Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Guilt and Remembrance: Five Minutes of Heaven

It seems even in the UK, reality TV has had a corrosive effect on television journalism. One prominent interview show is determined to bring Joe Griffin face-to-face with the man who gunned down his brother Jim in cold blood during the height of The Troubles. Their goal is to orchestrate a symbolic handshake between the two men, which hopefully will lead to an offer of forgiveness. However, there will be no cheap “Oprah moments” in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

In 1975, sixteen year-old Alistair Little, an ardent member of the Ulster paramilitary UVF, assassinated nineteen year-old Jim Griffin while his eleven year-old brother Joe helplessly watched. Twelve years later, Little was released from prison a changed man, dedicating himself to the prevention of violence through prison counseling. That much is historically accurate, whereas the planned confrontation between the still grieving Griffin and his brother’s remorseful killer is entirely the invention of screenwriter Guy Hibbert.

The producers expect the meeting between Griffin and Little to be riveting television. However, Little harbors no such illusions. He does not expect forgiveness and recognizes he has no right to ask for it. While the guilt-ridden Little has the calm of a man resigned to his fate, Griffin is highly agitated by the prospect of facing his brother’s killer, particularly resenting attempts to humanize him. As the two approach their taping, it is clear both are broken men, deeply scarred by the events of that fateful night.

Five is not about forgiveness and it is not about redemption. It is about how an act of violence can tear a family apart, causing suffering that compounds years after the fact. Little also talks frankly about the mindset of violent extremists in terms not unlike Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, which he also applies to Islamist terrorists today.

Hibbert’s screenplay is unusually well written, with each word very deliberately chosen. Liam Neeson nicely conveys the anguished conscience beneath Little’s stoic facade. However, James Nesbitt (best known as the star of British television series like Cold Feet) gives a truly remarkable performance as Griffin, portraying him as a bundle of neuroses and insecurities. Yet there is nothing funny about his tragic depiction of human suffering. Likewise, Kevin O’Neill is equally memorable as the traumatized young Joe Griffin in the film’s flashback sequences.

To its credit, there is no place in Five for phony sentimentality. It is brutally honest in its presentation of the guilt experienced by both survivor and perpetrator alike. Directed with tight economy by the German Hirschbiegel, Five is smart, intense, and ultimately quite moving. It opens Friday (8/21) at the Angelika.