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Dead in the Blackwater

Route Irish (2010)

Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films

The most dangerous road in the world, Route Irish connects Baghdad's airport to the Green Zone. On this road, an ambush in early September 2007 kills four private security contractors, among them Frankie (John Bishop). Frankie's best friend Fergus (Mark Womack), an ex-soldier and former private contractor now in minor trouble with the law, attends the funeral despite resistance from his widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe). At the wake, he joins Frankie's family to meet two representatives of the contractor, Haynes (Jack Fortune) and Walker (Geoff Bell). It is unfortunate, they explain, that Frankie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Fergus is big enough and ugly enough to know better.

On first thought, Ken Loach is a surprising person to delve into the lives of the Western defense contractors/security consultants/private soldiers/mercenaries in Iraq. His first film "Cathy Come Home" — made for British television in 1966 — was so influential it actually changed government policy about homelessness. Recently, he has begun broadening his subject matter without sacrificing his principles: "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" was about the war for Irish independence; "It's a Free World ..." was about human trafficking; and "Looking for Eric" was a comedy about a postman's relationship with French football legend Eric Cantona (Americans, imagine a knockabout mumblecore movie starring Dennis Rodman).

The war in Iraq is one of the major issues of our time, so Mr. Loach's willingness to address it is not at all surprising. It's more surprising that he seems to be the first film director of any nationality to handle this difficult topic successfully. "Route Irish" is about the consequences that the war has had, both for the innocent civilians in Iraq and the working-class Westerners who are fighting it. Fergus's stubborn refusal to accept the story given about Frankie's death pushes him and Rachel — with the help of an Iraqi musician named Harem (Talib Rasool) — to very dark places. It works both as a movie about a man seeking justice for his friend and as a war movie. It's an unusual film that manages not to be about what it's about.

Fergus's bond with Frankie is apparent from the heartbreaking sequence early on where he breaks into a church and then his friend's sealed coffin in order to see his body for the last time. His bond with Rachel is a little weaker — would Rachel really not have known about the tattoos? But then Mr. Womack and Ms. Lowe have an astonishing scene in which Fergus goads Rachel into physically attacking him in bed. Fergus is a trained soldier, expert at coping and managing what needs to be done but finding these skills less of an asset in civilian life. Rachel copes by ignoring her grief and throwing herself into the search for answers. She must also express the emotions none of the men in the film will allow themselves, which Ms. Lowe does admirably. She is a civilian, but a fighter nonetheless.

The movie looks overcast, full of washed-out grays, and director of photography Chris Menges manages to make it feel as hunched inward as Fergus's shoulders. The movie consists of mostly medium shots, focused loosely over the shoulders of two or three people at a time, drinking cups of tea, walking on a golf course or telling stories in a pub. A sense of dread and menace hangs over the picture, which Mr. Loach manages like a master. A second recurring line in the movie is "no blood, no foul," which the British soldiers pick up from the Americans in their discussions of torture. This gym class chant is used in ways that cause goosebumps.

Unfortunately, Paul Laverty's script is not as consistently successful. Either information is told and not shown or overplayed, as when we see footage from the stolen mobile repeatedly. The way in which Rachel is made to confront the ugliness of life in Iraq has been done before. But in a way, the movie's inability to move beyond some clichés is oddly affecting. Unlike most other directors who have filmed similar material, Mr. Loach is not interested in shoving the horror of daily life in Baghdad up our noses. That horror is the daily reality in the lives of the Liverpudlians who have made the clear-eyed choice to profit from Iraqi misery — Tommy (Russell Anderson), a sympathetic friend still in Baghdad who argues with Fergus via webcam; Peggy (Donna Elson), a modern Mother Courage in the Green Zone; Nelson (Trevor Williams), the hardest of all the contractors; and Craig (Craig Lundberg), another friend who was blinded in Iraq but who still plays football. They know exactly what they are doing; and even the most heartless among them take full responsibility for their choices. This frankness makes for a refreshing maturity in tone and handling the impact of Frankie's death. No one in this film is stupid or in denial, but some are more open and honest than others.

This clear-eyed forthrightness gives "Route Irish" a backbone many other films lack. It also bucks the current trend of movies refusing to take a stand on their subject matter. It's to their credit that Messrs. Loach and Laverty firmly choose a side instead of sitting on the fence and making mealy-mouthed statements that the audience members must make up their own minds. Most of the actors are experienced TV actors working in their first film, but Mr. Bishop is a stand-up comedian and Mr. Lundberg was a sniper in the British Army until he was blinded in Basra by a rocket-propelled grenade. This lack of star factor makes the movie more believable and greatly increases its impact. (As great as "The Hurt Locker" was, the star cameos were an unfortunate distraction.) How many unrecognizable men such as Fergus, Craig and Tommy are sitting among us now? How many lives have been affected by Iraq in ways that we cannot see? It's the film's great achievement that it makes us think again about all these unknowns.


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