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Michael Collins bicycled around Dublin in a pinstripe suit with a $10,000 price on his head. No one turned him in.

In his pinstriped way, he was the prototype of guerrilla leaders in khakis and fatigues for the rest of the century. Mao is said to have admired him. So did Yitzhak Shamir in Israel, when he and Menachem Begin and friends were engaging in the terrorist tactics that eventually led to statehood.

The Easter Rebellion of 1916 may have been a flop but the Irish cause had the mathematics of revolution and martyrdom going for it. As Collins put it, "every one of us they shoot brings more people to our side."

Collins was, then, by many lights, the Father of Irish freedom. He was also, probably, the father of the 20th century style of political terrorism.

"Michael Collins" is a brilliant film biography whose brilliance sneaks up on you. It's a good film while you're watching it -- big, swift, sure, an exciting and utterly convincing vision of how radical movements evolve into nation builders. It is, in other words, about something that a good movie actually ought to be about. It is only a few hours later that you may realize that as entertained as you were, you now know something you didn't know before.

I have, quite frankly, never felt that I understood the horror stories of Irish violence that have dotted the nightly news for the last few decades -- "the troubles" as they are called with sublime Irish understatement. I could never shake the feeling that there is something medieval about them.

Not anymore. Not after seeing "Michael Collins." This is probably going to be the framework for my understanding of "the troubles" for the rest of my life and there aren't many films I can even come close to saying that about. Yes I know that calling a movie "educational" in public is like saying that moss is growing from its sprockets and the whole enterprise smacks of rheumatoid arthritis. And yet most of us will actually learn things from "Michael Collins" -- not drearily, with motes of chalk dust drifting through the air and the drone of soporific voices filling our heads with sleep but with a movie that gives us that dum-dum stuff that movies have always given us -- love and bullets and punches and purpose.

It is as much an adventure film as any. But it's got brains too, and eloquence.

If you talk to writer/director Neil Jordan, then read his statement in the press book and pick up his combined script and shooting diary for the film (Penguin, 215 pages, $12.95), you learn even more -- that, for instance, he figured out how to make the biggest movie he's ever made by watching some great American Westerns, notably "Red River;" that he admitted playing fast and loose with some facts for the sake of drama and that there are many in his Irish homeland who aren't at all pleased with the results.

Chief among them are the descendants and followers of Eamon DeValera -- the Irish rebel whose long and grand career in Irish politics culminated in the presidency in the late '60s and early '70s. Collins and DeValera began as perfect revolutionary partners -- fire and ice, fervor and caution, action and contemplation. Collins is the specialist in oratory and blood -- knocking heads, shooting and blowing things up. He calls himself the movement's "minister of gun-running, riot and general mayhem." He's a first-rate rabble-rouser and brawler with a gut-level mastery of the tactics that demoralize.

"Dev," at first, knows the art of restraint. He's the one who knows the techniques for turning mayhem into gains.

But then, as Jordan brilliantly re-imagines their historic relationship for us, worms start eating the apples in rebel paradise. When all their bombs and burned police departments pay off, De Valera becomes terminally envious of Collins' success and sends him to negotiate with the hated British, knowing full well that whatever accord Collins brings back will be watered down enough to shoot large holes in Collins' brawling, revolutionary sainthood.

The best Collins can negotiate is an Irish free state, not a republic. Dev's IRA splits off and civil war is in the offing. The heirs of the IRA are still at it.

Collins starts out with blazing oratory against the British. "They can jail us. They can shoot us. They can even conscript us. . . . but we have a weapon more powerful than any weapon in the British empire and that is our refusal to bow to any order but our own."

He ends up being the movement's man of peace, a not uncommon historic paradox. He hated the British, as Jordan has him say, most of all for "making hate necessary". He was a guerrilla warrior in a homburg -- a thug with a noble cause who let the noble cause swallow up his thuggery.

And, Jordan suggests in the film, it was his undoing. He was murdered on an errand of conciliation, trying to end Civil War. History doesn't say but the film strongly suggests Dev's conspirators behind the trigger.

Liam Neeson, in a role he was born for, plays Collins. Jordan has been trying to get this film made for years and Neeson was always Jordan's idea of Collins. The great actor Alan Rickman plays De Valera as a prig with pomp overspilling the edges and helpless before his own growing envy of Collins. Aidan Quinn plays Collins' friend and right-hand man and Julia Roberts -- an old lover of Neeson's -- plays a woman suspended between Quinn and Neeson.

If you feel, as many critics have, there's an odd homosexual subtext to that love triangle as played out, you may have to deal with some of the raw Hollywood facts. The film, like Jordan's "Interview with a Vampire", was bankrolled and brought into being, in part, by David Geffen, the most powerful openly gay executive in Hollywood history. Jordan, like any other successful movie negotiator, knows that it never hurts to please the boss in minor things if the major ones are going your way.

Jordan has never made a film this size before. He has been a filmmaker of wild and wonderful brilliance since his early film from the stories of Angela Carter called "The Company of Wolves." Despite some setbacks, he has continued to be in such films as "Mona Lisa," "The Miracle," and, his breakthrough film, "The Crying Game."

Not enough can be said about the simple but enormous intelligence of this script. The British secret service, for instance, complains about the Irish: "That's the trouble with them. They'll sing at the drop of a hat but if you ask them to talk, they won't." Actors in all capacities have such things to say all through the movie and they're self-evidently grateful. Neeson is so happy to be doing a part he's good at that everyone else -- including Roberts -- has no choice but to be on his level.

At the same time, Jordan's sense of the fine line between terrorism and state-building is as sophisticated as any you're likely to find in such a big film in our dumb-down era. And the film-making -- a strong scene, for instance, when a British tank blasts its way through an Irish rugby match -- is unfailingly confident and powerful.

It's a triumph for all concerned -- not a spectacular, jaw-dropping one but a solid and smart one. Best of all, it's a triumph for the audience.

Review Michael Collins Rating: **** Liam Neeson as the revolutionary Irish patriot. With Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman. Written and directred by Neil Jordan. Rated R and opening Friday in Area theaters.

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