Review – Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania

Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania


Oh boy….

Having helped save the world, Scott Lang/Ant-Man luxuriates in a happy life with partner Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), mentor Hank (Michael Douglas) and quantum explorer Janet (Michelle Pfeffer), as well as enjoying his newfound celebrity. When one of Cassie’s experiments in contacting the quantum realm goes awry, Scott and his family find themselves transported to a fantastical world, one ruled by the megalomaniacal Kang (Jonathan Majors), a multiversal traveller seeking escape.

I think I can officially say that I burnt out on the MCU, at least when it comes to cinemas. Thor: Love And Thunder was a potent turn in quality for the larger franchise and this, combined with the never-ending unloading of new films at a rate of about three a year, the inevitable increase in their running time and a sense that there’s nothing new for me to see that would motivate to not wait a few months for cheaper streaming options has seen me give Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 a miss in cinemas. I simply can’t seem to muster the energy or the commitment any more, not when there will be a chance to watch these behemoths in digestible chunks own the line. The quality of Wakanda Forever only justified the decision for me: a near three hour string of incoherency, balancing a deadly serious narrative on grief, succession and those left behind with another about King Merman and his army of Mermen trying to take over the world, or something. I only saw that in the new year, hence why Quantumania is my first chance to articulate some thoughts on the current state of the MCU.

And it is grim. There have been MCU films I’ve disliked before – Iron Man 3, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Eternals, the aforementioned Love And Thunder – but I wouldn’t say I flat-out hated any of them really, or thought they were irredeemable. Quantumania is the moment I hit that point with the MCU. This film really is a disaster in my eyes, a production that features some of the worst issues that have come to plague the MCU and then adds in some new ones, just for you. Coming as it does with the same cast and production crew that made the excellent initial offering of Ant-Man and the acceptable if somewhat humdrum Ant-Man And The Wasp, it’s a serious and deeply concerning comedown.

Lets go through it bit-by-bit then. The plot is nothing to write home about here, little more than proof that Peyton Reed, or maybe the puppetmasters at Disney, are big fans of Star Wars, Watchmen and Dune. The tropes and the cliches pile-up and up, and by the time you get to the films’ own version of the Mos Eisley cantina, you’ll be rolling your eyes. By the time you get to the plucky rebels facing off against stormtroopers, they’ll probably have fallen out of your head. Beings that exist outside of linear time, a desert uprising with lots of weird characters, super MacGuffins and a race against time: we’ve all been here before, and so many times.

But you could get past that, you really could, it’s just that Quantumania doesn’t do anything with the associated parts to make it all worthwhile. This is a very humdrum adventure, one where the effort to place the father/daughter relationship of Scott and Cassie at the centre just doesn’t do it: it doesn’t really help that Cassie comes off an insufferable “do-something” do-gooder throughout, whose obsession with violently helping everyone she comes across, and damn anyone possibly thinking more long-term, is perhaps meant to make her appeal to a certain modern demographic. Father Scott, who likes to take a step back and consider how helping the motley collection of quantum rebels will affect his primary goal of getting his daughter and family home, is portrayed as an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy, who should be less worried about his daughter getting arrested for stealing a police car and more about how his autobiography is lessening his appeal. Quantumania makes me feel like a old man for thinking there’s a better solution for a homelessness problem then getting into a consequence-free scrap with police, and that’s a weird feeling when you finish a MCU movie.

The tonal issues that have been a problem in the larger franchise for years now are so painfully evident in Quantumania that it actually feels like a bit of a watershed moment. The constant dichotomy of life-threatening peril/low brow jokes and quips has rarely been as bad, and not just because it’s an attempt once again to mix oil with water: this time the jokes are bad, written poorly and delivered lamely, as if the cast themselves just don’t really buy into the action-comedy efforts anymore. Love And Thunder was probably worse on this score I suppose, since it went from extreme to extreme way too quickly, but Quantumania gives it a run for its money: it’s difficult as hell to get invested in Bill Murray’s character as an unexpected Quisling when he’s matching his villainy with clunky efforts to flirt wit Pfeffer’s character while gulping down a living quantum squid, or something. None of it works: not as the establishment of an antagonist, not as witty humour, not as gross-out humour. The faux-feeling sentimentality of the major plot points and the over-reliance on repeated jokes of diminishing returns certainly don’t come as a surprise from a script from Jeff Loveness, one of the main writers of Rick And Morty, a series that has faux-feeling sentimentality and over-reliance on jokes of diminishing returns as its main selling points.

Murray’s involvement itself is symptomatic of the film’s cast problem. The charm of Paul Rudd has never been as weak in the MCU as it is here, caught as he is in routinely butting heads with Cassie, with Newton doing as well as she can with an terribly written character. Pfeffer is probably the pick of the cast, still relatively new to the MCU I suppose, and trying to sell the quantum realm as a place worthy of awe and horror, but she’s let down badly by a somnambulant Douglass, who very clearly wants off the Marvel train, and a Lilly who is relegated so much in terms of screentime and narrative importance that I’m surprised they had her character’s name on the marquee. Pointless extended cameos of various actors – the aforementioned Murray, Katy O’Brian, William Jackson Harper – litter the running time, none of them able to really do much with the material, with Murray especially wasted: one wonders if his part wasn’t cut down bigtime in post given the recent allegations.

From there we have to talk about the actual villains of the piece, namely Jonathan Majors’ Kang and, sigh, Corey Stoll’s MODOK. I’ve seen Majors’ performance described as a huge saving grave of the film, and I just don’t see it: it’s an interesting character for sure, but Majors’ performance isn’t a patch on his turn in Devotion from later in the year: he’s just another bland Marvel bad guy there to occasionally monologue and claim to be the good guy, all evidence to the contrary. By the time we get to the mid-credits scene and a truly laughable introduction to the multiverse of Kangs (another Rick And Morty nod, or so it seems to me), he’s lost all sense of charisma or charm. Someone needed to tell him that delivering his dialogue in a sombre tone and occasionally pausing in the middle of a thought isn’t enough. His interactions with Rudd were cringey throughout, mirroring the similarly awful exchanges between Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill and Lee Pace’s Ronin in Guardians Of The Galaxy: a grimdark villain written to be as dour as possible, so he makes the plucky underdog hero look even more colourful.

Oh, but MODOK though. Talk about a trifecta of suck: a total waste of Stoll, especially egregious after his Yellowjacket was pretty much the worst part of the original Ant-Man; a total waste of one of the iconic Marvel villains, who deserved a lot more; and just about some of the worst, God-awful CGI I have ever seen used on an individual character. We have to acknowledge the state of the CGI industry within the Disney behemoth when it comes to this stuff, with over-worked and underpaid artists not exactly super motivated or simply able, to craft the kinds of things that are required for this sort of idea. Add on a reprehensible and unearned redemptive arc, and it all combines up to an unpalatable stew of awfulness, that drags Quantumania down a whole level all on its own.

Visually, I was struck watching Quantumania on how it seems to have become a requirement of the MCU films that their settings be as fantastical as possible, embracing the cosmic, the Lovecraftian or just the bizarre depending on what word you want to use. It’s not enough to be Earthbound now, you have to have an underwater kingdom where up is down in Wakanda Forever, or a heap of unique alien worlds in Love And Thunder or, in this case, a universe within a universe where you have free rein to have slug horses and broccoli heads and living planes and men with lasers for heads, or something. The MCU appears to have gotten a bit obsessed with this kind of spectacle, and it no longer really works for me: despite the efforts to craft unique landscapes, the increasingly hollow feel of the CGI matched with the humdrumness of the script and story, means that it just doesn’t stand out to me the way that it used to. It’s now feels more like some sub-par AI-generated fickleness. I will take the most bargain bin depiction of a skyscraper filled city as a backdrop for my superhero drama, if it comes with better characters and better narrative than Quantumania deigns to present.

Quantumania is a massive disappointment, coming as it does after two far superior entries in this particular trilogy. The MCU films seem undoubtedly to be on a downward swing now, with several poor entries to the canon in a row, with this just the latest. The “real world” issues with Jonathan Majors may yet make this backdoor effort to introduce him as the new big bad of the MCU a pointless exercise, so there really may not be anything left to recommend it soon enough. It’s a dire effort: a poor story, a poor script, a cast that doesn’t seem especially motivated and some visual effects that put a new meaning on “Must be seen to be believed”. Maybe the MCU’s tilt to television should have more of a focus going forward. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: 1972 Campaigns And Ceasefires

Bloody Sunday was not the sole reason why recruitment and support for organisations like the Official Irish Republican Army or the Provisional Irish Republican Army in this period began to truly skyrocket, but it has been acknowledged by many senior figures as a true watershed. The indiscriminate killings carried out that day seemed to have severed whatever last lingering bits of engagement that the nationalist/Catholic community in Northern Ireland had with the state and its government, and many in those same communities who had not already done so now began to look for alternatives. The various branches of the IRA, which promised protection, identity and a means of fighting back against perceived oppressors, were an obvious outlet. But that does not mean that they were going to go from strength to strength either. In the first half of 1972 both the Officials and the Provisionals either went on or maintained an offensive, but there would be missteps and miscalculations aplenty ahead of efforts to bring the fighting to a conclusion.

