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Uncategorized On St. Patrick's Day, a film about the Troubles

On St. Patrick’s Day, a film about the Troubles


The Chron’s critic seemed to miss the whole political point of ’71


By Marc Norton 

MARCH 17, 2015 — I have learned over the years that when Mick LaSalle, the San Francisco Chronicle movie critic, trashes a political movie, it is as likely as not for its politics, rather than for its cinematic quality.  Such is the case with his Friday, March 13 review of ’71.

’71 is the story of a young British soldier named Gary Hook, played by Jack O’Connell, thrown into the Irish insurgency against colonial occupation in the early 1970s.  The movie grabs you right from the beginning shots of the Brits’ training, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  It doesn’t let go or let up for an instant. The film’s point-of-view is summed up midway through the action when a former army medic tells the wounded Hook, “They don’t care about you, to them, you are just a piece of meat.”

To critic LaSalle, who doesn’t even acknowledge the fact of the British occupation of Ireland, the film is merely a “depressing immersion into Irish history,” and is all about some unexplainable conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Yet the early scenes of mass opposition to the British soldiery clearly set the stage.  Few films can match the realism that director Yann Demange creates in these shots – from the kids throwing rocks at the soldiers, the women banging trash can lids on the ground as the soldiers enter the insurgent neighborhood, the resulting in-your-face confrontation between the soldiers and an outraged Irish crowd, to the shot that kills Hook’s partner and puts him on the run.

The dramatic arc of the movie has Hook, separated from his unit, trying to reach the safety of his barracks, while being pursued by a unit of the Irish Republican Army.  Along the way he encounters a mix of people, including Protestant loyalists and Catholics sympathetic to his plight.

Unknown to Hook, he finds himself caught up in a conflict between the old-guard IRA leadership and a younger group eager to use their guns. We also witness divisions within the British occupying forces, particularly between the army and a group of plainclothes counter-intelligence agents.

Perhaps most telling, the film convincingly portrays the attempts by the British counter-intelligence agents to fan the flames of division within the IRA, in order to divide the rebels and conquer the insurgency.  Note that this is 1971, when the same kind of brutal counter-intelligence tactics were being employed in the US by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, a program that became known to the public as COINTELPRO.

But to LaSalle, “the movie is all about a guy trying to be inconspicuous in Army boots.”  LaSalle’s zingers include the comment that “Calling a taxi is out of the question.” Apparently LaSalle has Belfast confused with New York.

LaSalle also complains about a scene where “a bomb goes off in a public place” – a Protestant loyalist bar – “but it’s not completely clear who put it there.” Despite some deliberate ambiguity, it is manifestly clear that the explosion was not the work of the IRA, a point that is lost on LaSalle. “It’s not even 100 percent clear who gets blown up,” says LaSalle, despite an extended scene of Hook trying to rescue a young Protestant kid severely wounded in the explosion, a kid who had tried to rescue Hook from his IRA pursuers.

The film does not end with the resolution of Hook’s flight in Belfast, but back in Britain, where the “Troubles” in Ireland really began.  LaSalle ends his review with the suggestion that “one could go an entire lifetime” without ever “being in the mood” to see this film.

’71 is not for the faint of heart.  But for those who want to see a genuine and dramatic portrayal of the consequences of British colonialism in the modern era, one would be hard put to do better.

The film is currently scheduled to end its short run in San Francisco today, ironically St. Patrick’s Day. It will be gone from the Bay Area after Thursday. Unfortunately, LaSalle will still be writing snotty movie reviews for a long time to come.

Marc  Norton’s website is


Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. Well yes, I was speaking of relatively modern times. The point is that NI is not a colony of the UK – it is part of the UK. Its people could secede at any time by a simple majority.

  2. > Northern Ireland is not, and never has been, a colony of the UK

    Plantation of Ulster (Okay, so technically it wasn’t the “United Kingdom” yet back then, but splitting that hair is disingenuous.)

  3. Marc, definitionally the “troubles” in Northern Ireland cannot be characterized as “colonial” since northern Ireland is not, and never has been, a colony of the UK. It is in fact a sovereign part of the UK, the full title of which is”The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island”.

    And the people of Northern Ireland have always been loyal to the British crown. The issue here is more that a minority of that nation would rather not be British. Fair enough but if you go around planting bombs that kills innocent people then you can’t reasonably expect to get a lot of sympathy.

    Unless of course you also support AQ and ISIS terrorism, which you might

  4. Are there subtitles? With my New Joyzee ear it’s difficult to understand some native Irish speakers. Last year’s excellent “Calvary” was a bit hard to follow b/c of the thick accents.

  5. LaSalle also complains about a scene where “a bomb goes off in a public place” – a Protestant loyalist bar – “but it’s not completely clear who put it there.” Despite some deliberate ambiguity…

    There is zero ambiguity in that scene, as it is immediately preceded by the scene of loyalists assembling the bomb in the back room of that very bar. There’s even a beat where one of them almost drops it and everyone gives him that holy-shit heart-in-throat look.

    Not a date movie.

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