History and Mystery

Michael Collins

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          DON'T KNOW MUCH about history when it comes to this Michael Collins. Wasn't he in a Yeats poem? Wasn't he hanged, or jailed, or vilified, or forgotten? Alas, sensing the prominence of, but missing the meaning about foreign heroes is a common American affliction.

          However, I do know that I'd happily sit through Michael Collins three times before I'd face Jefferson in Paris or Chaplin again. Because whatever reputation Neil Jordan may have established as an eccentric writer-director (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire), his old, well-polished screenplay about this Irish political figure manages to zip through the patterns of modern heroism while retaining its mystery. Without completely rekindling the fires of adulation for his revolutionary icon, the director keeps his story moving--in both the emotional and physical senses of the term.

          This is to Jordan's benefit, because Ireland's 20th century troubles have always seemed to the outsider so sad and confusing, and often so complex, that empathic attention seemed impossible. Ireland was for many centuries a colony of England, but at the turn of this century, some Irish chose resistance. This took many forms, from discreet political negotiation to violent rebellion. And conveniently enough, in his short life Michael Collins (like Malcolm X) took positions along this spectrum. This extra depth makes him an apt movie hero, and has apparently always been a part of his mystique: First a vindictive leader of guerrilla attacks, then a reluctant negotiator, he was eventually linked with the treaty that led to both new peace and renewed internal strife, particularly in partitioned Northern Ireland.

          Maybe he's a symbol for those who still hope to save Ireland; certainly Jordan wants to present him as one, and it helps that he has Liam Neeson as his star. Neeson's essential sincerity is matched here with a hearty sense of political adventure, such that his Collins comes across as an oversized leprechaun. Cheerily rousing his comrades at one minute, berating them the next, then finally proclaiming a compromise with an air of weary conviction, as a character this Collins is always both himself and something new--someone to follow. It also helps that his story is swept along by very brisk pacing; Jordan, Neeson, cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) and company don't waste time sitting still, even for the many political discussions.

          That's not to say they don't also present a textbook how-to course on violent insurrection. I suspect that if any Chechen rebels, Cuban underdogs, or Kurdish idealists saw just the first 45 minutes of Michael Collins, they'd be newly inspired in their causes. Not since Warren Beatty's Reds has a big-budget movie been so frank about overthrowing the state, and this time out there's less speechifying and more swift assassinations. Collins's fate was to be active in the moment when Yeats proclaimed "a terrible beauty is born"--just after the overt and failed Easter Uprising of 1916, and at a time when the Irish rebels found they could slip around unnoticed and deadly, like the Viet Cong but on the streets of Dublin.

          Jordan fails to make clear how much of a hardship English occupation was, and he's made Collins's associates (and later enemies) more like representatives of their ideas than fully fledged characters. At least the collegial Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) and the scholarly Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) come through, and Stephen Rea makes the most magic with his part as a police detective who, after tailing Collins and noting his speeches, becomes a useful turncoat. These three central figures help to erase the distraction of Julia Roberts's Kitty, the woman who was linked to both Collins and Boland; though based in fact and humbly disguised by a modest hairdo, Roberts is too obviously an American star polishing her accent. What about this long Irish tradition of great acting? Weren't there any homegrown actresses with more fire to offer?

          It's fascinating that Michael Collins has arrived with such prominence--not just for the awards won by Neeson and the movie at the Venice Film Festival, but its availability on the mallplex circuit. It may be a hard sell, because the movie is neither an effete art-house exercise, nor is it a popcorn epic. It's a substantial slice of engrossing history, as full of ideas as its hero was of bluster.

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