When I was an undergrad, an essay, graded C, was returned to me with a one word criticism: vague. This has always haunted me, as it was a horrible piece of critical feedback, but it also brilliantly performed its own criticism. I have always tried to do better, and I will spell out the vagaries of ’71, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be vague. This film, which wound up on the ten best list of several critics whose opinion I respect, deals with a green British soldier sent into Belfast with his regiment during the Troubles in the year 1971. I don’t know much about the Troubles, and I came out of the film knowing as much as I did when I went in – so how historically accurate this historical action film is, I cannot say. At the same time, accuracy need only be judged, in this case, by the set decoration and costuming, and not by the dramatics, as this could just as easily be the solo edition of The Warriors, or any other film of that genre (get home alive?), reset in drearier climes. The lack of historical detail, or even of historical overview, would not nettle if I had felt anything during the screening. Tension? Surprise? Excitement? There are some well-staged sequences, without doubt, especially the bombing of a pub and our protagonist’s noise-induced hearing loss, but even in such cases, it is hard to care. The reason for this is that our protagonist, Gary Hook (Private Hook, one supposes), is about as generic as can be, with little to no backstory, who barely opens his mouth for the entirety of the film. Yes, there are magical films with such protagonists; indeed, there are some films that are stronger because of such a setup. I only wish this were one of them. Hook is as bland as boiled, mashed turnips, eaten without butter or salt, and washed down with a draught of milk. He never opines about anything, and is humanized only by being granted an apparently orphaned younger brother to say goodbye to as the film opens, and to rescue from his meanie orphanage at the film’s conclusion. The plot itself makes The Warriors seem complex and high toned in comparison. Hook goes with his regiment to provide support to the police while they extract a suspect from a Catholic neighborhood. His young C.O. stupidly takes away their riot gear, wanting to seem friendlier to the population. A riot promptly breaks out as the extraction proceeds, and Hook and one of his confreres have to plow through the rioters in an attempt to retrieve a military rifle swiped by a young boy. Away from their unit, they get beat up, and then Hook’s pal is shot point blank in the head. The rest of the unit hightails it out of there, not realizing until much later that Hook has been left behind. Now Hook has to avoid the Provisional IRA and try to get out of the neighborhood and back into British hands.
Which is, sadly, not so hard. The main problem with this plot is that, within the genre of “get home alive,” getting home is usually quite difficult. Home is a long ways away, perhaps, across hostile turf populated by vast and divergent quantities of threat. Here, “home” is simply anywhere outside of the Catholic neighborhood which, given some small help in orientation, takes Hook approximately 8 hours or so to exit. So, to make his escape a problem, the filmmakers introduce a variety of plot devices, the main one being the double cross. You see, now that he’s been in Catholic territory, the Brits want him dead for some reason too. Hook’s unit, and his C.O., are subordinate to three scummy “undercover” guys who are also apparently ranking officers, and these guys are hot to “rescue” Hook quickly before he can get back into regular army hands, all the better to execute him. Now, did the filmmakers feel like bothering with some kind of reason, historically rooted or no, for this double cross? Is there, for instance, a good reason for these “undercover” officers to see Hook as a political liability for any of the operations they are already involved in? We wouldn’t know, as their “operations” are seemingly comprised of riding around in cars together, looking seedy, and meeting contacts in the IRA, who they threaten. So, for the first half of the movie, Hook stumbles around, trying to avoid those he knows want to kill him, and in the second half, he stumbles around trying to avoid getting killed by people he knows. The audience never understands why Hook is so important, nor why he needs to be taken care of by the undercovers, so it plays as a rather cynical device. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that this would go unnoticed, as the baddies are themselves cynics. At least, there is no other way to evaluate their actions – they come off as sub-par versions of the cynical sleazoids in Julian Jarrold’s contribution to the Red Riding trilogy, 1974. The difference being, in 1974 we do come to understand the exact nature of the sleaziness, and the cynicism, and some of the reasons why, although perhaps not the full scope of everything until the final film. ’71 is all beady eyes, bad haircuts, and sweaty, rather unconvincing choke holds that take long enough to allow contrivances to blossom and rescues to be had. Given that we know little about Hook, and less about his foes, the action itself, no matter how well staged, becomes trivial – and it doesn’t help that the solution to the climax is very contrived indeed. Thus the ending not only lacks catharsis, it lacks weight – or rather, it lands with a pretentious leaden thud. We are supposed to feel Hook’s repugnance at having to face his would-be assassin in the office of the ultimate military authority on the matter (unnamed, natch). We should take umbrage at this righteous young solider’s trust being trammeled upon, how he is turned into an angry cynic himself by being sold down the river by said military authority. His own catharsis denied, Hook (we are given to understand) is discharged, stopping on the way out of town to pick up the kid brother at the orphanage. Thence, to the sweet hereafter and into the sunset. The whole film is reduced to a massive cliche – although reduced is perhaps too strong a word: naive and honorable lad turned sour through sad personal experience of the political realities of the world. Yes, no one likes being used as a pawn. And no one is pretty much who Hook is. A cynical film about cynics which decries the causes of cynicism! Is there any thrill to be had in such reflexivity? The answer is no.