Friday, April 10, 2009

Fifty Dead Men Walking

It was several hours after attending the advance preview screening of Fifty Dead Men Walking, which was followed by a Q &A with director Kari Skogland, that I realised I'd actually already read the book by Martin McGartland, on which the film is based.

It's not hard to see why I should have failed to recognise the story on screen from the book I'd read earlier, despite the huge impact the book had on me at the time I read it. The film starts with McGartland (Jim Sturgess) in an anonymous location on a snowy day, checking underneath his worn-out old car for the signs of anything unusual - a bomb perhaps? As he tries to start the engine a black balaclava'ed figures appears from nowhere, shooting him several times at point-blank range. The scene itself isn't fictional, but is nowhere to be found in the book. It, or something very similar to it, happened AS A RESULT OF McGartland publishing his 'tell all' book, which apparently pissed the IRA off even more than his working for them as a 'tout' for the RUC had done.

As the film tells us in its closing titles (spoiler alert!), McGartland is still under cover and still has no contact with his family.

At the Q&A that followed last night's Southbank screening, the writer/director revealed that although she spoke to the IRA 'tout' long and often, and also changed some things as a result of his input, contact was always by phone calls which he controlled, and had to be at his behest. So there is no happy 'reunited with his family' ending here for those who like their films happy and smiley!

After the opening 'grab their attention' attempted assassination, the remainder of the film tells a fictionalised account of McGartland's involvement with the IRA and the RUC from its logical beginning, starting in 1987 and ending around 1991. It bears little relation to the strong memories I have of the main character's real life which seemed to comprise never-ending periods of boredom and poverty, alleviated by sudden explosions of activity and a great deal of hatred.

Essentially, this is a story of an RUC informer ('tout' as the IRA call them)working his way up the IRA ranks so he can feed information to the British - information that, it is claimed, saved the lives of the 'fifty men' of the title. But it feels like a very different story from that told in the book: A sanitised one in many ways (which, I suspect, will shock those who haven't read the book because this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Hollywood film or anything approaching it!) The McGartland of the book came across as a much harder, angrier, less sympathetic person, and the intrinsic evil of the IRA (and to a much lesser extent the British puppet-masters) seeped from every page.

In Skogland's film McGartland becomes the cheery everyman, a sort of Irish version of the young Paul McCartney (hard to get the actor Jim Sturgess' previous work in the Beatles musical Across The Universe out of my head!), a sort of 'street urchin with a good heart who stands by his girl'. More importantly, the film tries to tow an independent, 'fair-minded to both sides' line, which doesn't really work given the inherently violent and controlling methods of the IRA at the time. The approach adopted makes the film seem a lot less political, and perhaps more personal, than the book so it's not hard to see why McGartland may be upset. The director has made a film 'for our times', with particular relevance to the situations in Agfhanistan and Iraq, so that suddenly the story in the book that had me thinking 'Thank God I'm nowhere near that barbaric mess and wasn't involved' has me thinking 'Maybe it's not that barbaric and could happen anywhere'

In the Q & A session with the director afterwards, McGartland's presence (not physically - he's still in hiding) seemed to dominate the proceedings. The interviewer's opening question revealed that McGartland had been somewhat 'grumpy' about the film to the press, and a quick search on the internet shows him contacting even the likes of the rather innocuous Empire magazine to complain that he does not endorse the film in any way. The director seemed cagey whenever the subject was brought up (as it was, repeatedly, by people wanting to better understand what the source of disagreements was), but it was hard to ascertain who, if anyone, was in the right here. A quick 'Google' has Sturgess revealing that McGartland was apparently unhappy with the IRA torture scene, which he never witnessed in real life, and at the Q&A the director just kept to the 'a book does not necessarily make a good film' storyline. Clearly the rather heavy-handed disclaimer about the film merging characters and depicting some events differently, which appears at the start AND end of the film is the result of McGartland's intercession and a (failed) attempt to placate him somewhat. (You can read more about McGarttlan's objections to the film and its director here)

None of which really matters, given how powerful and gripping the film is! A 'based on truth' thriller, with real flesh-and-blood characters (no blacks or whites here - just LOTS of shades of grey) is preferable to a documentary version of the original book (which I highly recommend!).

