On August 15, 1998, a car bomb exploded in Omagh, Northern Ireland killing 29 people and injuring some 220 others. It was the single worst incident in Northern Ireland in over 30 years. In 2004 director Pete Travis filmed a movie about the atrocity and the subsequent investigation. It is a relentless, brutal film that never allows the viewer an emotional sigh of fresh air. What strikes me most about the film, now, is not the quality of the film, which is quite good actually, but that I had never before heard of this event.
Admittedly, I am not the most knowledgeable lad when it comes to current events. When I had a television I would catch one of the morning news shows, and maybe a few minutes of CNN or Fox News just before bed. While in the car I tune into NPR, I receive e-mails from the Washington Post and generally spend a few moments checking the various news websites. I’m not obsessive about the news, I try to stay mildly informed, but I certainly don’t spend every waking moment turning my thoughts to the state of the world. Yet, here is huge terrorist attack, followed by a scandalous investigation with a potential cover up behind it, and I’ve never heard a word about it.
I am sure the news channels mentioned something about it shortly after the bombing. It was probably a short little blurb with a death count. It’s got all the elements they love: terrorists, explosions, murder, and scandal. But, it didn’t happen in America, and European drama doesn’t have the ratings pull as say something stateside, say Michael Jackson’s latest shenanigans. Especially when these events happened on some obscure country like Northern Ireland. Who knew the North of Ireland was a separate country anyway?
In the US we have cable networks that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. There is CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, not to mention specialty networks like CourtTV, and of course non news specific networks that still employ daily news shows. Yet with all of these outlets, American audiences are still inundated with the same stories over and over again. It is a big world, with a lot of important events happening, but instead of covering these events, they rehash the current scandal of the week, and trial of the century. How did Bill Clinton’s hummer overshadow the murder of 29 people? How did Mark McGuire’s record breaking homerun sprint become more important than terrorist activity? Certainly the network news shows give us what we want. Had we received a 3 hour special report on the Omagh bombing I’m sure many of us would have clicked over to Seinfeld reruns. In the end, I’m not scholar enough, nor have the time, to lay out why virtually no one I know has heard of Omagh before. This is a movie review after all. Yet, as I think about the film I can’t help but feel the sting of guilt. When I hear the chattering other others complaining that Americans are full of ego, and don’t have the slightest idea about the world, I must hold my head low, and sigh.
The film itself is shot like a documentary, Dogme95 style. It uses hand held cameras, utilizes only natural lighting and there is nary a digital effect to be seen. For 106 minutes it never lets go of its punishing, merciless hold on your emotions. There is no comic relief, no juncture in which to catch your breath and get away from it all. The film brings you in close, lets you feel the tension, suffocate in the terror. It doesn’t want you to enjoy what you see. This is not a film that allows the audience to distance themselves from the actions on the screen, nor their very lives. It is a film that cries out, carrying the voices of all humanity that suffers, that feel injustice.
Though it takes a few moments to adjust to its visual style, the hand held camera work becomes an effective means to bring the audience right into the emotional impact of the film. It looses a little steam in the second half when the main character, Michael Gallagher (Gerard McSorley), a father of one of the victims, begins to lose his way in bringing the terrorist to justice. However, though some headway is lost, the film continues to pack a hard emotional punch.
I am glad that films like Omagh are being made. Though it is a film that will never see a theatre screen in America, it may find its way onto a shelf in the local movie rental house. It is here, that countless Americans may go looking for something a little different, something that they haven’t seen. And it is here that they might learn a little about the world around them.