The Officials remained under the leadership of Cathal Goulding following the split that resulted in the formation of the Provisional alternative. His hopes that the Officials and the section of the republican movement that they represented, would now be able to craft some kind of working class consensus were essentially dashed by the growing violence of the Troubles, with sectarian hatred still far more than such idealistic visions could overcome. While the Officials had not engaged in anywhere hear as many actions as their Provisional counterparts between the time of the split and Bloody Sunday, they had still been active. Sometimes that was in defensive ways, when Volunteers took steps to defend majority-Catholic areas from attack by either unionists or the state’s security forces. Sometimes it was more offensive, such as the assassination of UUP MP John Barnhill in December 1971, carried out by three members of the Officials. And sometimes there was violence between the Officials and the Provisionals, the two factions feuding over politics, territory and perceptions that one side was being left hung out to dry by the others in terms of starting fights but not finishing them. Despite the growing strength of the Provisionals, the Officials retained a substantial enough standing in Northern Ireland, enough that when Bloody Sunday occurred they were in a position to take a more pro-active stance, quickly moving to undertake revenge attacks. Some of these were small-scale efforts to snipe at British Army personnel, but others were much more large scale.

On the 22nd February, OIRA detonated a bomb at the headquarters of the 16th Parachute Brigade in Aldershot, England. Specifically designed as a vengeance operation, it involved a car containing a large time bomb being parked next to an officers mess. Unfortunately for the Officials’ intentions, these were no soldiers in the mess when the bomb went off, they being either deployed elsewhere or in their offices. No soldiers were killed, but there were fatalities: five civilian mess workers, a gardener and a priest from the Chaplin’s Department. In the aftermath, the subject of intense condemnation, the Officials issued a statement claiming that “Any civilian casualties would be very much regretted as our target was the officers responsible for the Derry outrages”. It was to be the largest OIRA attack in Britain during the Troubles, but the nature of the outcome only propelled the organisation down the path to a a more non-violent stance.

PIRA too were not laying low. The Abercorn restaurant in Belfast was bombed on the 4th March, with two civilians killed and hundreds injured: while no group ever took responsibility, it’s largely considered to have been a Provisional operation, with it possible the upstairs bar, frequented by Army personnel, the target. The Provisionals were most definitely responsible for the next major incident two weeks later, when a car bomb was detonated in the Donegall Street area of Belfast, killing seven people. The bombing was proceeded by phone calls warning of the impending explosions, but confusion over the location of the devices resulted in authorities inadvertently evacuating some civilians closer to them. Members of the RUC were among the dead this time, but the indiscriminate nature of the explosion again resulted in the IRA taking a great deal of flak, and losing some support from local nationalist elements. Claims from PIRA that security forces had deliberately funnelled civilians towards the devices in a bid to enlarge the casualties and discredit republicans are a little hard to take seriously. Later, on the 14th April, the PIRA were able to successfully set-off dozens of bombs in a coordinated operation all across the country, though this time without fatalities.

Across the country, the levels of violence continued to remain at high levels, with the combination of bombings, sniper attacks and brief exchanges of gunfire keeping the death toll ticking up and up. On the 15th April Joe McCann of the OIRA, he who had been involved heavily at the fighting of the Falls Curfew, was shot dead by he British Army near his home: he was later found to have been unarmed. His funeral was a large affair, and in a bizarre turn Gusty Spence of the UVF wrote a letter to his widow praising McCann, thought to be in response to McCann once releasing three captive UVF men who had wandered into the Falls Road area On the night of the 13/145th May, in the border area between majority-Catholic Ballymurphy and majority-Protestant Springmartin, an extended series of gun battles were fought between members of the IRA – both Officials and Provisionals – and the UVF, with the British Army getting involved. The violence was kickstarted by a UVF car bomb that detonated outside a Catholic pub, followed by sniper attacks on survivors, which killed thee men and injured dozens. In the resulting series of gunfights several more people would be killed, including a soldier, a teenaged member of Fianna Eireann and several civilians of either religion. A week after this a unit of the OIRA “picked up” William Best, a Derry native and serving member of the Royal Irish Rangers, later killing him. Best was home on leave from a stationing in Germany, and was only 19. His death caused a great deal of outrage in the local community, and protests towards the IRA and Sinn Fein in Derry undoubtedly helped to accelerate a feeling in the Officials that their own campaign had run its course.

The political side of things continued its meandering run. Edward Heath despaired at the situation in the weeks after Bloody Sunday, stating privately that Northern Ireland was “on the threshold of complete anarchy”. He and his cabinet now began to entertain a number of desperate ideas, including a sub-partition of Northern Ireland into Protestant and Catholic sections, with the latter to be allowed to be subsumed by the south, or an arrangement whereby Dublin would be permitted joint ruling status in the North with London. More minutely, Heath also discussed the idea of withdrawing soldiers from majority-Catholic areas, in what would essentially have been a de factor recognition of a loss of control. Faulkner railed against all of thee ideas, but also against less extreme ones, such as a mandated nationalist presence in the Stormont government, which he argued would be unworkable. He also refused to contemplate a takeover of security powers in the North by London. That decision would very soon be taken out of his hands.

In the North itself, unionist opposition to any compromise or any hint of the loyalist-dominated Stormont being brought to an end remained strong, and was only getting more hardline. William Craig, Faulkner’s previous rival for the job of PM, perhaps went farthest when addressing a meeting of the Ulster Vanguard, a sort of umbrella entity designed to encompass a wide range of new loyalist organisations, where he essentially advocated for the murder of “those men and women…who are a menace to this country”.

Unionists perhaps overestimated the power that they had to influence Heath, who had enough when internment and the Army proved unable to stop the violence in the weeks and months after Bloody Sunday. On the 30th March he ordered an end to the Stormont parliament’s existence, and with it the devolved government that had been in place in Northern Ireland for over 50 years. Unionists responded with mass strikes and orchestrated disruption across Northern Ireland, but Heath was unmoved. A unionist dominated legislature in Belfast had totally failed to either create a state that Catholics could buy into, or arrest the massive amounts of violence now occurring. Westminster would instead attempt to do both itself.

And there were efforts to engage with both parts of the IRA: while espousing a public stance of all-out defiance to terrorism, the British leadership was not so gung-ho in private, and discussions were enacted. The new “Northern Ireland Office” was running things from London: its head, William Whitelaw, attempted to craft some form of reconciliation with the state for angry unionists and even angrier nationalists. To that end he arranged for the release of many internees and granted “special category status” to those members of paramilitary groups who were imprisoned, essentially recognising that members of the IRA or UVF being detained were different to other criminals: the withdrawal of this status would result in disaster in the North a decade later.

Whitelaw’s moves worked to the extent that elements of the PIRA were willing engage to a certain degree, with a provisional ceasefire from that organisation called on the 22nd June. Six members of the organisation were flown, in the strictest secrecy, to London to meet with Whitelaw. They included among their number Gerry Adams, recently released from prison, and Martin McGuiness. Adams’ status within the PIRA at the time has remained a constant source of dispute even to this day, but it seems reasonable to acknowledge he must have had some position of seniority to have been included in such a delegation, which also had Sean MacStiofan, the Chief-of-Staff. With McGuiness there is less confusion, with he most definitely being a senior member of the Derry PIRA. Both were very young men at the time, so their presence is an even greater indicator of their importance to the movement, which would only grow. The talks were brief and unproductive, as the PIRA delegation demanded British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, something Whitelaw was in position to even contemplate. The delegation was flown back to Northern Ireland, with many of its members, including Adams, back behind bars within a year. But the fact that such a meeting took place at all was telling: the British were willing to talk, which was a decidedly important thing to the thinking of both republicans and unionists as events proceeded. That said, the PIRA ceasefire soon expired.

The Officials, its leadership dissatisfied with how its post-Bloody Sunday campaign had gone and how it was perceived, called its own ceasefire on the 29th May. While elements of the OIRA would still routinely engage British soldiers, in flashpoints that were often deemed defensive or retaliatory in nature, this ceasefire held to a large degree, as Cathal Goulding now moved to undertake a new approach. In this he was opposed by plenty of members of the Officials, and there would be trouble down the line because of it. But for now, the Officials formal line was that their armed campaign was coming to an end.

No matter what though, peace did not come. The constant violence on the streets of Northern Ireland, whether it was in the form of bombs or bullets, continued, with the state as powerless-seeming as ever to actually do anything about it. In late July of 1972 they made their latest large-scale effort: an operation designed to end the “no-go” areas of Derry, Belfast and other urban centres. In the end, like so much that had happened already, the final outcome would be much less than what they wanted, and that will be the subject of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: The Mother

The Mother


The greatest gift a mother can bestow.

A special forces veteran known only as “the Mother” (Jennifer Lopez) gets out of a criminal enterprise run by former lovers Lovell (Joseph Fiennes) and Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) by turning informant with the FBI, but at the cost of her recently born daughter, that she is forced to give up for adoption in order to protect her. 12 years later the Mother lives a solitary life in the Alaskan wilderness, but is called upon to protect her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), when the ruthless killers who would user her as a bargaining chip discover where she is.