Skogland has produced a gritty, grungey, powerful and deeply impressive film that manages to shake off the rather obvious shortcomings of its first 5-10 minutes, such that you're gripped and sat on the edge of your seat right to the conclusion two hours later. Admittedly the film is not an easy watch in places. It clearly has 'indy' origins (no glossy '3D window look' Blu-Ray on its way here!) and I thought it got off to a poor start as soon as the 'reel 'em in' assassination attempt opening was over. I've never been a fan of the Paul Greengrass school of wobbly, hand-held, puke-making cam that we get in abundance here. Nor am I a huge fan of the 'bleach' process that highlights the whites and the blacks at the expense of colour or lack of film grain, but at least this time around it's somewhat more warranted, matching the gritty and dark story being told. At the end of the day it's the performances, and the sheer humanity of those caught up in events, rather than the technical aspects of the film that stay with you long after the final credits have rolled.

(Sir) Ben Kingsley may be a bit of an up-himself knob-head in real life (he comes across that way in interviews!), but you can't deny the guy can really act, and the few reviews I've read sniping at his performance here as McGartland's British 'handler with a conscience' can only be based on personal grievances with the actor himself. His performance is never less than rivetting and totally believable. From any other actor this would be considered a 'career best', but Kingsley's work is of such high calibre that one can only revel at the fact he's managed to use his incredible, chameleon-like qualities for totally transforming himself into another character yet again.

But it's Jim Sturgess, fighting against all the 'just a pretty face' odds, who delivers the most surprising, and most impressive, performance. It's no surprise to hear that he stayed in character from the moment he landed on the Emerald Isle. His accent is, to these ears, pretty flawless, and his performance as a difficult, duplicitous, dishonest character that we have to somehow empathise with is never less than convincing. This is, in many ways, HIS film even more than it is Skogland's. If he can steer clear of being the 'pretty boy flavour of the month' with the film magazines and continue to make wise choices, as he appears to be doing, he could become a huge talent in the industry rather than just another graduate from the Orlando Bloom school of (non-) acting!

As for the film itself - my quibbles are minor. I love punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers (and The Ruts too - my era! Oh, the memories!) - but not when they're so dominant in the mix I can't hear the dialogue. And I know it's all about a documentary-like, gritty feel, but at times the Greengrass-influenced shakycam goes too far. And the intro and outro captions seem rather preachy and trite (this may be at McGartland's insistence of course).

But on an evening when I felt so shattered I nearly gave the film a miss, I found myself wide awake and enthralled throughout.

The director has made it clear that this opening weekend will 'do or die' for the film - especially its chances of getting a release in the United States, urging those who liked the film to 'tell their friends to go and see it, preferably this weekend'. I have no hesitation in doing so. It's a powerful, absorbing and compelling piece of work. We need more films of this sort of calibre (although whoever's behind the marketing of the film could surely have done a better job - where's the 'official' web site with images etc to decorate this blog entry?!).

Ignore some of the pettier newspaper reviews (whose research is so poor they think the director is male) that imply the film is merely 'average'. It isn't! They are confusing the film with an event (20 years of Irish politics) and marking the film accordingly. Just go and see it. It's an excellent, powerful movie, and much better than anything else I can see advertised this weekend. Highly recommended!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting review. Just a couple things... Skogland stated in the cast interview at the TIFF she was purposefully making a film that was about the characters, not the politics. (watch press conference here: In your review you indicated as such, but in critism. I also invite you to reread McGartland's FDMW, as having just read it, found his characterization (a scrappy, a bit full of himself, cocky young man) to be spot on with the one in the film. Also, by the end of his time as an informer, McGartland blew his cover by spending too much of his ill-gotten cash on fixing up the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. That's the thing that doesn't ring true with all McGartland's claims on wanting to SAVE much cash he made in the bargain.

Ian said...

I don't think it was 'criticism' I was making. I was just really trying to make the point that if you went to the movie expecting a film version of the book you wouldn't get it - the two really features such dramatically different versions of McGartland (a point you seem to agree with given your comments) that it's hard to see them as being different versions of the same story. I intended to convey the fact that for me the film worked precisely because the character development was so strong (and not yet another political rant), although I did think that the McGartland in the film bore little relationship to the character whose book I'd read and which the film was supposedly based on.

