In 1975, Alistair Little (Mark Davison) lusted after a kill. Assassinating a Catholic in cold blood would make him “stand 10 feet tall and be cheered by my mates in the bar.” Along with three of his 17-something chums, a car was stolen, coveralls and balaclavas donned then three bullets to the head sent Jim Griffin (Gerard Jordan) to an early grave while innocently watching telly at home.
Just one hitch to the bloody plan: there was a witness—Joe (Kevin O’Neill is just right), Jim’s much younger brother was honing his football technique on the sidewalk and—initially obstructed by a parked van—witnessed the gang-sanctioned hit.
Simultaneously, the cinematic shot—called for by director Oliver Hirschbiegel (cross-reference below), perfectly rendered via director of photography Ruairi O’Brien and editor Hans Funck, all combining impressively to realize Guy Hibbert’s extraordinary script (based on countless back-and-forth interviews with the real-life men)—demonstrated the extremely high cailbre of the creative team and set the tone for the production, burning unforgettably onto the screen a few seconds of horrific eye contact between Alistair and Joe.
Thirty-five years later, a first-ever meeting has been arranged for a television program that purports to explore difficult issues of confrontation, reconciliation and feelings of the victims, their immediate families and the perpetrators of callous acts.
No longer aroused with the pride of a kill, Alistair (now played by Liam Neeson who convincingly portrays the broken-man killer) spends his post-prison days (12 years for armed robbery) preaching to the damned, yet never being able to banish his own recurring demons.
Joe (James Nesbitt is astonishing, clearly benefiting from Hirschbiegel’s savvy understanding of understated/overt body language) is now a married-with-children Da, but cannot purge his mother’s angry scorn: “Why didn’t you do something? You could have stopped him”, following the sudden death of her favourite son.
The rest of the film looks at many aspects of a single murder during a time when the body count on both “sides” rose daily. Like the conclusion of “Troubles,” (cross-reference below) there is no winner, only an uneasy peace that, at any moment—especially when brutal economic times add another layer to the foment of despair—could burst into flames. The looming possibility of a return to death and destruction is greatly diminished by politicians who blissfully pretend that peace reigns and that bygones are bygones. But when the pair finally meet face-to-face, the old pains erupt and violence rears its ugly head again. (In a typically masterful staging from Hirschbiegel, the bruised and beaten enemies, suddenly stopped from further conflict and assessing their wounds are brought back into frame only after the camera pans down the sturdy, gray-stone/stained-glass windows of an adjacent Catholic church.)
“Forgive them, they know not why they fight” could be applied to many conflicts in any place or era. But with fire in their frequently empty bellies (stoked by teenage hormones and the overwhelming need to be “somebody”), the deadly rationalization that “We all have to do something.” will continue to wreak havoc wherever testosterone is found and harnessed by unscrupulous older manipulators be they in the service of Church or State (formalized or not).
Never taking the easy way out, Five Minutes of Heaven digs down to the very core of twin hell-on-earth existences. Would that it become mandatory viewing for all fearless boys on the cusp of becoming men. JWR