I tend to have ambivalent (at best) feelings towards most historical epics. Whether we’re talking about Lawrence of Arabia (which I still find to be highly overrated) or The Longest Day (which was mind-numbingly long and stale), they just don’t click with me. There are obvious exceptions (The Last Emperor or Empire of the Sun), but far too often, historical epics are all about the spectacle and attention to historical detail (except when they flagrantly ignore it) rather than the elements of drama that make films successful. These types of movies spend far too much time serving as stylized documentaries rather than providing us with psychological insights into what caused these events to occur and what it is about the participants in these historical moments that make them worth caring about. If we’re simply going to get a dry (albeit cinematic) rehash of matters of historical record, what’s the point? Director Neil Jordan was seemingly aware of these hazards when making his biopic, Michael Collins, and while he didn’t always successfully avoid them, he got it right most of the time to paint a (fairly biased) look into one of history’s most intriguing freedom fighters.

In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, Irish patriots were waging war against the British Empire for control of their own country for the first time in over 700 years. The splinter Irish Republic, led by their President Eamon de Valera (Harry Potter‘s Alan Rickman), were waging a futile conventional war against the British army which led to defeat after defeat at the hands of Britain’s superior numbers and arms. Things began to change when a young Michael Collins (in his 20’s and early 30’s during the film’s action), the minister of intelligence (and self-declared minister of general mayhem) decided to begin a series of guerrilla attacks against collaborators with the British occupiers until they were slowly but surely attacking high-ranking British officials and special agents working in Ireland. Despite growing tension between Collins and de Valera, Collins’ tactics finally force the British to agree to a treaty declaring Ireland a free state (while maintaining control of Northern Ireland as well as forcing the Irish government to swear allegiance to the crown). When the treaty remains unacceptable to certain segments of the Irish people, civil war breaks out with Michael Collins as the new leader of the free Irish state forced to take arms against his former companions while having his name dragged through the mud as a traitor to his country.

Liam Neeson has been experiencing a serious career resurgence as an older action hero over the last couple of years, and going back and watching a film like this or Schindler’s List, we have to ask the question of why he ever went away in the first place. While the first half of the film is fairly ham-fisted in its portrayal of Collins as a heroic figure fighting against the almost cartoonishly villainous British Empire (though I’m sure Neil Jordan was just showing real historic events without providing any counter-context for the British side), the second half of the film where Collins finds himself taking up arms against his own countrymen shows Neeson in a very complex and nuanced role. He is portraying a man torn apart between loyalty to his country and loyalty to the men who helped get him where he is today, and that struggle is written on Neeson’s face in every scene of the last half of the film. It’s not Liam Neeson’s best role but it’s another reminder of how great an actor he is. My only quibble with the film’s cast was Julia Roberts’ absolutely horrendous Irish accent and I have no idea how she managed to get cast for this film in the first place.

As mentioned, there is absolutely no doubt on whose side director Neil Jordan was on in this film. The first hour or so covers the fight for Ireland’s independence and there was an almost jingoistic fervor as we watched this scrappy band of guerrillas take on the British. There wasn’t a single British character or point of view that was painted in a positive light and the only time that the film even seemed to be introspective in terms of the Irish’s tactics was a scene where they methodically executed every single British special operative that had been sent in to take them out. However, the film picked up once the war stopped being against a foreign oppressor but rather a civil war over whether to accept England’s compromise. At that point, the film started to ask serious questions about how high the cost of peace should be, whether it’s right to compromise in the face of issues as serious as sovereignty, does a national leader have the right to turn his guns against his fellow countrymen when they employ the same tactics that he used to gain control in the first place? If the first half is simply a conventional war film, the last half is much more ambitious and thought-provoking. It’s a shame the film felt the need to tack on the unnecessary love story between Michael Collins and Julia Roberts Kitty Kearnan because it distracted from the more engaging material which should have been occupying our time.

For anyone with an interest in Irish history, Michael Collins is an educational and enlightening film, and even though I knew that it was blatantly biased against the British, Neil Jordan still managed to evoke a multitude of emotional reactions from me whenever he showed some of the historically accurate atrocities the British committed (such as driving a tank into a rugby match and slaughtering the audience). However, the film’s obvious bias and the fact that it doesn’t really develop any substance in the last half really drains much of its power. As my formal introduction to Neil Jordan’s work (The Crying Game is probably his most famous film), I could have done much worse, but I am excited to see what the rest of his body of work looks like, and for all those who like some history and truth to their films, Michael Collins may be for you.

Final Score: B+

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