Two new films currently screening at New York theatres explore different angles on the dark deeds of the conflict and its consequences, taking their cue from real-life events in the six counties during the seventies and eighties. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “5 Minutes of Heaven” is based on the emotional fallout from a UVF murder committed by a teenage UVF gunman, Alistair Little, and witnessed by Joe Griffin, the younger brother of the victim. “50 Dead Men Walking” recounts the story of Martin McGartland, a petty crook on the street of Belfast in the late 1980s who is pressed by the RUC to inform on the IRA to avoid doing time for his crimes. He allegedly saves the lives of the titular 50 men by the supplying inside information about IRA bombings to his police contacts. Both filmmakers take their real-life story source as a jumping-off point, rather than a factual account to which they owe absolute fidelity, yielding mixed results in both cases.
Hirschbiegel’s script was written by Guy Hibbert, a writer with previous experience of the aftermath of violence in Northern Ireland, having co-written Paul Greengrass’ wrenching drama “Omagh.” Hibbert developed his script for the Hirschbiegel film from extensive interviews with reformed hitman Little and the still-grieving Griffin. The resulting drama stars two of Northern Ireland’s finest actors, Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, in gripping performances that promise a fascinating confrontation in the film’s finale.
Neeson plays UVF gunman Alistair Little, a reformed paramilitary operative who has served his time in jail for the murder he committed as a teenager and now travels the world, comfortable in his new role as professional penitent international. He counsels prison inmates around the globe about the error of their ways, in the hope that they’ll follow his example and rehabilitate themselves.
Nesbitt plays his polar opposite, Joe Griffin, who has made no such accommodation with the bloody event that binds them together. Thirty-three years on, he is still racked with grief for the death of his brother and the destruction of his family that followed. His brother’s murder understandably devastated his parents, causing his father to die of a broken heart not long after. To make matters worse, his late mother doubled his burden, going to her grave believing that her surviving son could have stopped the UVF gunman. The then 11-year-old Joe had watched helplessly as the balaclava-clad Little approached their house, armed with a pistol, and fired through the living room window, killing his older brother as he sat on the sofa watching television.
The film opens to find the two men in chauffeur-driven limousines en route to the set of a TV show about reconciliation, at a mock-Gothic mansion in the lush Ulster countryside. Their internal conflicts are aired in confessional chats with their respective chauffeurs, and the murder that haunts them is shown in flashback, as they speed towards their date with destiny in front of the cameras.
The two men approach their reality TV hug-fest very differently – the reformed killer looking forward to an opportunity to further lighten his emotional load, the jittery Griffin ablaze with conflicting feelings, and consumed with thoughts of revenge that would give him the brief pleasure implied in the title of the film. The tension builds as the two prepare to face off in what promises to be a tour-de-force from both actors, but the screenplay squanders its well-earned capital with the implausible violence and fictional resolution of the third act.
Canadian director Kari Skogland’s “50 Dead Men Walking” is loosely based on the autobiography of Martin McGartland, who joined the IRA as an informer under duress from arresting police officers and under financial pressure from his pregnant girlfriend. The promise of a car and money, and the willingness of the police to drop criminal charges against him, were enough to make him compromise the republican beliefs he had held since childhood. Martin is in no doubt as to the consequences for him if his double role is exposed, when he witnesses the gruesome torture by the IRA of un-cooperative captives. His duplicity is inevitably discovered, and though he escapes from IRA captivity, he knows he is a marked man for life.
Skogland’s film stars Jim Sturgess as McGartland, and Ben Kingsley as his police handler, in two strong performances that give substance to a slick, violent thriller. Irish-American audiences will struggle to empathise with such a morally compromised character, given our abject history of betrayal in Ireland. As the informer digs himself in deeper into trouble he can’t handle, the film skims resolutely along the surface of a conflict that the filmmakers show no interest in explaining. “50 Dead Men Walking” succeeds as a fast-paced, polished Hollywood drama, but anyone seeking a better understanding of a bitter struggle that remains unresolved for the people closest to it, will come up short.