Five Minutes of Heaven (2009, dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt
There is no collective event as traumatizing and as haunting in the United States as the conflict in Northern Island has affected those people. In 1975, Ireland was under siege by a civil war where neighbor killed neighbor. The IRA killed those who were Protestants and loyal to the British, while the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) would kill Catholics who were disloyal to the Empire. These murders were typically carried out by adolescent males, coerced into proving their loyality to their faction by terrorist cell leaders. In many ways, this is a parallel to the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism today; young men too dumb to know better end up dying or killing another. Over time, if they live, the glory fades and they are left with the emptiness of what they believed was a great act of glory.
Alistair Little was 16 when he killed James Griffin, 19. Alistair wanted to prove himself to Ulster and heard about a Protestant friend being hassled by Catholics. He and a group of boys steal a car, get ahold of a gun, and show up on James’ doorstep, shooting the young man dead. Witness to this crime is Joe Griffin, James’ 11 year old brother. Thirty years later, the BBC wants to put together a documentary that culminates in Alistair and Joe meeting. Alistair has served 12 years in prison for burglary and appears to have worked towards getting young men out of the situation he ended up in. Joe has agreed to meet but is both apprehensive and enraged at the prospect of finally confronting his brother’s killer. For the rest of his childhood, Joe was blamed for not doing something to save his brother by their mother, and now the grown man wants to unleash all of this pent up rage on Alistair.
Five Minutes plays out in a very unexpected way, primarily because it’s structured as a four-act play. Each act isn’t contained in a single set but is contained by a certain focus. The first act is the recreation of the murder in 1975, the second act is the build up to the documentary meeting between the two men, and so on. The acting weight is focused squarely on Neeson and Nesbitt and they are overqualified for the job. Nesbitt in particularly is able to see saw his character psychologically, increasing the intensity as the hour of he and Alistair’s meeting grows closer. A large piece of this are internal monologues, Joe simply looking in the mirror of his dressing room, pulling the knife he has brought to exact his revenge and mulling over if he should simply leave or go through with this.
Neeson is equally good but in a different direction. He plays Alistair with subtly, he’s a man who wants his victims to be able to confront him and knows they don’t care if he is sorry or not. As he tells one of the BBC crew, he wants them to step in and keep Joe from hurting himself. As we see later in the film, he is completely willing to let Joe unleash his anger on him. But he’s not just out to give victims their peace, Alistair also wants forgiveness. He’s closed himself up in an estate flat in Belfast, never married and has no children and spends his days either in non-violence support groups or stewing in his home. It is inevitable that these two men are going to meet, but the film lets us wondering under what circumstances will it be and under whose terms.