American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Both sides agree that on Jan. 30, 1972, a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, ended with a confrontation between some of the marchers and British army paratroopers. At the end of the day, 13 marchers were dead and 14 in the hospital, one of whom later died. No British soldiers were killed. An official inquiry declared that the soldiers had returned the fire of armed marchers. Some of the soldiers involved were later decorated by the crown.
Beyond this agreement, there is a disagreement so deep and bitter that 30 years later "Bloody Sunday" is still an open wound in the long, contested history of the British in Northern Ireland. A new inquiry into the events of the day was opened in 1998 and still continues today. Paul Greengrass' film "Bloody Sunday," which shared the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year, is made in the form of a documentary. It covers about 24 hours, starting on Saturday evening, and its central character is Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a civil rights leader in Derry. He was a Protestant MP from the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party. Most of the 10,000 marchers on that Sunday would be Catholic; that a Protestant led them, and stood beside such firebrands as Bernadette Devlin, indicates the division in the north between those who stood in solidarity with their co-religionists, and those of all faiths who simply wanted the British out of Northern Ireland.
Cooper is played by Nesbitt as a thoroughly admirable man, optimistic, tireless, who walks fearlessly through dangerous streets and has a good word for everyone. He knows the day's march has been banned by the British government but expects no trouble because it will be peaceful and non-violent. As Cooper hands out leaflets in the streets, Greengrass intercuts preparations by the British army, which from the top down is determined to make a strong stand against "hooliganism." More than two dozen British soldiers have been killed by the Provisional IRA in recent months, and this is a chance to crack down.
Greengrass also establishes a few other characters, including a young man who kisses his girlfriend goodbye and promises his mother no harm will come to him--always ominous signs in a movie. And we meet the Derry police chief (Gerard McSorley), who is alarmed by the fierce resolve of the soldiers and asks, not unreasonably, if it wouldn't be wiser to simply permit the march, since it is obviously going to proceed anyway. Greengrass re-creates events with stunning reality. (When he shows a movie marquee advertising "Sunday Bloody Sunday," it's a small glitch because it seems like a calculated shot in a movie that feels like cinema verite.) He is aided by the presence of thousands of extras, who volunteered to be in the movie (some of them marched on Bloody Sunday and are in a way playing themselves). Northern Ireland is still a tinderbox where this film could not possibly be made; streets in a poor area of Dublin were used.