It has really been no time at all since I was last talking about Jennifer Lopez, in the underwhelming Amazon Prime vehicle Shotgun Wedding. She’s an actor has made those kinds of films, romantic comedies looking for some kind of edge to stand out, her bread and butter, but the woman has always been capable of more than that: just look at her turn in The Boy Next Door, where she gave a great performance in an otherwise poor horror film, or the even better example of Hustlers. The Mother feels like an effort from her to re-pivot: perhaps recognising that, with the greatest of respect, she is aging out of the rom-com scene, but there are opportunities there for industry veterans to pull a Keanu Reeves or a Gerard Butler.

So we get The Mother. In other hands and with a different lead – and this really could be tweaked easily enough so that the lead was some throwaway male actor – this could be a bargain bucket affair easily enough. With Lopez’ involvement, it’s automatically elevated just from a standpoint of an actor you are very familiar with trying something wholly new, and mostly succeeding. The Mother won’t be winning any awards, being too stuck on the clichés of the genre to truly standout in a world of John Wick and American Mike, but it’s not worthy of being dismissed either.

Lopez is great here and I might go so far as to say that this is one of her very best performances ever. It’s not enough that the Mother character just be tinged with regret and a bit bitter as she goes about killing the various bad guys that pop into her path, there has to be something deeper than that. Lopez provides it, in a surprisingly affecting take on a military veteran left hollowed out by a combination of PTSD, post-war turns to criminality and having to leave behind her child when things got too crazy (The Mother doesn’t mess around on that last score, with a pregnant Lopez stabbed in the belly in the first five minutes).

Zoe, a decent Paez, coming back into her life provides the opportunity for some healing, and for a demonstration of maternal instincts turned into a force of nature. But I liked that The Mother largely avoided the usual narrative signposts in that regard, with Lopez’ character maintaining a distance with her daughter throughout that only calls more attention to the small moments of affection or the alternative way of showing the same demonstrated by lessons in gun use, setting traps and why it’s a bad idea to try and make pets out of wolf cubs. Mother and Zoe are pretty much set against each other by the circumstances they find themselves in, and the two actors do a great job showcasing that wariness, that resentment but always that hint that there is more to it under the surface.

And The Mother really needs that beating heart, because so much of the rest of the experience is fairly rote. Fiennes and Bernal are our two villains, both one-dimensional in their nastiness – the former does the aforementioned stabbing, the latter, especially miscast, likes to taunt Mother about some extreme sexual scenarios they used to enjoy – and the film never is really able to get them across as anything other than cardboard cut-outs rather than characters. Mother’s quest to keep her daughter out of their clutches is fairly cliché as well, hitting the usual beats of exotic locals, brutal interrogation scenes, a mansion raid here and there and some “shocking” twists: you’ll be left wondering why they even bothered with any of this at all, given that the film only really manages to hook you in during the quiet moments when Lopez and Paez share the screen together as a fraught mother/daughter pair. Fiennes, when he turns up, almost feels like he is interrupting an actual movie.

At least The Mother can say that it makes the very most of the budget it has been allotted for the action side of things. There’s a few great sequences here that look like they may well have been made on the cheap, but were made well. A foot/car chase through the narrow streets of Havana, a midnight raid on a drug kingpin’s candle-bathed compound and then the finale itself, which bears more than a passing similarity to a similar set-up from Skyfall, are all pulled off smartly, good enough that you don’t find yourself minding too much that The Mother has a running time a fair a bit longer than this sub-genre usually allows. That chase sequence really does deserve some extra kudos: it’s really nothing too flashy, but the combination of practical effects, smart camerawork, kinetic editing and understanding of how environment plays a crucial role in tension creation all see it become an understatedly impressive set-piece. The whole film is also pretty grisly at times – one interrogation scene involves barbed wire punching and ends with a hunk of glass in the neck, just as a taste – but I think such effects are employed to good effect.

Director Niki Caro can, I think, claim The Mother as a return to form after the deeply underwhelming Mulan of 2020. This is more in line with her work previous to that, like Whale Rider and The Zookeeper’s Wife, films that may not have ben perfect but had far more thought and care put into them than the Disneyfied mess that occurred in 2020. Through the strength of Lopez and Paez performances, through the inversion of the usual tropes of the genre as it pertains to the lead character and through the skilful creation of simple but decent action scenes, I would deem The Mother a success. Despite some poor villains and a tendency to embrace cliché when it shouldn’t, it’s worth a bit of your time. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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The Finals: Index

Prologue: The Moment Of Moments

An outline of this series, and a look at just why international Finals are the spectacle that they are.

1896: A Disputed Beginning

Did football take place at the first Olympics, and if so what did it look like?

1900: The Amateurs, The Indigenous And The Students

In three very different sides we get a glimpse at the state of football at the turn of the century.

1904: A Scotsman In Canada

The first Olympic hat-trick came for an unlikely club from an unlikely player in unlikely surrounds.

1906: One Half

The Intercalated Games was never liable to last long, and neither did its football Final.

To Be Released

1908: Stadiums (10th June)

There were a lot of reasons why stadiums sprang up in this period, but it didn’t always work out.

1912: Black And White (1st July)

Moving pictures were intertwined with sport right from the start, and from 1912 they were intertwined with international Finals.

1920: John Lewis Vs Czechoslovakia (22nd July)

Czechoslovakia was mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.

1924: La Celeste Finds An Identity (12th August)

The beginnings of international football’s first era of dominance.

1928: The Cabaret Brawl (2nd September)

Uruguay and Argentina were not going to leave it on the pitch.

1930: Ants And Cicadas (23rd September)

The first World Cup Final, and part three in the Rio de le Plata finals rivalry.

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The Finals – 1906: One Half

It’s probably going in.

To read the previous entry in this series, please click here.

It is easy to forget in these days when the Olympics is an event so massive that not even a worldwide pandemic can completely stop its course, that its early years was marked by mis-organisation and failure. The 1900 and 1904 Games were heavily overshadowed by concurrent worlds fairs and by 1906 the spirit that had inflamed people in 1896 was in danger of being extinguished. That year the Olympics embarked on what was to be a once-off experiment, a break from the four year cycle that brought the Games back to Athens, complete with a football tournament. But while the larger Games were largely praised, that football tournament ended up being something of a disaster, with a Final that was only half-played. In a larger sense, the 1906 Olympic footballing tournament was endemic of many of the problems that plagued the sport in those early years, namely struggles getting teams together, games marred by violence or bad feeling and blowout scores that made a mockery of any attempt at genuine competition.

The Intercalated Games, as they have come to be known, had a strange genesis. When the modern Olympics were first cooked up many people, not least those involved on the Greek side, believed that Athens should be a permanent host of the concept, the Olympiad to remain within Greece just as it did thousands of years ago. Others, not least Pierre de Coubertin who had wanted the very first Games to be in Paris, disagreed, and hoped the Games would maintain an international ethos in its hosting. A compromise was reached, wherein an Olympic Games would be held every two years instead of four: one, following the cycle of 1896, 1900, 1904 etc, held internationally, and another, from 1902 onto 1906 and 1910, to be held specifically in Athens. The fact that Athens was not in a position, politically or financially, to hold another Games in 1902 should probably have been a clue that this was a bad idea, but organisers, worried that the Olympic movement was faltering after the poorly received Games in Paris and St. Louis, pushed ahead with the concept. In 1906 international athletes came together in Greece for the second time in a decade, and four football teams were there too.1 2

It’s here I want to pause and talk about about the kinds of problems that were common to football in those early years. International football, indeed football at every level, was not the frequently slick operation that it is today, or became a few decades after 1906. It was still in a very early stage of development, even if decades had already passed from the avalanche of codification in the latter half of the 19th century, and its rapid spread around the globe. Look back on records of this period, and you will be struck by a number of things. There’s the amount of unplayed fixtures, scratched off owing to a lack of players, or one team just choosing not to turn up at all, which could often be put down to the difficulties with transportation at the time, or just the insufficient organisation of newly formed clubs.3 There’s the reports of violence at games, whether it is between competing sets of athletes, between members of watching crowds, or those same athletes and those same crowds, reflecting a misunderstanding of the kinds of security arrangements required at these kinds of mass attendance events.4 And there are the scorelines that established the kinds of records that for many clubs and nations have not been beaten to this day, where one side so thoroughly blew away another that you’re surprised it was considered a competitive contest at all, the signs of a sport still settling in competitive terms, where professional outlets were still routinely matched up with amateurs.5 The 1906 tournament was to be a classic example of all of these things in different measures, as organisers struggled to form teams, control crowds and get games played without one half of proceedings being embarrassed to the point of anger.

