Friday October 11, 1996
Not every life is worth a movie, and of those only a few make it to the screen. Rarest of all is an epic true story, the very stuff of cinema, that has been transferred to film with matching intelligence, skill and elan. That has been the fortunate fate of "Michael Collins."
Though his days were cut harshly short just shy of his 32nd birthday, Collins' story, crammed with heroism and tragedy and intertwined with the fate of the modern state of Ireland, has the inevitability of myth. In life he made it possible against pitiless odds for the Irish to break free of the British Empire, and in death he symbolized the agony and unfulfilled potential of a nation divided against itself.
And though the romance, passion and excitement of the man's story stand on their own, "Michael Collins" (which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) is more alive, more provocative as a film because the issues around that life still resonate. Collins was present at the creation of the Irish tragedy, and nothing that happens on that island today can be understood without reference to his sprawling life.
Collins is most strongly remembered as "the man they couldn't catch," the architect of the armed struggle against the British and a key theoretician of modern urban guerrilla warfare whose ideas were studied and admired by Mao Tse-tung and Yitzhak Shamir.
But, as detailed in Tim Pat Coogan's definitive work "Michael Collins, the Man Who Made Ireland" (published, as is a fascinating illustrated biography, by Roberts Rinehart), Collins became as passionate about peace and negotiation as he'd been about warfare. And, though it sounds like a Hollywood scenario, he also found time to joust with his best friend for the love of the same woman.
Collins' story has intrigued numerous filmmakers over the years, including Kevin Costner, Michael Cimino, Robert Redford and John Huston, but Neil Jordan, who studied history at University College in Dublin, is the right choice to tell the story. The writer-director has been trying to do that since his first script on the subject in 1982, but it wasn't until Jordan had "The Crying Game" and "Interview With the Vampire" behind him that he could convince anyone to finance it.
From that first script on, Jordan always had 6-foot-4 Liam Neeson in mind to play the man they called "the Big Fellow," and it's more than size that makes Neeson fit the part of a leader known for his "cloudburst temperament."
An actor who does better when his characters are impetuous and larger than life ("Schindler's List") than when they're supposed to be regular folks ("Before and After," "Nell"), Neeson, who won the best actor at Venice for his work, is perfectly suited to Collins' cocky physicality. A force of nature who never calms down, always exploding, always on the run, Neeson's Collins is confidence and indomitability itself, which is just as it should be.
The film's supporting cast is equally impressive and to the point. Aidan Quinn is effective as Harry Boland, Collins' friend and rival in love, as is Stephen Rea as intelligence operative Ned Broy. Julia Roberts is a surprise choice as Kitty Kiernan, the center of the love triangle, but she handles herself well. Taking a bit of getting used to is Alan Rickman as the ice-cold, cerebral Eamon De Valera, the calculating yin of the Irish independence movement always in opposition to Collins' passionate yang.
Though Jordan was frustrated by the years it took him to make "Michael Collins," the additional skill he gained as a filmmaker is essential in its success. This is an extremely cinematic, beautifully made David Lean-type epic, helped by fluid and involving camera work by two-time Oscar-winning ("The Killing Fields," "The Mission") cinematographer Chris Menges.
Covering the turbulent last six years of Collins' life, Jordan's film is especially good at handsome and persuasive re-creations of some of the key events in modern Irish history, beginning with the doomed Easter Rising of 1916, when Britain's armed might out-and-out crushed the rebellious Irish.
Captured and incarcerated, Collins vows that in the future "we won't play by their rules, we'll invent our own. We'll be an invisible army, striking and disappearing." In practice this meant using murder and terror to dismantle Britain's formidable intelligence system, with Collins recruiting a squad of hard cases nicknamed the Twelve Apostles especially for the work.
One of "Michael Collins' " strengths is that it doesn't shirk from its protagonist's cold and ruthless streak, his facility for "bloody mayhem." Nothing is glossed over, not Irish killing nor Britain's opposing torture and murder, and as the scale of violence escalates, we get an inkling of why the passions run as deep and brutal as they do to this day.
Though the film is filled with strange-but-true events that sound like movie inventions (like a key breaking during an attempted jailbreak), it is the overarching importance and tragedy of one man's life and fate that make this such a strong and involving piece of work. Though they're often uneasy companions, "Michael Collins" shows that history and drama make a powerful combination when the mix is right.
Michael Collins, 1996. R, for violence and language. Geffen Pictures presents a Stephen Woolley production, released by Warner Bros. Director Neal Jordan. Producer Stephen Woolley. Screenplay Neal Jordan. Cinematographer Chris Menges. Editors J. Patrick Duffner, Tony Lawson. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Anthony Pratt. Art directors Arden Gantly, Jonathan McKinstry, Cliff Robinson. Set decorator Josie MacAvin. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. Liam Neeson as Michael Collins. Aidan Quinn as Harry Boland. Stephen Rea as Ned Broy. Alan Rickman as Eamon De Valera. Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan.