Monday, March 17, 2014

Omagh






The 2004 Irish/UK film production Omagh is a superior docu-drama. The details of the event portrayed in the film are written in stone: On Saturday August 15, 1998, a beautiful summer morning in an Irish village called Omagh, Northern Ireland, close to the border with the Irish Republic, was interrupted by the detonation of a huge bomb, planted in the trunk of a car which was parked on the main street, known as High Street, in the commercial center of the village, when large numbers of people, including school children, were present. The bombers, members the Real IRA, called the police several minutes prior to the explosion and told them where the bomb was. Taking the warning seriously, police arrived on High Street and began to tape off an area - about one block - and to tell people to leave the area when suddenly the bomb went off, killing 29 people.


After showing us the creation and the placement of the bomb by men of the Real IRA, the film focuses on one family, the Gallaghers - specifically on the father, Michael - who lost Aiden in the explosion. Once he learns of the bomb (and I wonder who could not have heard it in such a small village), Michael goes to the center of town, looking for his son. He finds a friend of his son's in a field hospital but he's unable to tell him anything of what became of Aiden. We see Michael sitting and waiting, until he is brought before a policewoman who asks him for a detailed description of his son's appearance. A short time later, Michael is met by a priest who, we must assume, tells him that his son was blown to pieces.

After the appalling excitement of the opening of Omagh (traveling to a remote farmhouse before dawn, watching, as if from a hiding place, how the bomb is manufactured and prepared, and taking us all the way up to the explosion - all handled brilliantly), the rest of the film deals with the aftermath - the long bureaucratic foot-dragging of the "official" inquiry, the revelations that the British government knew about the bombing and, because of secret dealings with the Real IRA, did nothing to either stop it or warn of it, the failure to prosecute those who did it - which is a part of the story that must've been told, but it bogs the film down from about midway. Even the eventual admission from the government ombudsman, that forms the climax of the film, feels too much like an anti-climax. A title at the end of the film states that "Since 1998 the British and Irish police have made 94 arrests in connection with the Omagh bombing. No one has been convicted."

The personal story of Michael Gallagher, his loss of a son, and the impact on his marriage and on his family is the focus of the story, although we meet others who lost someone in the explosion. This is a common device in such docu-dramas. Think of the Titanic disaster reduced to the fate one insignificant boy, played by the insignificant Leo Di Caprio. It's assumed that the totality of the event can neither be told nor properly comprehended without this narrowing of focus. Unfortunately, it also has a belittling effect - it makes the event seem smaller and considerably less important. In the films United 93 and Captain Phillips, we feel something closer to the full impact of two events of significant size, involving large numbers of people. One took place in the skies over the American Midwest, and the other in the Indian Ocean. I mention these particular films because they were both directed by Paul Greengrass, who also co-produced and co-wrote Omagh. Greengrass is expert at the film treatment of critical moments in history, like the hijack of United flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and the hijacking of the Alabama Mersk tanker ship by Somali pirates. Omagh was directed by Pete Travis, but it looks and feels like every other Paul Greengrass film: the overwhelming emphasis on the nervous, furtive, handheld camera style, the long-lenses that bring sometimes distant backgrounds much closer to figures in the foreground, the use of the camera as a witness to and a participant in the action, the real locations, the natural lighting, the emphasis on an uninflected, unglamorous, unadorned, "documentary" style.

But thematically and structurally, Omagh resembles another film about a moment in the history of the Irish Troubles: In the Name of the Father (1993). That film also centered on an IRA bombing, the bombing of a nightclub in Guildford in 1974. Among the victims of that atrocity were Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, and and Carole Richardson who became known as the "Guildford Four." In the Name of the Father was about a terrorist attack, but it was also about police and political corruption that put these seven innocent people in jail. Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill served sixteen years behind bars, until new evidence was found that exonerated them. However, Giuseppe Conlon, father of Gerry, who was arrested later as part of the "Maguire Seven" was never acquitted, since he died in prison. There was a genuine feeling of uplift at the end of In the Name of the Father, regardless of the years of their lives that the accused lost in prison. It wasn't because it was a better-made film, but that it was differently-made. The director, Jim Sheridan, chose to use dramatic devices, like period ('70s) music and much more dramatic acting and staging. Except for the vividly-observed explosion itself, and the carnage and confusion of its immediate aftermath, Omagh avoids dramatic emphasis completely. There are no scenes of outpouring grief, only a few brief shots of men carrying coffins. And there is no music, except for a song under the end credits. If the rest of the film is a little tedious, it's the more truthful for that.     

I am an Irish-American with utterly unsentimental feelings about the Old Country. In fact, I had to turn my back on the subject in the early 1980s when it became obvious to me that there would be no end to the internecine violence that has afflicted Ireland and the six counties of Northern Ireland for centuries. Despite encouraging signs that the people themselves have had enough and genuinely want to end the violence, and there have been some political moves that demonstrate a will to co-exist, I am still not ready to wear a piece of green (to avoid getting pinched) or drink green beer on this day. But I have to admit that watching the early scenes of Omagh put a lump in my throat. Maybe I was disgorging a potato?

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