By Michael Gray
The current climate of peace in Northern Ireland finally allows the province to produce films that are shot on location in the Six Counties. At the recent Cannes film Festival, four such films were presented, an achievement that would have been unthinkable in the dark days before the cease-fire. But just when this finally becomes possible, Belfast native and film director Terry George departs from his home turf to tackle conflicts a lot farther afield.
Renowned for taking on difficult subject matter from the Troubles, George’s latest film, “A Bright Shining Lie,” focuses on the Vietnam war. Made for HBO, it is based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book by former Vietnam correspondent Neil Sheehan. It tells the true story of a U.S. army colonel, John Paul Vann, who is played by Bill Paxton. The film covers Vann’s years in Vietnam from his first posting there as an advisor in 1962 until his death in a helicopter crash 10 years later.
George presents Vann as a paradigm of the American experience in that war, from the anti-communist zeal of the early 1960s through the escalation to full-scale warfare, and the final ignominy of defeat and withdrawal.
Best known for his controversial films “Some Mother’s Son” and “In The Name of The Father,” which was made in collaboration with Jim Sheridan, George shares Sheridan’s feelings of battle fatigue about Northern Ireland, expressed previously in this paper a few months ago when “The Boxer” was released.
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“I feel the same about all of Ireland, and that’s not a glib thing to say,” George said. “I want to try my hand at something else, to see if I could do a subject that’s not something that I have an intrinsic attachment to by birthright. That’s not to say that I can’t be emotional about it, or can’t develop the same level of intensity about it.”
Based on the poor showing at the box office by recent Irish films despite their receiving critical acclaim, George also said that he feels that the cinema-going audience in this country has worn out its interest in Ireland, and that Irish films are unlikely to to receive wide distribution in the near future.
“The American public is jaded with the whole thing,” he said. ” ‘The Butcher Boy,’ which is a great film, and ‘The Boxer’ did diddly squat at the box office. People are burned out on the subject. It was the same story for ‘Some Mother’s Son’. It came out the last week of the year, the Oscar steeplechase, and if you don’t clear the hurdle of 100 percent at the box office in that first week and create some sort of buzz, you’re in trouble. And ‘The Butcher Boy’ is perceived as another dark, heavy Irish film.”
“The Crying Game,” Neil Jordan’s earlier film, had a low-key release initially and gathered momentum over several months, to achieve world-wide success and copious award nominations. But George discounts the possibility of other independent Irish films following the same curve.
“They’ll be around the art circuit, but there isn’t much room there,” George said. “Between ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Deep Impact,’ there’s no room in the cinema any more for smaller films to percolate and find their audience.”
One of the main factors in doing a HBO film was the opportunity for George to reach the large number of viewers denied to him by the lack of commercial success for “Some Mother’s Son.”
“Some Mother’s Son” was a very good film that ended up in 30 cinemas and never saw the light of day,” George said. “My ego is too big to not want to have an audience to see my films. With HBO, there’s a guaranteed audience of 20 million people. They’ll show it eight times, and, alright, it doesn’t get into the Academy Award consideration, but it will be seen.”
George has few qualms about being pigeonholed as a made-for-TV director, and sees the HBO exposure in very positive terms.
“In no way does this steer me toward being a TV director,” he said. “I wanted to get away from all that limited audience stuff. I wanted to be able to do a serious film with a dangerous subject, something tough to do, and not have distribution executives scared to death to put it into 200 cinemas.
“Lots of great films disappear down the toilet, and I just wanted to get out of that crapshoot. HBO came to me to do this film. After senior producers at HBO saw “Some Mother’s Son,” they approached me with a script. The main thing that attracted me to the project was that the lead character fascinated me and had some qualities that I had been thinking about.”
Part of the appeal for George in developing his own script and shooting the film was the parallel he saw between the character of the U.S. army colonel and some of the paramilitary figures he knew back in Belfast.
“J.P. Vann is one of a dying breed, a warrior outside the rules and regulations civilian society,” George said. “He engages in the craft of warfare, with a higher sense of destiny than us mere mortals. And he had a fearlessness and charisma that attracted people, and allowed him to be a great leader in battle. And along with that he was a very dark character with a very messed up childhood and a weird sexuality. All those ingredients were the kind of thing that fascinated me. I felt that I had met people like that in Northern Ireland and his story interested me.
