Trying to capture the heart and soul of a political movement is a difficult thing for a film to do. Often the temptation is to create a simple, black and white narrative that paints one side as an evil nemesis to the righteousness of the other side. While a narratively convenient thing to do, all that this streamlining of ambiguity ever accomplishes is the cheapening of the principles and intentions of both sides while also diminishing the accomplishments of the winning side. When you add to this plot a single central character you further run the risk of creating a lionized hero, a godlike figure who fails to exhibit the flaws and humanity that make most real life heroes worth championing.
It is a rare thing that a film knows these dangers and is able to sidestep them. Even rarer still is the film that never comes within sight of those hazards, and instead delivers a completely unbiased, distanced and yet deeply affecting drama.
You are ostensibly the story of Bobby Sands, the first of many Irish republican prisoners to die as part of a hunger strike meant to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners in Norther Ireland. However, that simple description hardly does you justice. In truth you are a film about a time and a place, about a mood and a movement. Sands himself is barely introduced until well into your run time.
The first person we meet is a guard at the Maze prison. He dresses himself, eats, checks his car for bombs, and then goes to work. He processes a prisoner who refuses to wear a uniform and asks to remain in his civilian clothes. Instead, the man is made to strip down and is given a blanket. In his cell he and his cellmate smear their filth and their food on the walls, they pour their piss under their door and into the hallways where a beleaguered janitor pours bleach and brushes up the mess. They pass notes back and forth with their visitors to tell the world outside of their protest. They want to be treated as political prisoners, not as the common criminals they are forced to live with. They want dignity and understanding.
But it isn’t enough. We see through scenes abstract and experiential that conditions at the prison never improve, and as the republicans feel more and more trod upon, the more they lash out; the more the guards feel strained and powerless, the more they resort to violence. There is a constant tug between the two sides, a sense of weariness and anxiety that can only lead to more escalations of violence.
Into this cauldron of vicious conflict enters Bobby Sands and his collection of hunger strikers. They have a plan, a solution that will bring awareness to their cause, prove their conviction, and change everything once and for all. In two week intervals they will strop eating, not taking a single bite of food until their demands are met. And thus begins the intimate, unflinching process of watching a man starve himself to death.
We find a few personal stories about Bobby from an extended conversation he has with a visiting priest. We see his parents. The usual cliches used to justify or explain revolutionary behavior are absent from him. We see no flashbacks to brutality or moments of change. We only see his passion, borne out through the slow torture he puts himself through. Michael Fassbender transforms for this role, losing an unhealthy amount of weight and displaying a physicality and honesty of poise that very few people could attain.
The most impressive feature of your tale, though, is its honesty and objectivity. As I said, you keep Bobby’s past a mystery, not trying to justify his actions, only showing them as they occur. We are shown the tenacity, the will, the utter persistence that this man is driven to by the treatment he is receiving. No judgements are passed, but the outcomes are still shown. This is a courageous choice, asking us not to make a judgement on the reasons behind an action, but just to examine the force of will it took to execute the action and why a man must have to feel to take it.
Between your marvelous acting from Fassbender, your subtle, subdued direction and tone from director Steve McQueen, and the sheer power of your story, you make yourself a movie that instantly heralds a number of strong talents, and a film worth seeing at least once, more if you can stomach it.
With awe and respect,
Brian J. Roan