The story of Michael Collins and his relentlessand ultimately successfulbattering on behalf of Ireland against 700 years of English oppression is a romantic one. It has great and terrible battles, powerful loyalties, a thorny love triangle, audacity, and resourcefulness. Mostly it has a cast of characters who feel passionately, who would and do die, who send allies to their death, who kill for what they believe in.
Unfortunately, Neil Jordan is not one of them. Whatever his private feelings about Collins and the drive for Irish independence, Jordan is unable to transfer strong emotion to the screen. Not even his own script acknowledges the contradictions and minor hypocrisies of the character and the movementit’s as if he put down in big block capitals that Michael Collins was to be a certain kind of movie, then went ahead and filmed a richer, truer, more interesting version, all the while insisting that that pared-down description hold true. It’s tremendously frustrating to watch this long, difficult story unfold, many of its complexities intact, at least physically, and to not sense any indication of attitude or emotion toward all these feeling, shouting, shooting people.
But Jordan’s movies never feel anythingto their detriment, as passion, commitment, or fascination are usually their ostensible driving force. He isn’t a cold directorhe hasn’t that much stylebut a numb one; only The Company of Wolves benefited from this detached telling, as the fairy-tale orator mustn’t tip his hand and hint at the wonders to come.
Jordan is an extremely idiosyncratic filmmaker: He loads up on atmosphere but doesn’t bother creating a tone that might betray a point of view, even if that point of view was only distance itself. He can’t sustain a rhythm from scene to scene, or even within scenes, lending his movies a chunked-up, Frankenstein’s-monster quality even when the cinematographer (here Chris Menges) and the actors and the editors are loping along apace. He is interested in sexual politics but has no use for women (or actressesJulia Roberts!). He’s interested in state politics, too, apparently, but if one is going to tackle a subject as incendiary as the question of Irish republicanism, one had better have an opinion.
Michael Collins certainly did. As played by Liam Neeson in the fudged history written by Jordan, Collins was a dedicated but unfocused young firebrand who fought by the side of Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman) in the Easter Uprising of 1916. With De Valera imprisoned and the other revolutionary leaders shot dead, Collins takes to the soapbox himself, whipping up crowds with a kind of democratic rhetoric”Who will take my place?” he asks the crowd as the English-sponsored police bear down on a rallyguaranteed to spark a cult of personality.
Very soon, Collins finds he has a knack for terrorism; he and his friend and right hand, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), josh each other about who is more adept at guerrilla warfare. With the mind of a great general, the resourcefulness of an inventor, and the morals of a sneak-thief, Collins is perfectly suited to play the hero of a downtrodden people. He inspires fierce and unbending loyalty, breaks his compatriots out of prison, arms his men with gleaming new guns from America, and plots bold assassinations designed to break whole lines of British oppression at a time, and whose organization also manages to scare the British silly. All the time, Collins rides around Dublin on his bicycleup until he negotiates with them, his enemies do not know his face.
There are moments that suggest Michael Collins might have larger questions at stake, ones about man’s destiny and God’s plan. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Michael Collins gives us a hero who’s good at abominable things, whose natural talent is for, as he himself says, “bloody mayhem” (that’s the red kind, not the English cuss-word). But unlike Eastwood, Jordan isn’t up for exploring what it means that a man’s God-chosen path may be strewn with cruelty. The exact same moral quandary was at the core of Interview With the VampireAnne Rice is still working those complexities out, even as her fan base has dropped away. But while Jordan let his vampires exchange stances on the subject, he didn’t adopt a pose himself, and the moviea monster movie uninterested in moralitywas flatter for it.
Without a tone imposed by the director, sometimes Michael Collins finds its own, and it is markedly weird. Collins arranges a large-scale assault on a group of English special forces. The massacre is written on a page stolen from The Godfather Part IIa great page, but famously and firstly Coppola’s. Since his men are using stolen weapons and limited ammunition for each meticulously planned assassination, Collins tells them to account for every bullet. But when a youth comes back crowing that his hit made the papersthe word “riddled” was involvedCollins has a fit. “You can’t go around riddlin’ people,” he cries. The total, colossal, all-encompassing amorality of a man who would try to amuse his men with such a soliloquy should have been frightening; as it is, the scene provides some easy laughs, and heaven help the viewer who asks himself exactly what he’s laughing it.
Which is not to say that Michael Collins “glorifies,” as has been charged, the IRA. Jordan has given his own convoluted and not-entirely-relevant defense explaining the history of the acronym and which faction of Collins’ troops took it up and how today’s IRAtechnically the Provisional IRAwas actually created in 1969 in Belfast, nowhere near Collins’ Dublin base. All very well, but none of this information is to be found on screen. Jordan treats Collins’ deathon his way to meet De Valera to agree on a cease-fireas a paradoxically tragic end, never mind that Collins has the luxury to yearn soulfully for peace after indulging in a six-year orgy of terrorism that brought him what he wanted. But if Jordan believes that such violence was necessary to achieve even the provisional peace, if he believes the use of guerrilla warfare was a mistake, if he believes both at the same timeDo the Right Thing did, to its enormous credithe does not indicate so.
Whatever your opinion of the dealings at hand, it is entertaining to watch a brilliant general do his thing, and Michael Collins has the added sympathy-magnet of depicting a people’s army, not the shiny, uniformed kind, under the leadership of Neeson, the world’s sexiest baked potato. But it is often just as engrossing to watch Rickman’s De Valera restraining himself from such battles, from rousing speeches and breast-beating histrionics. When De Valera employs his math-teacher’s diplomacy, like sailing for America, where he hopes to gain the sympathy of the populace and bring U.S. government pressure to bear on its British allies, Collins snorts and scoffs. He understands betrayals and turnarounds of loyalty, but he doesn’t understand that implacable, absolute commitment can manifest itself so coolly and express itself with subtlety.
On the same side of the issue but on opposite sides of the means, Collins and De Valera are clearly headed for the kind of mythic showdown that chooses one name for the history books, thus legitimizing that man’s method. As it turns out, though, the history of the Irish struggle isn’t yet complete. De Valera returns from the U.S. to find that the British are ready to talk (and Boland returns to find that his friend has swiped his girl, the uninteresting Kitty Kiernan). He sends Collins to London as a representative to help negotiate a treatyCollins suspects that this is because De Valera knows the British will not fully capitulate and does not want to be responsible for negotiating a bowdlerized agreement.
But he goes, and comes back half-hero, half-pariah, having agreed to the partition of the country and the establishment of the Irish Free State, whose recognition requires an oath of allegiance to the Crown. De Valera and Boland reject the compromise, leaving Collins alone with his insipid bride-to-be, a closetful of spanking new uniforms, shiny state cars, and the temporary, paternal comradeship of his erstwhile oppressors, who are pleased to have landed such a big and slippery fish.
The sight of Collins swanning to state affairs in these black cars, his epaulets practically preceding him into rooms, is rather ghastly, but Jordan makes nothing of it. When other characters protest, they protest his compromise on behalf of the Irish people, but the evidence that he may have sold out his country for a small piece of the oppressors’ pie goes unremarked. Up until the moment of Collins’ picturesque death, which Jordan imagines as an ambush by a dead-eyed teenager on a mountain road, he is presented to us as a great man whatever his actionswhether he’s indulging his fascinating venal talents or strutting about in English-bought jackboots. The movie lumbers along in a monotone, treating everyone the same whether they are heroic, cowardly, or dead.CP