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When The Sky Falls

Directed by John MacKenzie

Cast: Joan Allen, Patrick Hamilton, Jimmy Smallhorne, Liam Cunningham, Kevin McNally, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Barry, Gerard Flynn, Des McAleer, Owen Roe, Fearghal Geraghty, Gavin Kelty.

When The Sky Falls is, as perhaps all of Ireland knows by now, the ‘factional’ account of the working life and death of Veronica Guerin, crime reporter with The Sunday Independent from 1994 until her assassination on June 26th, 1996. Like all narratives based on well-known or highly-publicised actual events - and Irish cinema has thrown up its fair share of such films in the past few years, whether based on relatively recent or more historically distant occurrences (eg Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father, The General, Ordinary Decent Criminal etc) - it leaves itself open to the usual tedious debates about accuracy and authenticity. ‘Tedious’, since once it’s on a screen it’s certainly not reality, no matter how hard it tries to be, because the camera always lies: that’s how it sometimes tells the truth.




A sub-division here of this art/life dichotomy is the local/global or national/international one. With its American star and foreign production money, the film is obviously expected to do business outside this country, with an audience which may not be overly familiar with the facts of the case, so to what extent does the film use such knowledge, or ignorance, to its advantage? Also, Film West does have a readership outside Ireland, so how much can I presume readers of this review know about Veronica Guerin, and the circumstances surrounding her death? In other words, where is the film (and where should this review be) pitched?
The project grew out of journalist and theatre director Michael Sheridan being asked, in September 1995, to collaborate on a script dealing with the escalating and seemingly unhindered growth of Dublin crime. Sheridan felt that what he needed was someone with first-hand experience of the subject, and so approached fellow Sunday Independent reporter Veronica Guerin. She had already been approached by a number of publishing houses that wanted to turn her insight into Dublin’s underworld into book form, but her ongoing investigations, motherhood and marriage had left her with no time for the project. She agreed to act as advisor. As the script evolved, the personal story of the journalist became as central as that of the crime bosses. Two other writers were subsequently involved, Ronan Gallagher, and New York-based novelist Colum McCann.
Veronica Guerin becomes, in this telling, Sinead Hamilton (Joan Allen), she works for The Sunday Globe, and the action is transposed from 1996 to 1999. After some compelling opening aerial shots of the Dublin night-time skyline, courtesy of Director of Photography Seamus Deasy, we find Sinead waiting in her car for Martin Shaughnessy, alias ‘The Commandant’ (Pete Postlewaite), the fourth (and still counting) screen incarnation of Martin Cahill, aka ‘The General’, in the past two and a half years. Despite a brilliant reading by Brendan Glesson, and a not so riveting attempt by Kevin Spacy, isn’t it about time we got over this sentimental depiction of Cahill as some sort of loveable rogue, a latter day Irish Robin Hood: “He stole and tortured and maimed, but at least he didn’t sell drugs.”
Several days after the interview Shaughnessy is murdered, and Sinead visits another contact, mechanic Mickey O’Fagan (Jimmy Smallhorne) to get the low-down. He puts her on to another crime figure, John Cosgrove, aka ‘The Runner’ (Liam Cunningham). (Soon we’ll have a whole football team of such nicknames).
Mickey, unknown to Sinead, is a close associate of Dave Hackett (Mannix Flynn - in a genuinely scary realisation, the best performance in the film after central figure Allen). Sergeant Mackey (Patrick Bergin - in another strong performance) is outraged by news of Hackett’s early release from prison. He spent five years putting Hackett away, and the villain has ten years paroled down to two and a half. Without the resources, support or political backing to enable him to confront the gangsters head on, he resorts to nefarious means to put them away again, including blackmailing teenage junkie Jamie Thornton (Ruadhrai Conroy) into planting a packet of heroin in Hackett’s nightclub. However, the sting goes badly wrong, with the young addict viciously beaten to death by Tattoo (Gavin Kelty), a Hackett flunky, in the most violent scene in the film.
All of this runs parallel with glimpses of the reporter’s home life with husband Tom (Kevin McNally) and their five year old son Colum (Ferghal Geraghty). We get facts straight from Guerin’s life: like that Sinead is a Manchester United fan; that she drives too fast. At one point Tom tells Sinead, revealingly, ‘You’re the only thing of substance on that newspaper’.
From there on it’s more factual occurrences as well: Sinead being threatened and shot in the leg in her home; Sinead being beaten up by Hackett (obviously based on John Gilligan) when she confronts him at his country home; up to her assassination by a motorcyclist while stopped at traffic lights on the Naas Road.
I have a couple of problems with this movie. All in all, it has the feel of a superior made for TV film. It glances several important issues, without ever really exploring them in any depth. For example, Sinead says that politicians are only taking notice once heroin use has got a foothold among middle class kids (the Foxrock chapter of Concerned Parents has more subtle methods than street marches, and their offspring aren’t the ones robbing your handbag or VCR to help feed their habits), yet the film still presents it as solely a working class problem. Also, the extent to which Guerin’s newspaper exploited her growing fame to keep the sales increase she brought to it is limited to a reporter asking Sinead’s managing editor one pointed question. Nor is the voyeuristic element in the public, lapping up these weekly accounts of shenanigans among cops’n’robbers, which made ‘crime reporter’ the sexiest designation in media, ever addressed. Most importantly of all, there is no ambivalence in the presentation of Sinead as a woman with a mission, on a moral crusade against the evil drug lords. Was Guerin maybe not a more alarming mix of determination and naivety, blindly ambitious and high on the adrenaline of it all, to the point where she put her family and herself at risk? (“You wouldn’t say that about a man,” I hear someone object. Yes, but maybe a man would have made sure he was on his newspaper’s staff, and had some measure of insurance and protection, before risking his neck.) At the end of this film, this native Dub was left knowing no more or less about what really motivated Veronica Guerin than he did before it started.
However, the woman did pay the ultimate price for her relentless investigations, whatever her or her newspaper’s motivations, and the public outcry following her sacrifice did effect dramatic changes in the then grossly inadequate criminal justice system. In that measure, she is heroic, and this is a fitting testament to her memory.

First published in Film West









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