The tournament would be a simple four team single knockout affair, but the cobbling together of those four teams would be anything but simple. Only two nations would actually be represented, with three of the participants representing “Greek” cities. That representing the host city was the simplest, with a squad made-up mostly of players from the Ethnikos Syllogos athletic club (not a football club primarily, known more for gymnastics). The side representing Thessaloniki was made up of members of “Omilos Philomuson”, some sort of artistic social grouping of which little information is left to be found: they would later found Iraklis FC, which still exists today. The side representing the city of Smyrna was a total hodgepodge, its XI made up of the English, French and Armenian sons of merchants and traders based in that city, with five members of the Whittal family, two different sets of brothers and all cousins, among them.6 7 You might note I said “Greek” above: this is because, despite being represented as such, neither Thessaloniki or Smyrna were politically Greek cities at the time, being instead within the Ottoman Empire, where they were better known as Selanik and Izmir. Their inclusion in the Games, especially under those names, could possibly be interpreted through the lens of Greek territorial ambitions, that would be realised at least partially in the First Balkan War of 1912 when Thessaloniki was annexed (Izmir remains a part of Turkey to this day), but this is conjecture on my part.

The stars of the show were undoubtedly the fourth side invited, the only one from outside “Greece”. Denmark might seem like an unlikely 1900’s footballing powerhouse from a vantage point of the 2020’s, but it made a lot of sense. Football arrived quite early there, thanks in no small part to the sailors and merchants exporting the game from where it was first codified. The sport rapidly caught the imagination of various strata’s of Denmark’s population. Continental Europe’s first football club, Kjobenhavns Boldklub, better known as just “KB”, was founded in 1876 and just over a decade later there were enough clubs that the Danish Football Association, the DBU, had been created. Faster even than it had in England, football advanced beyond being a gentlemanly pursuit where noted players included famed physicist Neils Bohr – a handy goalkeeper in the late 1890’s by all accounts – and on to the working classes.8 The fact that Denmark were one of the participants in the 1896 Olympic footballing showcase is a demonstration of their stature at the time in footballing circles. In 1904 Denmark would be one of the seven founding members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, and is it fair to suggest that, talent-wise, they would have been behind only England and Scotland at the time. But why did Denmark get the nod to be invited to Athens in 1906, and no one else? It might well have had something to do with the tangle of contemporary European royalty, with Greece’s King George the son of Denmark’s Christian XI.9 The DBU had actually already arranged for games for a representative side in England around the same time, so the “Denmark” team that travelled to Athens can be considered more of a representation of the Copenhagen Football Association, from whom its players were drawn.10

The tournament itself is summed up in suitably critical fashion by the contemporary Hungarian historian Sandor Barcs, who decribed things thusly: “In Athens Denmark’s all-star team had not a single serious rival. Because of this, the soccer tournament was held under very poor circumstances, in a very primitive form, in the sweltering heat, in a small town.”11 What details we have about what occurred in 1906 backs up much of Barcs’ summation, even if the larger 1906 Games actually garnered quite a bit of positive appraisal. Denmark breezed through their Semi-Final against Smyrna 5-1, where the nominally Greek opposition were reportedly unable to get out of their own half much. Poorly attended due to the expected mis-match, what spectators appeared at the Neo Phaliron Velodrome – also the site of the 1896 match – were described as practically on the pitch themselves, and might have received more entertainment from the sprint cycling events that took place in the same arena at half-time.12 The other Semi, that pitted the host city against Thessaloniki, was better attended but far more fraught, on account of it being something of a derby game. Rough play on the field and violence involving the watching crowd were both reported as the Athenians ran out 5-0 winners, something one subsequent writer diplomatically tried to describe as “characteristic passion”.13 14

That was nothing compared to the actual Final though, which took place on the 24th April. It’s impossible to know just what the Athenians expected from the contest, as their amateur players took on those from a nation of a much more advanced footballing pedigree, but presumably they were not expecting the hammering that they got. Denmark were in front within a minute, added six more within the first half-hour and walked off for their half-time break a full nine goals up to no reply, the tournament victory well and truly sewn up. The Greeks had no answer. Even in an era when such lop-sided scorelines were far more common than they are today, it was an eye-raising reverse.

Too eye-raising for the Greeks as it happened. We don’t know if it occurred because the Athenian team were just desperately throwing in the towel, whether it was a logical recognition that the mismatch meant there was no point in continuing or whether there was a degree of annoyance at the scale of the humiliation. But whatever the primary motivation, Denmark’s opposition decided not to come out for the second half of the contest. The 1906 Olympic football tournament was thus decided in just 45 minutes of football, as the game was officially declared abandoned when the Athenians did not take the field for the second 45. Denmark had their first official Olympic victory, and second if you decide to count 1896, but it came in circumstances so strange and unworthy of serious competition that it is difficult to look on it as anything other than a farce.15

It only got worse afterwards, in some respects. For reasons best known to themselves the organisers of the 1906 Games decided that determining a runner-up and a third placed team necessitated another mini tournament between the three sides that had been put to shame by Denmark: perhaps they felt that Athens refusal to fulfil the Final automatically stripped them of the right to the Silver medals. The Athenians were not of a mind to agree, and refused to take part in any subsequent games. They, nominally the host team of the tournament, were duly disqualified. Smyrna would go on to claim second with another ridiculously one-sided victory, 12-0, over the Thessaloniki artists. Athens are formally recognised as not placing at all.16 It was a strange end to a strange tournament, that did little to engender the idea that the nascent IOC was best-placed to be managing international football at the highest level. At least the Danes went home happy.

In subsequent years recognition of the 1906 Olympics has waned, with the concept of regular Athenian Games in-between international ones not lasting beyond the inaugural attempt. The 1906 events have been downgraded in importance ever since, to the point where medals awarded then are no longer officially recognised by the IOC, and not by FIFA.17 But I feel the footballing tournament at any rate deserves some recognition, being as it was the first such competition undertaken at this stage, with a clear Final and a clear winner of that Final that could claim to represent a nation.

By the time that Denmark walked away with their prize, change was already well on the way in international football. As noted above, FIFA was founded by in 1904 to act as a global governing body for the sport, and had with its membership most of Europe’s footballing powers even before the 1906 Olympics. It would take a while before FIFA would be given the full authority to take over the running of the Olympic footballing tournaments, but its creation and rapid influence over the sport was a sign that the amateur organisation of such events that coming to close. Games like that in 1906, where some of the worst aspects of modern football were very much evident, would only have accelerated that prospect. In many ways it was a watershed then: two years later, when the next “true” Olympics took place, it would have a much more professional look.

To go to the index, please click here.


  1. George Hirthler, “Celebrating Pierre de Coubertin: the French genius of sport who founded the modern Olympic Games” from (Accessed 31/03/2023)
  2. Bill Mallon, “Athens 1906” in Encyclopaedia Of The Modern Olympic Movement (2004), edited by John E. Findling and Kimberley D. Pelle, p. 45
  3. David Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round: A Global History Of Football (2006), pp 54-55
  4. Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy & John Williams, The Roots Of Football Hooliganism: An Historical And Sociological Study (1988), pp 74-91
  5. Take a look at any lists of results from the earliest footballing competitions, and you will see a large amount of victories by four goals or more. Even just within this series it has been the case. 18 of the first 27 games of recognised Olympic football, 1900-1912, concluded with scorelines like this.
  6. Søren Elbech and Karel Stokkermans, “Intermediate Games of the IV. Olympiad: Football Tournament” from (Accessed 31/03/2023)
  7. Bill Mallon, The 1906 Olympic Games (2015), p. 92
  8. Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen & Mike Gibbons, Danish Dynamite: The Story Of Football’s Greatest Cult Team (2014) pp 4-5
  9. See Footnote #6
  10. Ibid
  11. Mallon, p. 93
  12. See Footnote #7
  13. Goldblatt, p. 137
  14. Stuart Laycock & Philip Laycock, How Britain Brought Football To The World (2022), “The Countries”, p. 8
  15. Olympic Football Tournament (Athina 1906)” from (Accessed 31/03/2023)
  16. See Footnote #6
  17. Neither the IOC records at or the FIFA information on lists events from 1906.

Photo Credit

An image of the Denmark/Smyrna Semi-Final of the 1906 football tournament. Photo in the public domain.

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Review: Air



“We call it…shoe”.

In 1984, Nike is the trailing third placed company when it comes to the basketball shoe market, far behind their main competitors at Converse and Adidas, considering shutting down that aspect of its business. Talent scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) decides the best response is a risky all-or-nothing effort to sign one of the hottest young talents to ever enter the NBA: 18-year-old Michael Jordan. To do so he will need to rally a team that includes put upon Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and wisdom-spouting CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), and find a way to convince Jordan’s mother Deloris (Viola Davis) to take a chance on him and the company.

Leave it to Hollywood to find one of the few ways to make the Michael Jordan story primarily about a bunch of white guys. That was what I was thinking when I first saw the trailers for Air, a Black List script from a few years ago, and again when it popped up in streaming,. Yes, he had a good cast, and yes, it had a director I respected, but come on: a biopic about a shoe, when the guy wearing the show could fill three movies? Well, I’m happy to be proven wrong this time. The story of the “Air Jordan” brand was enough to get nearly a whole episode of The Last Dance and a 30 For 30 documentary before this, now it has a pretty good feature film to add to the mythos.

