|UK Release Date||6th January 1985|
|Reviewed||9th December 2014|
Director Alan Clarke’s Contact is a long-lensed adaptation of A.F.N. Clarke’s memoir of his tours of duty in Northern Ireland as a Captain in the Parachute Regiment. Shot with a ruthless handheld camera and infa-red night-vision, Contact follows a young Commander and his troops as they patrol through the notorious Bandit Country of South Armagh.
Contact sets its stall out right from the start. A car races down a country road and is ambushed by heavily armed Paratroopers forcing it to screech to a halt. Before we can draw breath the driver is executed and the passenger is hauled out and forced to the ground, SLR barrels covering his every move. This first contact is a violent assault on the senses, surreal because it could be happening down any road in Great Britain. Clarke plays it in long shot, refusing us close-ups so we just observe the action rather than be indoctrinated into a particular political standpoint.
Clarke’s minimalist approach is further evident when observing the Para’s downtime, spent in a whitewashed barracks drinking tea or beer behind sand bags, waiting for the next mortar attack. Leave is presumably a death sentence in Northern Ireland, their quarters little more than a prison. The soldiers are quiet and introspective, weary from battle fatigue and the monotonous rhythm of five-day patrols where a stationary car could be an IED waiting to happen. Contact implies camaraderie through the Para’s’ attention to detail, their professionalism in the field through precise orders rather than the high-five jingoism of contemporary 80s American military films like Top Gun or even the high-gloss brutality of Hamburger Hill or Platoon.
One of the Commander’s men quips to another, “You volunteered for this.” But did any of them? The Commander is young but most of his men are even younger. They are soldiers recruited from the urban blight of Thatcher’s reforms, inner city youth volunteered by deindustrialisation and mass youth unemployment. Maybe they listened to that speech by Norman Tebbit about his father, “He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking until he found it.” And what gainful employment it is, perhaps a Machiavellian scheme crystalized by the Brighton bombing, keeping them occupied and from raging against their own predicament, pacifying those working class communities that look an awfully lot like their own.
The Commander is even more isolated from Thatcher’s Miracle than his own men. Bunking alone in his room, Clarke lets his camera sit and observe a man who lies on his bed unable to bond with his peers as military protocol shuns fraternisation with the ranks. Clarke regular Sean Chapman’s measured performance depicts the very British break down of the officer class. As the Commander’s post traumatic stress disorder develops after increasing casualties to his men his actions become ever more rigid, ever more certain, a deliberate gun barrel to the mouth of a IRA man, not the actions of a Hollywood arm flailing maniac who is going down in a blaze of glory. The Commander’s Corporal gives him some sobering advice, “Don’t get involved, boss. It’s bad for the brain.”
Instead Clarke makes us endure one of the most heart stopping long shots in all of cinema. A car sits empty on the side of the road. Has it simply been abandoned or does it pose a deadly threat? The Commander circles it against the advice of his men. He yanks open one door, ponders his next move like a chess player before yanking open another, abandoning all military doctrine. But how can Paratroopers hope to fight a clean war in such uncertainty? Colonel Mathieu of the French Paratroopers sums it up best in The Battle of Algiers when answering journalists about their occupation of Algeria, “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences.”
Contact formed the middle act of a trilogy about terrorism that begun with Psy-Warriors and culminated with Elephant, the uncompromising logical conclusion to Clarke’s ultra-realistic style, seventeen sectarian killings without dialogue or any semblance of a conventional narrative. Alan Clarke died in 1990. We can only wonder how his own oblique commentary would have tackled the War On Terror. Contact had a direct influence on The Battle for Haditha, United 93 and Green Zone so we have some idea of his enduring legacy.