War is never as simple as those who cheerlead for them. And some wars are simply so complex that instead of sides, there are overlapping loyalties, like a weirdly lethal and sometimes contradictory Venn diagram. Such conflicts don’t make for very easy genre storytelling because of their moral complexity. To some storytellers, however, this is more of a challenge than a prohibition, making possible the kind of movie that both thrills and provokes. One such film is ’71, that rare creature that uses both adrenaline and history to serve a deeper appreciation for each other.
The story takes place in 1971. Pvt. Gary Hook, a recent recruit into the British Army, deploys with his unit on a peacekeeping mission to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Only there is no peace to keep, this being the beginning of that decades-long bloodbath known as the Troubles. The soldiers provide support for the Royal Ulster Constabulary as they roust families from their homes—much to Hook’s horror—in search for any evidence of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Before long, an angry mob forms and attacks the soldiers and police in retaliation. In the confusion, Hook and one of his squaddies are accidentally left behind when their unit retreats. After enduring a savage mob beating, Hook narrowly escapes with his life after a PIRA gunman executes Hook’s fellow squadmate. Hurt, scared, unarmed, and deep within unfriendly territory, Hook must survive what will become the worst night of his life as everybody else in the neighborhood looks for him: the army, the police, and various paramilitary factions. All of whom want Hook dead for different reasons. As young Private Hook quickly figures out, in the Troubles, there are no good guys and bad guys. There are only people who want other people dead, and not all of the time, and not always for consistent reasons.
This is a movie that jumps right into the confusing and murky waters of Northern Irish politics during a time of considerable tragedy and bloodshed, and the story thankfully resists the temptation to boil entire groups down to easily digested caricatures for the sake of storytelling. For many viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the Troubles, Hook’s bewildering transit through the impoverished urban battleground of Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists is meant to put us in Hook’s own shoes. He can hardly make sense of this, and neither can we. That’s the point. Even those living right in the line of fire are never quite sure who is loyal to whom, thanks to a deeply overlapping set of conflicting forces that range from political and religious ideology, to street credibility and personal grudges.
There are no completely good or bad people in this story. Hook comes close, as a guy who seems to have joined the Army mainly to support his young brother in the absence of any parents. One gets the feeling that Hook would rather just stay home and trouble nobody, but he needs the job, and so he finds himself carrying a gun in a place he never would otherwise. When the crowd turns on him, we understand why, even if we still feel sympathy for him. He didn’t ask for this. He wasn’t one of the ones causing the trouble. But there he is, part of it. That he doesn’t really understand why largely absolves him of the things for which the mob hates him. But not entirely. After all, he chose to carry that rifle.
Likewise, Haggerty, the gunman stalking Hook, comes close to being a true villain, being a cold-blooded killer whom we know has executed innocent people before, and would gladly do so again. And yet, he is the sort of person who provides evidence, however scant, to the notion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. We’re never quite sure what freedom Haggerty might be fighting for except the freedom to put bullets in skulls, though. He comes off as a killer waiting for a war, and for whom the Troubles was a lucky break.
In the middle are a host of people on the spectrum who collectively illustrate just how impossible this conflict really is, and how tragically it treats everyone within it. There is the brave mother who intervenes when Hook is being beaten by the mob and says he’s had enough. There is the Protestant boy who risks his own life to take Hook to safety. There is the Catholic civilian who was once in the Army too, and fixes Hook up even as he tries to turn him back over to the Original IRA. There are the older IRA guys who have survived long enough to see that this conflict cannot end without compromise. There is the young gunman who tries to shoot Hook in the heat of the moment, but when given the perfect opportunity to execute him, simply has too much decency to kill in cold blood. These people are what is being fought over here, not Hook. He is just a pawn trying to get himself off the board. When he is gone, all these other pieces remain because they live on the board.
The moment of truth comes not long after Hook is brought into a pub that fronts for British counterinsurgency agents and loyalist paramilitaries. Hook sees they’re building a bomb in the back room, and as he waits for the coast to clear enough to leave, he chats with the young lad who delivered him there. Around the same age as Hook’s own brother, this kid is hard as nails, aged prematurely by life in a warzone. When the pub explodes moments later, taking the boy’s life, Hook knows that hard or not, that kid was innocent enough not to deserve the end he got. The sides we impose on war are a fiction. The bombs and bullets we use don’t discriminate. Like war itself, they simplify through brutal subtraction. That’s all they ever do.