August 27, 2009

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Fifty Dead Men Walking (R)
A petty criminal becomes a mole for the British in the IRA in 1980s Ireland in Fifty Dead Men Walking, an engrossing look at violence in Ireland and at ideas of loyalty and the difference between being a freedom fighter and a terrorist.

The difference, it seems, is who is telling the story and what the aftermath is. I could easily see a movie where the hero and “villains” are reversed and we’re asked to sneer at the treacherous informant and cheer on the volunteer “soldiers” fighting to end what they see as an occupation. The title refers to the number of men that Martin (Jim Sturgess) may have saved by passing on information. Men, as the British Special Branch operative Fergus (Ben Kingsley) tells Martin, who will have children and grandchildren and be alive because of what Martin does.

And there’s the central tension for Martin. In addition to fear for his own life (both the IRA and the British seem to be able to kill with impunity in this situation), Martin is constantly weighing the violence perpetrated by the IRA in bombings that kill and harm not just Unionists and British fighters but also civilians and those men’s families against the economic hardships and political powerlessness of the Irish Catholics. Police can come into their homes, arrest the citizens and even in some cases kill them with little recourse for the Catholics. Except for the recourse provided by the IRA — which is a hamfisted and brutal replacement for “justice.”

Martin gets involved in the IRA not out of any particular conviction of his own but because Fergus tells him that joining to be a mole is the noble thing to do (and, just a little bit I think, because both Fergus and the IRA are giving him money). Fergus picks Martin up when Martin is only a petty criminal and prods him into seeking out the IRA, members of which know him a bit and might be inclined to trust him. As Martin goes on, he is horrified by their violence and scared that his role with the IRA might require him to hurt or kill someone, just as he is afraid that his snitching to the British will get friends on the periphery of the IRA hurt as well.

In addition to giving us the history and mood of northern Ireland in the 1980s, Fifty Dead Men Walking is fascinating for all the ways it resembles conflicts today. “Patriotism” is the driving force (to some extent) for all sides in this movie. Everybody thinks they’re on the side of the angels. But violence is the instrument that everybody uses, a fact that Martin can never completely get comfortable with. And when violence isn’t the destructive force, it’s bureaucratic mismanagement (Fergus might have personal loyalty to Martin but ultimately a bumbling MI5 can outrank his on-the-ground decisions). Sound familiar? Looking at these issues through this particular historical lens offers a new way to think about the morality and the effects on a culture of this situation.

And, we get some mighty fine acting. Kingsley is, as always, good at giving us a stone-faced man who occasionally shows something more in the cracks. Sturgess (probably best known recently for roles in Across the Universe and 21) is also solid — giving us a man who is, in large part, freaked out and scared and occasionally covers that with bravado. Supporting roles are strong as well, particularly Natalie Press, who plays Martin’s girlfriend, and, surprisingly, Rose McGowan, who plays a fiery-haired IRA operative. It’s nice to see her in a role that doesn’t use her for camp.

Fifty Dead Men Walking is a refreshing burst of cool seriousness in this muggy movie summer. B

Rated R for strong brutal violence and torture, language and some sexuality. Written and directed by Kari Skogland (from a book by Nicholas Davies and Martin McGartland, the man on whom this movie’s Martin is based), Fifty Dead Men Walking is an hour and 58 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Phase 4 Films.