Air gets past its issues in a number of ways. The first, and most important, is the cast. Damon is great in this role, a compulsive gambler who decides to extend that trait into his personal life, and go all in on a college basketball player whose knee could blow out next week. It would be easy for Vaccaro to come off as entitled, reckless, whiny and a sad sack, but Damon manages to deftly weave his way around those pitfalls and make Vaccaro instead a very easy guy to root for. Sure, it’s easy to get behind him because we know how this story will end, but Damon does the work regardless, showcasing a guy who seems to tie his identity to winning, and grabbing Jordan for Nike would be a hell of a win.

Thus set-up, the picture becomes surprisingly engaging, framing itself around Phil Knight’s guru-esque pearls of wisdom (Affleck isn’t in this a whole lot, working more as an extended cameo of occasional comedy: this is I don’t know how many films he’s done with Damon, the last being Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel). Vaccaro has to take risks and hope they pay off, with his visit to the Jordan family home a big centre-piece, as is the pitch meeting to Michael later on. The man himself is never actually seen from the front, a smart choice since you might get drawn back towards the above thinking of white guys taking over his story if that was the case: while Jordan is a critical figure in Air, it’s really more the story of Vaccaro beating big and winning.

Air also saves itself cleverly at the conclusion. But for a late wrinkle in the tale, it really would be the story of a corporation making good off the success of a minority athlete, essentially a well-made, well–acted ode to capitalism (complete with a scene where a character dismisses the use of foreign sweatshops to make the actual shoes), which is not so good. But by focusing, in the third act, on how the Jordan family – specifically the Jordan mother, played with typical aplomb by Davis, who’s sees opportunity in Vaccaro’s efforts to build Jordan a legacy to go with the shoe – upended the paradigm of sports shoe endorsements, altering forever the nature of that kind of athlete/sponsor relationship, Air manages to do enough to dispel the notion that it is little more than a propaganda film for Nike. Instead, it’s a depiction of how faith in the abilities of someone – taking that fateful bet – is enough sometimes to fundamentally change things in a way that makes them fairer.

Affleck brings his usual good directorial sense, matching it well with Alex Convery’s script. There are some really great moments here, such as Vaccaro’s first explanation for why he thinks Jordan is the man to bet it all on, going over the circumstances of his game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship not from a surface–level statistical viewpoint, but by looking at Jordan’s body language: that’s followed up by a fiery monologue from the same character later, as he tries to get at just why Jordan is so great, how his career will go and how it will become part-and-parcel with the American story-telling convention of rise, fall and rise again.

However, it’s not all good. Air will undoubtedly make you roll your eyes a little with its many over-the-top efforts to fully get you to situate the film in the mid-1980s, with an opening montage of famous pop-culture moments right from the off before your ears will be battered by a constant collection of hits from the same era, filling every scene. It’s like Affleck is trying to do what James Gunn did with Guardians Of The Galaxy, but it ends up more like Suicide Squad: the songs are more of a weird distraction really, it feeling like the film is stopping dead every three minutes to remind you that it is set in the 80s. And the real Michael Jordan’s involvement is clear enough, the man himself having gotten several changes made to the script to add new characters and eliminate others, which means that Air does tend to err more towards the side of hagiography.

I suppose these are forgivable negatives though, evidence more of a certain lack of faith in the strength of the production than anything else really. Affleck tends not to direct bad movies, generally only going as low as average. The man behind Argo brings it again here, in another period piece that makes good with its excellent cast, in finding a way to subvert the corporate glorification before the conclusion and in offering to the movie-watching public an alternative view on the rise to greatness of Michael Jordan. It has its issues, but this was far better than I was expecting. Keep in mind that corporate capitalism is nothing good for the world, and focus instead on the people involved, and you’ll do fine. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1972)

The Troubles essentially began in Derry, when the seething sectarian and political tensions of the period erupted into the Battle of the Bogside. Two-and-a-half years after that seminal event, Northern Ireland had become engulfed in a level of violence that was hard to fully contemplate: hundreds had died in the last 12 months, while the leadership in Belfast and London struggled to do anything other than place more hardline military resources into the country. In the midst of all this the civil rights movement, whose existence had been one of the factors behind the inevitable explosion, continued to operate, albeit increasingly overshadowed by entities like the Provisional Irish Republican Army. On the 30th January 1972 it would be a march of NICRA elements that would be the scene for the next major flashpoint of the Troubles, a massacre of such savagery that it has become in many ways the defining moment of the entire conflict.

Derry had remained a hotbed of sectarian violence and engagements between militant republicans and state security forces, ever since the Battle of the Bogside. “Free Derry”, that majority-Catholic section of the city that had been the core of the 1969 clashes, remained largely outside of the control of the state and its forces, its entrances barricaded and law and order in the hands of of either the Official IRA or PIRA. Units of these groups openly manned barricades that the British Army seemed incapable, or unwilling, to remove, and by the start of 1972 daily clashes between the respective sides had become commonplace. Numerous killings, of IRA members, British Army soldiers, RUC or civilians, had taken place in Derry over the previous 12 months, fuelled by the introduction of internment and the increasingly free rein that the British Army had in terms of who they could and could not engage with on the streets. The days when their presence had been welcomed in Derry were long gone.

On the 18th January 1972 Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, issued a ban on all parades and marches until the end of the year. While the order had the feel of a pan-sectarian measure meant to eliminate the possibility of events like Orange Order marches as well as those from the nationalist side, the measure was mostly aimed at the rise of anti-internment demonstrations that the structure of NICRA had made a primary focus. Four days after the ban, an anti-internment march went ahead in Derry, one that travelled to an internment camp near the area: members of he British Army’s Parachute Regiment were on hand that day, and used rubber bullets and baton charges to force the demonstrates back, with their heavy-handed approach caught on camera. This particular regiment had already gained a reputation for brutality and being unrestrained, having been the perpetrators of the Ballymurphy massacre the previous year.

NICRA was not to be disabused by the violence. Indeed, provoking such reactions were part-and-parcel of the way that they operated. As such, they decided to plan another large-scale anti-internment demonstration for the 30th January, a Sunday, with the intention of assembling the marchers in the Bogside area, then proceeding to the city’s Guildhall. Among the key organisers was Ivan Cooper, an SDLP MP. He had made efforts beforehand to try and insure that no members of the IRA were present on the day, though it was acknowledged later that some of the designated NICRA stewards were probably Volunteers. In response to the planned march, the authorities decided to allow it to proceed part of the intended route, but to divert it before it could reach the Guildhall, fearing that its presence in that part of the city would inevitably lead to rioting. The 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment was among those parts of the security forces assigned to Derry for the march, with an expressed remit to arrest those found to be rioting, though these were to be separated and distinguished from peaceful marchers.

The march, consisting of somewhere between 10’000 and 15’000 people, set off in the afternoon. The security forces had strategically placed barricades at select points, protected by barbed wire and armed soldiers, to impede the ability of the marchers to get to the Guildhall. At first this effort appeared to have worked, with the leaders of the protesters leading the march on a different route when they found their way barred, intending to hold the closing rally closer to “Free Derry Corner”. However, a number of participants in the march broke off to throw missiles at soldiers manning barricades, with the soldiers responding with rubber bullets, CS gas and water cannons. It was a repeat of a scene that had become all too common in those days, common enough that accounts of the day since have insisted it was seen as nothing out of the ordinary.

What was not ordinary was what happened next. Members of the Parachute Regiment had taken up position in a derelict three-story building on William Street, where these initial clashes were taken place. Spotted by youths, they were the subject of more missiles until, shortly before 4PM, they opened fire with live ammunition, wounding two civilians, one of whom would die of his injuries several months later. Members of the regiment would claim that the targets had be seen holding possible nail bombs, but this is strongly disputed.

Things escalated horrifically from there. The soldiers were ordered to move beyond their barricades in order to arrest “yobbos” but were specifically told not to engage in an in-strength chase down of the entire march: soldiers on the ground ignored these orders, and instead set off in pursuit of the larger crowd in armoured cars and in large numbers. Two people were knocked down by the vehicles as the soldiers chased people to the borders of the Bogside. There was now no possibility of distinguishing those who had been hurling missiles at the soldiers with those who were engaged in a peaceful protest march, as the Parachute Regiment’s actions had simply herded them together. The soldiers waded into the crowd using rubber bullets, or their guns as clubs. One group, seeing elements of the crowd throwing missiles – that were falling well short – took position behind a low wall and opened fire with live rounds. Six people were killed, and another wounded. There was a panic, and a significant group of the marchers ran into nearby car parks, with soldiers in pursuit: there was no easy exit, and the fire of the soldiers killed three more and wounded ten others, with at least one paratrooper recorded as firing indistinctly from the hip. Pursuing and firing through different ends of one of the car parks, soldiers killed four more and wounded an additional two.

The shooting had lasted little more than ten minutes, with around 100 or so rounds expended. At the end of it, 26 people had been shot. 13 of them died that day, with another dying of his wounds later. Seven of them were teenagers. Seven had been shot in the back or the back of the head, another while waving a white handkerchief while attempting to help another victim. Despite claims from members of the regiment that many of the victims had been spotted holding arms or carrying nail bombs, subsequent accounts and inquiries have determined that every last one of them was unarmed. The soldiers took no casualties.

