Life is too short not to hold grudges, and in Ireland enmities are as tenderly nursed as an invalid mother. Even when peace breaks out, Protestant marchers still commemorate their military victory of 1690. Catholic schoolkids can recite Cromwell’s crimes as if they were committed yesterday.
The conflict was made for drama, and long before Hollywood got hold of it and made films like Blown Away or the new-to-video The Devil’s Own, the best stories about Irish rebels came, not surprisingly, from Ireland and even England, where the Brits have fought the Irish independence movement too long to reduce it to a plot gimmick. Loathed or loved, the Irish Republican Army and its allies are always viewed with caution and a certain amount of respect.
Both a Hollywood entertainment and a story of the Troubles, Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own never seemed to know which it wanted to be, so it settled for being a little of both, serving up teary conflicts instead of insight and dragging in a romance between Brad Pitt and Natascha McElhone as flat and unappetizing as a glass of green beer. Oh, the scenes of Pitt in Ireland were done well enough — for which you can probably thank uncredited rewrites from Terry George. But once the movie moved to America, its Hollywood instincts took over. So we got a gunrunning Irish-American mobster, played by Treat Williams. We got endless scenes of Harrison Ford running after suspects and jawing with his due-to-retire, obviously doomed partner.
In movie theaters, the picture felt slow and vaguely familiar; now, shrunk down to a 27-inch diagonal, it looks like Hill Street Blues, or Bart Simpson’s least favorite McBain. Fake passion replaces politics; melodrama substitutes for streety reality. And by its end, Ford and Pitt are crawling around a skipperless boat shooting at each other, as the plot loses its last moorings and the movie drifts out to sea.
”It’s not an American story,” Pitt’s character is fond of advising us throughout, whenever he’s asked about the Troubles. ”It’s an Irish one.” Which is true. And which is why — for now, at least — it’s one American filmmakers can’t seem to get quite right. C