrine choose our enemies? People who, in other circumstances, could even be our friends. Had it not been for the long-standing hatred between the Northern Irish and the British Militia, Sean and Gary probably could have sat and had a drink together and bore no animosity for each other.
The only complaint I have about this movie was that it was quite confusing, I was puzzled as to who many of the side characters were and what they wanted with Gary. There was at least two similar looking characters on different political sides with rather large mustaches, and I’ll be damned if I could tell Mustachio #1 and Mustachio #2 apart on a dark set when all hell was breaking loose.
Besides that, all I can say is I recommend this movie to people who are interested in war films and historical periods, particularly the Troubles. It is realistic, humane, and fair-minded, and while it is not for the particularly sensitive, it would be great to show to mature high school students to explain to them how things went down in Northern Ireland at that time. Finally, we are left with the question of Gary; will he escape? And if he does will he ever be the same?