You Say Film I Say Movie: ’71 Explores The Troubles through Boyhood

A soldier, a college student and a boy's story, one night in Belfast, 1971
By    March 10, 2015


’71 is set in a Belfast hell where buses burn and kids roam the streets tossing molotov cocktails. If you like war movies that mix genres (man-on-the-run, gangster, vice saga) and those that make you crumple into your seat, it’s highly recommended.


The movie begins with British soldiers deployed on an emergency basis to handle a situation in Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK). They arrive and form a task force to contain (and antagonize) city residents. When they arrive, they face an angry mob who wants them to leave immediately. As a hook it sets the course for the entire movie. In 2015, it brings to mind Ferguson.


The Troubles didn’t end until 1998, but its peak violence happened around 1971. It was an era when Northern Ireland was fueled by religious divide (Protestants vs. Catholics) and the struggle for independence (nationalist paramilitaries vs. London). Lines of allegiance were drawn on a street-by-street basis in Belfast. Keeping this in mind, the plot of ’71 rises to incredibly high stakes when you realize a British soldier wouldn’t survive a night alone in the city. (Watch the trailer if you’d like, but it spoils some surprises.)

Jack O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a soldier left for dead who must lean on some younger boys’ innocence to try and save himself. Most memorable is Corey McKinley, who’s credited as “Loyalist Child” and is responsible for the funniest bit in the movie. More prominent is Barry Keoghan’s Sean Bannon, an older boy who decides to join up with the Provisional IRA (explained below) to fight against the Brits.

The boys respect each other. They know the fight is silly, and they’re just trying to survive. Whatever it is they’re fighting over or whoever they’re fighting for, they know it’s not really worth dying over. But they’ve been pushed and swayed and convinced that this is what they have to do, to survive, to earn the respect of (male) elders, to advance. Unfortunately, most of their elders don’t give a shit about them. They’re worried about their own interests or the opposing factions.


The Irish Republican Army had split into two factions at this point in Northern Ireland’s history. The older Official guard wanted to pursue a non-violent approach towards the British soldiers, but the newer Provisional IRA wanted to send a message. In the film, the British soldiers are sent to Belfast to try and calm this divide. There’s British vice already on the ground, and they’ve infiltrated both the Provisional and older factions. When the British soldiers decide to roll onto the streets without riot gear (to develop trust), they face the Official, Provisional and citizens of Belfast head on.

All I could think about during the ensuing sequence was Ferguson, and the continued murder of unarmed black men in the United States. This past weekend, Tony Robinson was shot and killed in Madison. During a portion of the scene, we see a British soldier treating a Northern Ireland civilian like they’re a lesser species, as though they both aren’t human beings. This takes place out of view but audible from the protests occurring in the streets. Outside, women play a pulsating beat with trash lids by banging them repeatedly on the sidewalk, building towards the breaking point. It might be perfect timing, but watching this can’t help but recall how innumerable people been mistreated when the fascists think nobody’s watching. Shots are fired but nothing changes. The movie echoes our inability to resolve essential issues.

Hopefully ’71, a story about the effects of ceaseless useless gun violence — one that shows the deaths of young white men, will spark some empathy amongst American viewers. ’71 demonstrates the inherent ridiculousness of war, while maintaining an “I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next” pace for 99 minutes. It elevates the movie from being just another war flick to a worthwhile study of humanity — it shows what can come from our desire to chase freedom.


  • A few times during the movie I felt like the story was a little ridiculous, but then I realized it’s edited so that the action never ends. When Hook passes out, for example, it’s likely that a few people walked by him and didn’t want to pay him any attention. When somebody felt compelled to stop and help, Writer Gregory Burke and Director Yann Demange cut to it on screen, allowing for a never-ending chase of a movie.
  • ’71 has been nominated for Best Film and Best Debut in Writing and Directing at the BAFTA’s. It won Best Film at the Athens International Film Festival.
  • Jack O’Connell also starred in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.
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