I deliberately avoided the controversial area of McGartland's claim about saving lives. The counter-argument (that he actually cost lives - on the other side) is one that would be hard to argue against without knowing the real facts.

I thought I'd made it clear that McGartland didn't come across as likeable in the book (but did in the film), which is the crux of how different the film and the book are given that essentially they are about the man.

I will indeed try and get around to re-reading the book, but I don't think it will change any of what I've said above.

I guess the real point I was trying to make is that the film is SO different from the book that even though the book made a strong impression it was so different in temperament, context and portrayal of its central character that I didn't relate the two at all until well after seeing the film, when it suddenly occurred to me why the title had seemed so familiar (I'd initially thought it was because there was a Sean Penn film with a similar title!)

All that being said, both are rivetting pieces of work, and I'd recommend reading the book AND seeing the film. In some ways I think the director's comment about a book and a film being two completely different things hit the nail right on the head.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book but from your critique I think the movie is better off the way it is. It's a great watch. So I guess McGartland started legal action because of this film? Greedy bastard.

Ian said...

I think "greedy bastard" is a bit strong. The guy's had his whole life ruined and lives pretty much day-to-day in terror of losing his life. His objections appear to be that his story is misrepresented on screen, rather than a desire to make a ton of money. I may disagree with the strength of his objections (because it's the nature of films that they're different from real life or books on which they're supposedly based) but not with the fact that he has them.

MM said...

Film Fifty Dead Men Walking is nothing like the book of same name, fact.

Ian, It seems to me that you yourself did little or no research before writing your own misleading and ill-informed 'review'. It was reported in the Sunday Times that; After McGartland watched the film, he demanded, and got, several last-minute changes. For instance, a voiceover by Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays McGartland’s RUC Special Branch handler, sets the historical context and describes McGartland as “his own man”. A number of scenes were cut or voiced over, and disclaimers were inserted at the beginning and end to say that key events and personalities had been changed.

McGartland asks: “They are saying it was based on a true story, but what is the definition of ‘based on a true story’? Is it 50% true, 70% true, 10%?”

He contends that the movie is fundamentally a lie that misrepresents his career and his motivation. He believes that if Kari Skogland, the director, had stuck closer to the account he gave in his book and in a BBC documentary, then she would have had a better film.

Martin McGartland's own statement dated 22/08/2008 which again was reported in UK press;

Ian, You may want to return to the book 'Fifty Dead Man Walking' because it seems to me that you must have read a different book. You may have read a book written by another IRA informer or agent.
I read the book long before watching the film. I too return to the book and read it again after I had watched the film. The fact of the matter is that the film is nothing at all like the book.
As Martin has said many times; 'This film is as near to the truth as earth is to pluto.'

So far as the comments, 'greedy bastard' is concerned, I understand Martin McGartland turned down substantial offers made to him by the filmmakers, they wanted him to be a consulant on film.

You may want to read Fifty Dead Men Walking - even if only to put the record right a wrong;

Ian said...

I have to admit I'm totally at a loss as to what your comment is about. It's like you've leapt into knee-jerk reaction mode without reading a single whole sentence I've written.

You address me directly saying I should re-read the book because it's nothing like the film. That was EXACTLY the point I made in my review, not once but several times. How often do I have to repeat myself for you to understand what I've said?

The "Greedy bastard" comment was not mine but a comment from someone else, so I don't understand why you had to throw that in with your comments.

Your actual McGartland quotations are so vague as to be meaningless.

Before criticising others for their lack of research (I made it VERY clear in my "review" that I simply did a quick hunt on Google to try and find out what the real story was, this was just a simple film review not a tedious bloody essay by someone with an axe to grind) perhaps you could actually read the review you seem to have read things into that I never stated.

By the way, the several articles I found on that Google search all painted the same picture, but I'm sorry if two years after the event I can't remember if one particular newspaper article I didn't read wasn't the whole basis of some long, tedious essay!

Some of us try to have a life and this was a personal movie review about my personal reading of the book and many years later my personal viewing of the film.

I can see nothing in your comments that contradicts any "facts" I have given in my review, and to be brutally honest, really haven't got a clue what you're ranting on about!