“He was an allegory for the Vietnam war, went out there with the best intentions about spreading Western democracy, from the country that has saved the world from Hitler and fascism. And he ended up almost destroying Vietnam trying to prove that the Americans couldn’t be beaten.”
Having argued the point that viewers are tired of the North of Ireland, George vigorously defends against the notion that they might have had their fill of Vietnam as well.
“Of all the conflicts, it’s the one that burned itself into the soul of this country,” he said. “But tell me one Vietnam film that’s actually about Vietnam. ‘Full Metal Jacket’? There’s nothing in that film that deals with the politics of Vietnam. It could have been Stalingrad or Tokyo, and that’s the best of those films. All the rest are about five guys having a bad time in the jungle. Or one guy sailing up the river having a bad time. None of them gets into the politics of Vietnam.
“The GI’s experience was not to understand the politics of Vietnam. But it’s different for a colonel like Vann. He’s in a political quagmire and he knows it. He goes back to Vietnam trying to do the right thing and by then the American involvement has become a big part of the corruption. By the time he gets in a position of power, he’s the problem, he’s the one calling in the B52s. So I tried to make a film that’s actually about the Vietnam war, not about five buddies having a hard time in the jungle.
“It’s a 10-year evolution from American advisors, to American involvement, to American withdrawal. So I’ve got a much broader political story to tell. But the other big thing for me, is having a central character who tells the story of a great political event through his own life. That’s what we’ve done with virtually every film, and that’s what we have done with this one.”
Factual stories of political conflict and violence continue to dominate Terry George’s work. Currently, he’s developing a script based on the civil war in Liberia, and another about the aftermath of the massacre of Isr’li athletes at the Munich Olympics.
“High drama, pathos, fear and anger, and all of the dramatic emotions that produce something that stimulates people, are most focused in those heavy political situations,” George said. “I don’t know how to do monsters that pop out of your stomach. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do science fiction. If it isn’t in the realm of reality, I have a hard time dealing with it. The liberating thing about non-fiction is there’s a real story, and, allowing for some dramatic license, within that story you have to find the drama that communicates the most to the maximum number of people, that’s what film is about. I’m not of the European film school where you put this obtuse psychiatric story up on the screen and expect people to tap into your angst; I don’t believe in that. Cinema is for entertainment.”
George’s definition of entertainment is broad enough to encompass dealing with ugly truths and unpopular characters. He relishes challenging his audience to confront situations that stimulate darker emotions.
“Its like there’s an algebraic formula that the audience has to love the lead character, or you can’t make the film,” George said. “I don’t go into films looking to portray characters that you can feel good about. Do we always have to make films where we have to root for the central character? Isn’t that the challenge?
“Entertainment is not solely based on the ability to laugh and empathize with the main actor. You can be moved, you can be agitated, you can be enraged, and that’s entertainment. But that’s a more difficult task, because those are not emotions that people are usually willing to pay money to get tapped into. I don’t think people are necessarily prepared to spend money to be disturbed like that.”
Coming from a shared background in theater with Jim Sheridan before he began directing film, George, like Sheridan, also sees the benefits of working his fact-based dramas from his own script, and using it as a fluid text that can be shaped on the set or stage to achieve maximum emotional impact.
“Jim and myself are not the kind of directors who get a script and have the actors say the lines that are in the script,” George said. “The practicalities of directing always result in making changes on the set.
“With a play the text is sacrosanct, but how the text is delivered is wide open. Theater is the only living organism in the arts, along with live music, in that it’s a live communication between actors and audience. You can shape it and mold it, whereas a film is just a very grandiose corpse. It’s dead long before the actors or audience get to see it. But having said that, there’s an economy of language and a way of storytelling about cinema that is very appealing. And now film is the universal medium. It dominates all the arts in terms of communication.”
Viewers can check the universal medium of vital signs when HBO airs “A Bright Shining Lie” on May 30, with additional broadcasts through mid-June.