'Bobby Sands: 66 Days': Film Review

Bobby Sands in Bobby Sands: 66 Days - still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Fine Point Films
A grueling look at a crucial moment in Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Brendan J. Byrne's doc recounts the final days of the IRA prisoner whose hunger strike inspired Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' and Terry George's 'Some Mother's Son.'

Art house patrons in America may mostly know Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands from Hunger, Steve McQueen's acclaimed 2008 debut starring Michael Fassbender. But he looms large in the history of Northern Ireland's decades-long quest for self-governance, and Brendan J. Byrne's new documentary Bobby Sands: 66 Days offers something both for those who've never heard of Sands and those who have his youthful smile etched forever in memory. If its subject ensures the doc will sometimes be tough viewing, it may be doubly so for those viewers who, unexpectedly this month, feel as engulfed with impotent anger as the Irish nationalists who wanted desperately for their English rulers to go back home.

How one responds to powerlessness is, after all, the picture's central topic. IRA prisoners' well-publicized hunger strikes resulted from a realization that, when facing a vastly more powerful foe, an emotional victory may be far more attainable than a military one — earned by intentionally "enduring, not inflicting suffering," as one interviewee puts it.

Focusing on Sands' time in prison, the doc doesn't intend to convince us that he and his fellow IRA soldiers were right to commit the violent crimes that put them there. (In fact, their protest wasn't even against being in jail — the campaign was to be treated as prisoners of war, housed apart from rapists and thieves.) Byrne acknowledges the civilians killed by IRA actions and interviews many figures who disagreed with their methods; but he clearly sides with the speaker who argues that, disagree with them or not, "you can't question the sincerity, the sense of duty" that led Sands to deliberately give his life for the movement.

Zipping back and forth in time, Byrne mixes biographical and political detail in with his centerpiece, scenes evoking the 66 days Sands spent refusing food. A solitary actor stands or lies down in Byrne's reconstructed H-Block cell, accompanied by voiceovers drawn from Sands's eloquent journals. (He joined the resistance at 18, he tells us, "with an M1 carbine and enough hate to topple the world.")

While the doc uses reenactment and plentiful period news footage to chart how Sands withered away, and to capture the mixture of respect and grief his determination to die produced in supporters, the film is always about more than Sands. Historians cite an ancient Gaelic tradition of fasting in protest; we hear about Marion Wallace Dunlop, who in 1909 was the first of many suffragettes to go on a hunger strike — like Sands, in an attempt to be recognized as a political prisoner. And they look hard at how such an act can capture the public's imagination, conferring moral authority even on flawed protagonists. The world's attention is both easier to get these days, and more fleeting; but resistance-minded citizens can hardly do without it.

Distributor: Content Media
Production companies: Fine Point Films, Cyprus Avenue Films
Director: Brendan J. Byrne
Producers: Trevor Birney, Brendan J. Byrne
Director of photography: David Barker
Editor: Paul Devlin
Composer: Edith Progue

Not rated, 110 minutes