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The Devil’s Own

Directed by Alan Pakula

When contemplating or confronted with what is politely but euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ in the North, most soft Southerners, myself included, are inclined to throw up our hands wearily and declare, ‘A plague on both your houses’. Although the border is only 50 miles from Dublin, for many in the South the North may as well be 1000 miles away, so different are people’s experiences and living conditions. One of the most interesting things to emerge from and be reinforced by Before The Dawn, the recent autobiography by Gerry Adams, is how Northern Ireland has evolved into virtually a country apart, isolated from, and suspicious of, both the Republic of Ireland and Britain. Unionists want to maintain the link with Britain, chiefly for economic reasons, while it is an open secret that if the British could get rid of the North tomorrow morning, they would. Republicans claim to aspire to a United Ireland, yet regard the South as a partitionist state and, as Adams has written, ‘The absentionist refusal to recognise the right of the British parliament to rule in the north-eastern six counties and the refusal also to recognise the legitimacy of the Leinster House parliament in Dublin were cornerstones of republican belief.’ So while both Loyalists and Nationalists claim to be sponsored by states outside their own jurisdiction, (Britain and Ireland respectively), the relationship they have with those states is uneasy at the best of times, and fraught with ambivalence and mistrust.




So to the film in question, The Devil’s Own, and what light it sheds on these considerations. The most obvious point to make from the outset is that it introduces a third element into the equation outlined above, namely the Irish-American community’s sponsorship of Northern Nationalists. For make no mistake, this is a Hollywood thriller, a Cowboy and Indian, or gangster movie, which exploitatively and sentimentally uses the Northern conflict as a backdrop to provide some ready made easy signifiers of Good and Evil.
The film opens in a rural farmhouse in the North in 1972, where a scene of domestic, familial, dinner-time bliss at home and hearth is savagely interrupted by Loyalist gunmen bursting in, and murdering eight-year-old Frankie McGuire’s father right in front of him. Fast-forward to Belfast 1992, and an elaborate shoot-out between the IRA and SAS, featuring the now adult Frankie (Brad Pitt) as a Provo assassin. February 1993 finds Frankie arriving at Newark airport, assuming the identity of construction worker Rory Devaney, and looking to buy stinger missiles to bring back to his fellow travellers. Helped by a high profile judge with clandestine Provo sympathies, he gets a room in the basement of an Irish-American New York cop, Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford), who is ignorant of Frankie/Rory’s terrorist background.
Every Oirish cliché in the book is then dragged out, including a liberal sprinkling of cailini deas, a confirmation rite and a ceile. There is also a suitably ethereal, mystical, raggle-taggle soundtrack featuring Dolores O’Riordan and Melissa Etheridge, enough to set off alarm bells among all the more discerning members of the audience. The plot becomes dependent on the most ludicrous coincidences, and culminates in an over the top melodramatic finale, apparently only one of several potential endings shot for the film. The clumsy construction and multiple choice conclusion is probably explained by the fact that Kevin Jarre’s screenplay was subsequently reworked by five different writers (including Terry George, who wrote In The Name Of The Father and Some Mother’s Son). Many hands have made light work, and too many cooks have spoilt the broth.
The Devil’s Own marks a sad decline for director Alan Pakula, who, as well as being responsible for All The President’s Men and The Parallax View, made the fondly remembered Klute. It is ironic that at the recent Irish-American colloquium on peace at Trinity College, Paluka criticised the US film industry in the ‘90s for being ‘glib and exploitative’, since he would seem to have succumbed to his own diagnosis of the malaise effecting the system in which he himself works, and has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
It is worth speculating as to why so many films dealing with the North remain so resolutely simplistic in their portrayal of a complex situation. Arguably Nothing Personal, A Further Gesture, even In The Name Of The Father, all had some saving graces, but the MI5 agent in Some Mother’s Son remained a stereotypical, cardboard cut-out cartoon character, who was only short of a pair of horns growing out of his head, and a pair of red braces to match, to identify him as an evil yuppie hate-figure. It is also worth asking why there are so many films dealing with Republican paramilitaries and the Nationalist mind-set, and so few with the other side. (Does December Bride qualify as an honourable exception?) Is this evidence of the oft promulgated but reductive theory that because Loyalists are dour and dull Philistines, obsessed with an industrial work ethic, they have no talent or time for the production and consumption of art? The best films set in the North, Angel or Cal for example, would appear to be those that subsume the strife of sectarianism into more imaginative narratives concerned with individual lives rather than abstract concepts. The personal may well be political, but is the political always personal? Might I suggest that worthwhile moves in this direction would be films of Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, or Frank McGuinness’ Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme? The emergence of a playwright like Gary Mitchell, whose In A Little World Of Our Own was staged at the Peacock recently, is also to be welcomed in this regard.
But do we really need more sympathetically drawn portraits of men and women of violence to be going on with? One of the most unsavoury aspects of the Republican movement in the North has always been its classic guerrilla war tactic of having a ‘political wing’ (Sinn Fein) and a ‘military wing’ (the IRA), a good cop and a bad cop, and one of the reasons Sinn Fein is not taken seriously in democratic politics, and the IRA is condemned in civilised society. (Funny to reflect on that much used and abused term, ‘Republican’: in France in 1789 it meant someone who favoured democracy over monarchy; in America it means a right wing conservative; in Ireland it means someone who plants bombs and shoots people.) Of course, the Unionists are no better, with their political parties and their paramilitary organisations.
Denis Donaghue, the literary historian and critic, has written that the North is not a ‘problem’, but a ‘situation’. It will eventually solve itself over time, if only by simple demographics. But in the meantime, how many more people will be killed? It is difficult not to think of the words of Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.’ Political extremism, of whatever hue, gives rise to excessive hyperbole in its adherents. Bad cinema, of whatever hue, gives rise to excessive hyperbole in me. Brad Pitt has since called The Devil’s Own, ‘One of the most irresponsible pieces of film-making I’ve ever seen’, and he is right. I have not sat through Patriot Games or Blown Away, other American treatments of the Northern situation, but it is safe to say that The Devil’s Own is one of the worst films ever made.

First published in Film Ireland









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