Having recently visited the Emerald Isle, it almost seems that “the troubles” are far behind; The peace accord is firmly in place, and the picturesque country no longer lives in daily threat of terroristic incidents. Ah, but talk to a native and the bucolic landscape doesn’t look so peaceful. Memories of civil strife are still fresh in the minds of any adult resident because they all remember what it was like when they were children. And it wasn’t pretty.
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young British soldier whose unit is snatched out of basic training in order to help quell a riot in Belfast on 1971. That in itself, of course, is bad policy: Neither Hook nor his unit is trained in any kind of riot control tactics. And they’re completely green even wearing the uniform, much less learning to trust each other and to look out for each other.
That’s why, in the midst of the chaos and confusion of confronting an angry mob, Hook gets separated from his unit, beaten to a bloody pulp, his gun is stolen and only the intervention of a female civilian saved his life: “Quit, boys! He’s had enough!”
Meanwhile, the riot became ugly, rock throwers were pelting the soldiers, just daring them to start shooting. Having left their riot gear back in the barracks under the mistaken premise of not intimidating the populace, they were intimidated right back into their trucks, accompanied by the gleeful jeers of the madding crowd.
So, Hook finds himself stumbling down a dark alleyway looking for any kind of shelter, but uncertain of who’s friendly and who’s not. They’d had a perfunctory briefing, showing a map of where they were headed – Protestant areas in orange, Catholic in green – and Hook knew that he was in a Catholic area with strong ties to the guerrilla IRA. When he tried to peek out onto the street, he could see the roaming young thugs looking for him. And yet, he desperately needs some assistance. So whom does he trust?
Finally, Hook meets a young lad, about the age of the boy he’d gone to visit at the beginning of the film (a younger brother in the orphanage, perhaps – it’s not really explained). The young lad leads Hook to a pub and tells him to stay put at the bar, drinking a Guinness. Meanwhile, the boy makes his way to the back room and tells the serious men gathered there that he’s found the soldier they’re all looking for, he’s at the bar, and they can have him whenever they want.
Well, that would have been the end of it, except suddenly a bomb goes off inside the bar, and Hook manages to escape once again, but now he’s more seriously wounded and needing immediate medical attention. Ironically, the man who happens by with his grown daughter was a medic in the Army and just can’t leave the soldier lying there in the street bleeding, through his daughter had been part of the street-rioting group in the first place. But at the former medic’s insistence, they take him home and try to suture his wounds without anesthetic (not a scene for the faint of heart).
Somehow word gets out where the soldier is hiding and that causes more trouble. Hook manages to escape again, barely, but now he’s out on the street alone, still being pursued by vigilante thugs, hoping someone back in his unit might be organizing a search and rescue party. As it turns out, they are, but it’s complicated: They have informants planted in the IRA cells and don’t want to blow their cover by looking for Hook. So the rookie soldiers are again left to their own devices, unable to determine friend from foe until the shooting starts, and by then it can very well be too late to make a judgment.
“71” is tense, taut and gripping, but the viewer is likely to be as disoriented and confused as the main character. The accents are very thick and it’s never explained who’s who in the labyrinth of angry young men who sometimes don’t spare their outrages toward one another. And then there are the apparent “double agents” who confuse us with their mixed loyalties, which undoubtedly happened frequently in the actual conflict, as well.
Yes, Ireland today is lush, green and tranquil. But in “71” it’s scary, confusing and dangerous. And it would be for man miserable years afterwards.
Ronald P. Salfen is the supply pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kaufman, Texas.