No bullets or bombs were recovered from the scene of the incident to back up claims that the soldiers had been fired upon or threatened with explosives, though subsequent inquiries established that a sniper of the Officials may have fired one round at soldiers, missing, after the shooting had started, and that another Volunteer may also have fired a few shots from a pistol after the shooting had begun, again missing (in the latter case it was not even noticed by soldiers, with the eye-witnesses coming from the nationalist side). No non-military witness of the days events – marchers, local residents, and journalists from Britain and Ireland – have backed up the soldiers claims of obvious attacks being made on them by such weapons. Certainly, it seems likely that there were armed members of the IRA present in Derry that day, but they did not engage the Parachute Regiment to any significant degree, and certainly not to any degree that would justify the kind of actions the soldiers undertook.

The aftermath was a mix of the tragic, the violent and the farcical. Photos and video of the events of the day were freely available very shortly afterwards, with the sight of Catholic priest Father Edward Daly desperately trying to move one of the victims out of danger, waving a blood-stained handkerchief as a makeshift white flag, searing itself into the collective memory quickly. Within a short time elements of the British government began to insist on the Army line, that the soldiers had merely returned fire against gunmen and bomb throwers: when Reginald Mauding stated this in the House of Commons Bernadette Devlin, released from prison and having witnessed the events of what was already being called Bloody Sunday first hand, walked across the chamber and slapped him. She had not been permitted to speak that day, and was duly suspended from Parliament. The funerals of the victims were held a few days later, and were enormous affairs. A national day of mourning was declared in the south, which came along with a general strike in protest. The British Embassy in Dublin existed in a state of siege from angry protestors for the days afterwards, its staff evacuated, until the Garda cordon around it was eventually overwhelmed and the building burned down. Patrick Hilary, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, travelled to the UN and demanded that an international peacekeeping force be sent to Northern Ireland. IRA recruitment, and support, soared on either side of the border, and for years afterwards veterans of the Troubles would pinpoint Bloody Sunday as the key radicalising factor.

Over the course of the following decades, two major investigations would be launched into the events of Bloody Sunday. The first, the Widgery Inquiry, was convened shortly after the events in question and became mired in controversy and scorn when its final report essentially backed up the British Army’s accounts, and blamed the march organisers for the whole affair, describing the Army’s actions that day as merely “bordering on the reckless”. It was decried as a whitewash, and satisfied no one on the nationalist side of the divide. Years later, the Labour government of Tony Blair would convent the Saville Inquiry, which took a longer and more measured approach to investigating the events of the day. Its findings, published nearly forty years after Bloody Sunday, exonerated the victims completely, and savaged some of the British Army accounts of the day. Subsequent British governments have formally apologised for what occurred. At time of writing, prosecutions of some of the soldiers involved remain in a state of flux.

For the fear of repeating myself, Bloody Sunday marked a new and terrible low in the status of Northern Ireland, and would leave lasting scars in Derry and the nationalist community. If it wasn’t already clear, it was now obvious that the British Army did not seem to be in Northern Ireland to protect nationalists or Catholics, and more and more the likes of the IRA, in whatever guise, seemed to be the natural alternative. Events like Bloody Sunday only exacerbated the conflict, providing new recruitment opportunities for the IRA, and deepening the disdain for which a huge proportion of Northern Ireland’s citizens held the state and its security forces. More than any of that it was an immense tragedy, for the victims and their families, one made more painful by the needlessly lengthy quest to get some measure of justice for those innocent people, gunned down for no good reason at all.

1972 was already off to an extremely bad start, and the events of that Sunday would soon propel a long line of new violent incidents. The Troubles were past their opening phase, and now seems like an opportune time to take another brief break of a week before we continue on with our analysis of the early years of the Troubles.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review: How To Blow Up A Pipeline

How To Blow Up A Pipeline



In the middle of the Texan desert eight individuals come together with one goal: to build a series of homemade explosives, and use them to enact a major sabotage of a local oil pipeline. There’s Native American Michael (Forest Goodluck), angry at his tribes loss of land; terminally ill Theo (Sasha Lane), whose rare form of leukaemia can be traced to growing up next to a chemical plant, and her more hesitant lover Alisha (Jayme Lawson); Theo’s friend Xochitl (Ariela Barer), who sees violent action as the only way to stop ecological disaster; Texan farmer Dwyane (Jake Weary) who lost a major portion of his land to the pipeline; student Shawn (Marcus Scribner), trying to take a much more pro-active step; and free living couple Logan (Lukas Cage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth), with the latter hiding some serious secrets. Together, the group confronts the practical and ethical questions when it comes to the sort of action designed to shine a light on big oil’s uncaring destruction of our climate.

Towards the conclusion of this film, one of the characters issues the equivalent of a manifesto, and describes the efforts to actively sabotage the infrastructure of fossil fuels as “an act of self-defence”. The debate over the moral status of that kind of statement dominates How To Blow Up A Pipeline, as every character in this cobbled together crew of would-be ecoterrorists contemplates what they want from the world and whether their method of getting it is is really the best of ways. By the end, a very decided answer has been given by the filmmakers, but the audience is left with that same thought-provoking quandary.

It’s one thing to slash the tyres of SUVs, as Xochitl does regularly. It’s one thing to get into a fight with the men who have come to reclaimed Native land to work on oilfields. It’s one thing to spray-paint Federal property with slogans. It is another to make a very large bomb, multiple bombs, and then use them to blow up a section of pipeline. In fairness to the film, it does not shirk from a discussion of the consequences: the group of bombers acknowledge that their cause will be easily painted as immoral and terroristic, and that their goals of driving up the price of fossil fuels to an unsustainable level will inordinately effect those of low-income first and foremost. Late on, there’s very potent accusation that at least one of the bombers is acting from a place of unrestrained ego, an arrogant mind state that they and only they can be the final arbiter of right and wrong on such a campaign, and it doesn’t really get much pushback either, making me think of The West Wing and the “They’ll like us when we win” sentiment. But when thinking about these kinds of questions, you come back to that closing statement again and again: an act of self-defence.

Director Daniel Goldhaber tries to create something of a broad-tent in his would-be bombers, their backstories and motivations parsed out in a regular series of flashbacks as the bombs are constructed. There’s no real arguing with the likes of Xochitl, whose mother died in a “freak” heatwave, or Theo whose time on Earth is limited by both chemical plant fumes and the expense of medication, or Dwayne whose home has been actively destroyed by the unholy union of state overreach in non-consensual sale of property and oil companies with more political influence than can ever be considered healthy in a democracy. But what about the rest of us, not in such dire circumstances or with such potent motivations? How To Blow Up A Pipeline treats the question in something of a lackadaisical way I suppose, as if it deems the climate threat such an obvious state of affair that extreme actions to combat at should just be taken in stride. Such an approach is rather compelling really, and while there is definitely a case to say that Goldhaber isn’t interested in giving the opposing viewpoint much of a look in the film – one character goes as far as to declare he isn’t interested in building anything when it is put to him that it can take centuries to build something and seconds to burn it down – does the hard work to get you behind this particular group of terrorists. The enemy remains largely faceless, and that too has its appropriateness.

Outside of the flashbacks, Goldhaber is able to create a very effective feeling of tension in he air as we follow the group coming together, making their bombs and then placing them correctly. Elements of the heist movie gene are certainly at play – Goldhaber has specifically noted Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs as an influence – right down to the pre-plan sit-reps or the way that the crew split up to actually institute the carefully orchestrated plan, the film cutting between them all and the various ticking clocks, literal and metaphorical, on display. I wouldn’t say that this film is an actors showpiece really, but it does allow for some simple, understated performances to make a big impression, most notably that of Goodluck and Weary, the senior members of the group whose quiet masks deep inner pain and frustration at their circumstances.

I can’t really say if How To Blow Up A Pipeline convinced me of its argument, and there is a least one significant dodge in terms of this type of violent action potentially ending not just in reduced profits for oil companies, but in loss of life. That question isn’t addressed, and it is a critical one for the future, if such acts of eco-terrorism, or maybe we should use the term eco-militarism, become commonplace. It’s all well and good to try and blow up a pipeline, a piece of metal, but what comes next? But I cannot deny that Goldhaber’s movie made me consider some things regards how ordinary people should be approaching this issue. It made me consider that we might be rapidly approaching the point where constructive dialogue with bad faith actors, the kind who think city centres being littered with SUVs or planning permission for chemical plants being granted too easily or a constant sense of compromise is what’s acceptable, will no longer be an option when the ecological destruction of the biosphere is what’s on the line. More than that, it’s a well put together alternative thriller, one that does its best to offer that broad tent view to this brand of environmentalism, marrying it with an effective heist-esque narrative. Some may disagree with fundamental parts of the films message, but it’s a debate worth having. How To Blow Up A Pipeline may yet be seen as a seminal moment in environmental filmmaking, and I sense it could be the kind of production to garner greater controversy in years to come for the things that it might inspire. It’s a thinker, and that’s a great thing in itself. Highly recommended.

(All images are copyright of Neon).

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Ireland’s Wars: 1971 And PIRA’s First Campaign

The deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland as 1970 ended and 1971 began was summed up nicely by two well-publicised quotes from Reginald Maulding, then Home Secretary. In a news conference Maulding used the unfortunate phrase “an acceptable level of violence” when describing what the state was would tolerate from the IRA, all but admitting that the said state was incapable of resolving the issues within Northern Ireland completely. Maulding is better known for his succinct summation of how intractable the problems within Northern Ireland were when, after flying out of Belfast following a round of unsuccessful talks, he told a steward “What a bloody awful country” ordering a large Scotch to dull the pain/

One would not envy the task put before Maulding and other political leaders at the time. Disturbances and violence of a sectarian nature were becoming all too commonplace. The RUC was an active target, while any shred of support that the British Army initially had upon their deployment to the streets had gone up in smoke in the Summer of 1970. Unionist hardliners were still opposing any effort at enacting political reforms designed to allay the frustrations and unhappiness of the Catholic community. And, starting towards the end of 1970 and on into 1971, the Provisional Irish Republican Army was embarking on its first sustained campaign of coordinated activity.

It began with bombings. In the Autumn of 1970 elements of the Provisionals had begun to use explosives, and would evolve to use them in a variety of ways: attached to cars used by security forces, against targets of infrastructure as had been done before and against businesses deemed for whatever reason to be hostile to their cause. It will not be possible for me to stop and examine every individual bombing committed by the PIRA in this period, simply because the scale of them was so enormous: by the end of 1970 over 150 bombings would be attributed to the PIRA, and by the end of the following year that number had increased over six fold. It became an almost normal part of the background of life in Northern Ireland, especially in the larger urban areas, and the fact that the Provisionals were able to successfully detonate so many devices established them, very quickly, as one of the primary foes of unionists and the state’s security forces. That state paid a high cost for the bombings, as insurance companies often refused to pay out to cover the damage, leaving Belfast or London to feel obligated to do so.

Members of the IRA were becoming ever more familiar with the construction, correct placement and large-scale effects of bombs, which if used in the right manner could produce consequences of a major political nature out of all proportion to the effort involved, to say nothing of the people killed (though many of the bombings would occur without any casualties, at least for a time). At that time such devices were hard to spot if placed correctly, and very difficult to trace back to individuals once they had gone off. The goal was to impose on opponents the idea that such republicans forces could target who they wanted and kill as they wished, and in this they were at least somewhat successful. This mattered within republican circles as well, where the simmering feud with the Official IRA frequently broke out into actual violence, with fatalities recorded on each side in the early years of the 1970s.

February and March of 1971 were critical months. On the 6th of February the Provisionals killed the first British soldier to die in the Troubles, Gunner Robert Curtis of the Royal Artillery, as that regiment tried to control a riot on the streets of Belfast. The same day saw a Volunteer and a civilian killed in various disturbances. Curtis’ death was the sign of a growing amount of active engagements between the IRA in its various forms and the security forces, characterised by RUC and British Army patrols coming under sniper fire in built up areas or brief exchanges of fire on the streets. The IRA may not have been very well-armed, often relying on Second World War-era weaponry, but they had more than enough to strike quickly and melt away into side streets, alleys and the general population, where it was difficult for regulars or police to strike back. Such attacks now began to take place with a frequency as alarming as there was for the bombings, sometimes occurring in the midst of other disturbances and violence.

That same February a mine meant to kill soldiers instead killed five members of the BBC staff out to repair a damaged transmitter in rural Tyrone. The UVF exploded a bomb on a statue of Wolfe Tone in St Stephens Green, Dublin. Two RUC men were shot and killed in Ardoyne. Then, on the 10th of March, the IRA demonstrated their capacity for a more targeted form of killing, when they shot dead three members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers who had been off-duty drinking in a Belfast pub: two of the dead men were teenagers. The “Scottish Soldiers Killings” were especially reviled by unionists and the government: aside from the fact that it was soldiers who were targeted, the nature of their deaths, they lured from the pub and then essentially executed in a manner that called back distinctly to the Irish War of Independence, was deemed especially abhorrent. The undercurrent was the capability it suggested, that the PIRA could strike at will against those in and out of uniform. For the British Army, these killings would have have been especially influential, with many accounts of the era noting that it was deemed a serious turning point, when soldiers arriving into Northern Ireland more willing to take a harder line in pursuit of their assigned tasks. The three soldiers’ funerals were huge affairs, and prompted a major movement from unionist circles for James Chichester-Clark to use harsher methods against republicans militants.

On a political level the PIRA campaign, in lockstep with the violence from unionists paramilitary groups and the never-ending sense of disturbances, was having a major political effect. Chichester-Clark, his time in charge easily characterised as a constant deterioration in stability, would resign in March after failing to get approval from London for tougher security measures, to be replaced by Brian Faulkner. He had been the coming man in unionists political circles for some time, one of the initial favoured to succeed Basil Brooke in 1963 and then Terence O’Neill in 1969, and many considered him the most capable person that the Ulster Unionist Party had to offer. His experience as Minister for Home Affairs in the 1950s, when he had been at the forefront of efforts to end the threat of the Border Campaign, also gave many unionists hope that he was best placed to bring an end to the violence. There were some early positive signs, with his initial cabinet including many moderate members and, to the shock of many unionists, a Minister from the Northern Ireland Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s first non-unionist cabinet minister (albeit still a Protestant). But he also moved to give security forces freer reign to engage their opponents, stating they had the authority to open fire on those “acting suspiciously” without waiting for higher orders. Such things inevitably backfired when perceived innocents were killed, such as in the case of two young Catholics shot dead by soldiers in July. The military claimed the dead were in possession of guns and explosives, locals insisted otherwise. The recently formed Social Democratic and Labour Party, a new grouping of anti-unionist MP’s that constituted a mix of NICRA and trade union figures, with Gerry Fitt and John Hume as its leading lights, would soon walk out of Stormont in protest at the lack of an independent inquiry into these killings. Faulkner could thus be seen as being hemmed in, facing unionist hardliners on one side, and angry opposition on the other, with no end to the violence on the streets,

Much of Faulkner’s early tenure as Prime Minister revolved around the question of internment. Imprisonment without trial owing to suspected membership of entities like the IRA, or suspected support for entities like the IRA, was something that many in unionist circles were calling out for, and they fully believed that Faulkner would be the man to implement it. After all, he already had before, back in the days of the Border Campaign, and the measures taken then had met much success. But some were hesitant about going back to those days. Internment was an extreme step, and if used incorrectly or in too broad a fashion, it was liable to create a worse situation than would have existed before. But Faulkner seemed to think that his government had few options left to try and arrest the growing chaos, and there were concerns that if the government failed to introduce internment then more and more unionists would determine they had to take the law into their own hands to combat nationalist militias. Internment was duly legalised but, as many feared, its implementation would prove yet another disaster.

The immediate result of the internment authorisation was “Operation Demetrius”, which went ahead on the morning of the 9th August. Thousands of British soldiers and Northern Irish police spent the morning rounding up hundreds of IRA Volunteers or suspected IRA Volunteers, along with a host of others deemed to be too sympathetic to the IRA or nationalist republicanism. The event was a mess right from the start: RUC records had failed to adequately account for the growing membership of the PIRA, so many Volunteers were missed, aside from those that were already living on the run. Soldiers and police dispatched to such homes found them without the wanted suspect, and often a father or brother was arrested instead. Some of these people were subsequently treated brutally in confinement, subjected to sensory deprivation, refusal of sleep or being forced to stay in stress positions for an extended time: the British would later be at pains to use phrases like “special experimental interrogation treatment”, but torture was torture. A huge amount of the initial arrests were released shortly after their initial arrest, and the same pattern repeated for the first six months or so of the internment regime, but they were often released with a grudge, easily characterised as now being radicalised and more likely than ever to support the IRA.

Internment would continue for the next four years of the conflict, with the vast majority of those arrested of a nationalist persuasion. It was another disaster for the British and Northern Irish states, engendering huge bitterness in the population that was pre-dominantly the target, and widespread condemnation on the international level. The inefficiency of the arrests, the casual brutality inflicted on those rounded up, the sub-standard conditions of the facilities in which they were kept and the communal outrage that simply fuelled more violence, all point to the policy being one of the worst mistakes ever committed by someone in a leadership position during the period, and on a par with events like the 1916 executions or the Conscription Crisis in terms of those in a position of power shooting themselves in the foot in trying to militantly stamp out opposition.

And of course the introduction of internment provoked a direct short-term response on the streets, with the death toll of the Troubles shooting up in the remainder of 1971. Before internment started 31 people had been killed that year; in the next three weeks, the death toll was 35, with much attention paid to the so-called “Ballymurphy massacre” in the days after Demetrius was implemented, when British soldiers shot and killed 11 civilians in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast over several incidents, allegedly while engaging with armed republicans, though subsequent inquiries denied this. By the end of the year the overall total ofdead would be 150, a mix of soldiers, police, IRA members and civilians. Engagements between various elements of the IRA and state security forces began to occur with alarming regularity, sometimes lasting hours, and PIRA’s bombing campaign maintained its intensity. Unionists militias maintained their own activities attacking Catholic businesses and other areas. Across many urban areas barricades made of burned out vehicles and other debris were now a very common sight at the entrances to majority Catholic areas, with a commiserate breakdown in public services like transport. Civilian flight was inevitable, with many refugees heading south to escape the growing conflagration. Strikes were organised to protest internment and the killings by the British military. Reading the daily accounts of what was happening, one is struck by how difficult it becomes to separate the signal from the noise, to fully understand the extent of the bloodshed and to not simply see the various dead and wounded as numbers.

A small smattering of examples might suffice to paint a picture. On the 3rd September one-year-old Angela Gallagher was killed in the crossfire of an engagement between the IRA and the British Army in the Falls area of Belfast, and Ulster Defence Regiment member Francis Veitch was killed by a sniper while on guard duty outside a base in Fermanagh. On the 14th of September two members of the British Army, John Rudman and Martin Carroll, were shot dead in separate incidents in Tyrone and Derry respectively. On the 9th October Winifred Maxwell, a civilian, was killed in a UVF bombing of a pub in Belfast, with the blast injuring over a dozen others. On the 23rd of that month five people were killed: IRA members Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire were shot by the British Army while warning residents of the Falls of an impending raid; Sean Ruddy, Thomas McLoughlin and Robert Anderson, all allegedly members of the IRA, were shot dead by the Army when spotted trying to rob someone leaving a bank in Newry. On the 11th of November Dermot Hurley and Walter Moore, both members of the RUC, were shot dead by the IRA outside a barracks in Oldpark, Belfast. On the 29th of that month the body of a British soldier, Robert Benner, was found in Co Louth, he having been shot dead while off-duty and dumped there. On the 14th December 16-year-old Martin McShane was shot dead outside a youth centre in Coalisland, Tyrone, by the British Army, who claimed he had been armed at that time, something strongly disputed since. The last death of the year connected to the Trouble was Jack McCabe of the PIRA, who was killed when a bomb he was making in a Dublin garage exploded prematurely.

As I said, this is just a sampling, a random notation of what was happening just about every day during this period. I hope I am getting across just why it would be difficult for me to examinee every incident that resulted in bloodshed in precise detail, as such an endeavour would take many years. Instead, I hope I am getting across just how it must have felt at the time, with more people dying nearly every day, how chaotic and dangerous the situation had bee allowed to become.

The latter weeks of 1971 were also marked by a series of much more devestating bomb attacks from both sides of the divide. On the 2nd November the Red Lion pub on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, which flanked an RUC station, was bombed by the PIRA, who walked in, planted the device while pointing guns at the people inside, then announced they all had ten seconds to get out. Some of the patrons were unable to get out quick enough owing to a locked side door, and three people were killed: it was theorised that the placement of the explosive, combined with a bomb left at another nearby building, was done in an effort to collapse the RUC station, which did not happen. One month later the UVF hit back, bombing McGurk’s Bar on Belfast’s Great George Street. The unit assigned to the task allegedly meant to target a different nationalist pub, but found it too heavily guarded, so left their bomb outside McGurk’s: when it went off it caused the building to collapse, killing 15 people, with subsequent disturbances resulting in the death of a British soldier. Authorities attempted to spin a narrative that the bomb had gone off inside the bar where it was being built by the IRA, but this has long since been proven a fantasy, and a great deal of bitterness has followed in the wake of the attack, with accusations of state collusion with the UVF a common theme. A month later the PIRA enacted their own retaliation, bombing the Balmoral Furniture Company showroom in the Shankill, killing four people and wounding many others, with two of the victims under two-years-old: this bombing had a particular effect on the unionist community, with many citing it as a radicalising factor in their decision to join either the UVF or the recently formed Ulster Defence Association, an umbrella grouping that had within its remit several different loyalist organisations. It’s difficult, with the benefit of hindsight, to view the bombings as anything other than pointless slaughter: in terms of tangible effects on the evolution of the conflict, all they seemed to do was drive up support for entities like the PIRA and the UVF by those who had been made victims of the other in pursuit of vengeance killings, with the actual victims usually civilians who had no strong ties to one paramilitary or the other.

Not much headway was being made at a political level either. Faulkner and Edward Heath, the newest Prime Minister of the United Kingdom were incapable or unwilling to recognise the error that was internment or the harsh actions of the Army, and simply doubled down on such things as their only means of combating what they saw as the forces of murder and criminality: the parallels to 1920 are obvious. Jack Lynch exchanged a serious of testy messages with Heath in this period, at one point stating his support for the “passive resistance” being undertaken by Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, and with face-to-face meetings in London leading nowhere on the internment question. But Heath did seem to want Dublin to have a more active role in the North, with the PM also pushing for greater Catholic representation in the Stormont government. This was much to the unhappiness of unionists of course, who were also alarmed at Harold Wilson, now Leader of the Opposition, openly suggesting that Irish re-unification should be part of British plans for the region. Faulkner would warn Heath that the Belfast government was rapidly heading towards a state of essentially being unable to function. There did not appear to be any solutions possible.

The vortex of violence and the inability of the various political leaders to do anything about it were creating chaos in Northern Ireland. Armed military groups on either side of the divide were killing at will, and the deployment of British soldiers into the region was having an opposite effect to what had been intended. In such circumstances the overall situation could only deteriorate further, and it would not be long into the new year of 1972 that such things would occur. The scene would once again be the city of Derry, and the event would be one of the most infamous and fateful massacres in Irish history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – The Pope: Answers

The Pope: Answers


The smiling face of underwhelming

In the course of an afternoon in the presence of numerous Spanish-speaking young people from around the world, Pope Francis fields questions and listens to stories on a variety of topics: abortion, refugees, pornography and what place the Catholic Church has in an increasingly changing world.

I briefly talked about my general opinion of the Church, the papacy and Pope Francis in particular back when I talked about the excellent The Two Popes in 2019. It isn’t that I have absolutely no time for the man exactly, as even someone of even slightly progressive leaning sentiments willing to say the right thing is useful in that kind of position, especially in comparison to the man who preceded him. But there’s always been something abut Francis that bothered me, perhaps simply put as the perception that he is a PR Pope, someone appointed to say those right things while the larger organisation continues on the well-worn path towards ever-growing irrelevancy.

The Pope: Answers does not help with that perception. Going into a documentary of this type you will undoubtedly have at least a small concern that you will be looking at an aggrandised puff piece, where Francis will not really have to do too much in terms of answering anything, and that is pretty much what you get. On numerous occasions the cavalcade of young people assembled in front of the Pontiff ask him directly about sexual abuse in the Church, or the defined limitations on women, or any number of other issues, and get a response that could have been delivered by a Fianna Fail TD being asked about potholes on a local radio station. Too often the Pope absorbs these kinds of difficult questions, and responds with elongated variations of “Yes, (Terrible Topic) is bad”, hoping perhaps that the odd glib comment, the “Fr Trendy” persona to use a term Irish people will be familiar with, will insure he comes out of it all smelling like roses. Look, he knows what Twitter is! He knows what Tinder is! One of the young folks sort of just called him the Godfather! Just forget that he just compared abortion to hiring a hitman to kill someone.

There’s no segment of this that didn’t annoy me in some way. A sexual abuse survivor speaks of his anger and sense of injustice when the priest who abused him received no censure from the Congregation of the Faith: Francis agrees that sexual abuse is bad, and says he’ll look into it, with a tone of total disinterest, or maybe it is powerlessness. A woman active in the pornography industry outlines her life and why she is happy with it; Francis says such things destroy the soul of those who use them. There’s a back-and-forth among the participants about abortion, with one ultra-Catholic woman proudly outlining how she takes it upon herself to “talk” to women going into abortion clinics, and Francis nods along sagely. A woman asks why it is that women can do just about everything in the Church bar being a priest; Francis gives a risible answer that woman have equality in the Church and would be diminished if asked to perform the duties of priests. The editing and cutting insures that there is never any sense of argument or true back-and-forth: instead Francis is largely left off the hook, his bland and uninspiring answers getting no challenge from the people in front of him.

Directors Marius Sánchez and Jordi Évole try and distract us from this inherent insubstantiality by peppering the running time with brief glimpses of the audience for the Pope engaged in their normal lives, complete with the odd bit of rave music and even a lesbian kiss, like this can excuse the wastefulness of the larger exercise. The Pope is a figure who deserves a greater grilling than this, and who needs to deliver stronger answers than he is allowed to parrot here. For those in a position like me, ever more disdainful of the Church and what it stands for, in reality as opposed to this nice smiling Papal façade, there is nothing here that will change your mind. Indeed, there’s plenty to validate your opinion. If I had the chance to stand in front of Pope Francis and ask him something, it would be just this: “Why are you satisfied presiding over all of this?” Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Disney+).

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