The Devil's Own (1997)

D: Alan J. Pakula
S: Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt

People were hostile towards this film before it was even released. Fears that the paying public would be wooed to the cause of violence by the portrayal of an IRA terrorist by heart-throb Brad Pitt seemed to generate a storm of controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Irish critics and academics were sharpening their knives even as the film was shooting in locations around them, and a right old roasting was prepared and unleashed immediately upon its arrival on our shores. Extravagant claims by Conor Cruise O'Brien that the film was the result of lobbying by pro-IRA Irish-Americans, and comments from Film Ireland's Des Traynor that "it is safe to say that The Devil's Own is one of the worst films ever made," made it seem as if watching the film was the moral equivalent of condoning murder.

All of this is baffling and somewhat insulting given that the film in question is the story of how an Irish-American cop (played by Harrison Ford) is duped into accepting a terrorist into his family, and then, even though he has developed an understanding of the man and even affection for him, he is driven by his sense of right into tracking him down and bringing him to justice when he uncovers his plan to purchase weapons and transport them back to Ireland. This simple outline suggests to me that the film is ultimately saying that no matter how attractive we might find the cause of nationalism, morality commands our response, and we cannot give in to simplistic sentiment.

It is perhaps a subtle point, and the film itself is not helpful in clarifying its position. There are evident plot holes and an uneven narrative, suggesting tampering at some stage in the production process. Add to this the fact that it is an uncomfortable mix of Pakula's characteristic political thrillers (where the unseen forces of society drive the characters) and a Hollywood action movie (where the characters define society), then there are enough scores against it on its own terms before the political mud-slinging begins.

But it is a more interesting film than it has been given credit for, and it works in spurts and fits, almost generating a sufficient level of tension to make its morally upright but dowbeat resolution effective with an audience. Pakula's ability to create a sense of dark forces at work in our world is plied with relative ease, and Pitt is commanding as the sympathetic villain (his accent is very good also). Ford is better than he has been in a while, though he is not entirely believable as Irish-American, and support from the rest of the cast is good (though Ruben Blades is a dead man from the moment he begins talking about Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pigs).

It takes its time to develop, and Pakula's choice to set up a counterpoint by showing Pitt and Ford involved in lengthy character-establishing scenes which do not service the central plot makes the film seem disjointed. The pace is deliberate, and Pakula lingers over set-up scenes and hangs back from the action as he did in The Parallax View and All the President's Men. But the demands of the current market have driven him to include some inappropriate violent melees and chase scenes (which filled out the trailers), contributing to the overall sense that you never know exactly what type of film it's supposed to be.

The question of representation is irresolvable given its volatility. It is impossible to approach the film objectively without being accused of moral cowardice. But personally, I feel the film takes a very definite moral stance in relation to its terrorist antagonist, and his death at the climax serves the needs of moral order over personal sympathy. Yet it is the same question which has been asked of any film portraying terrorists, or gangsters, or monsters: whether or not we should feel anything for them or find their point of view attractive (the same reaction greeted the release of The Informer and Odd Man Out over fifty years ago). Over time there have been a variety of reactions to the question, from the Hayes Code to public protests, and perhaps it is only time which will resolve this one for us also.

The fact is that while the political reality of Northern Ireland affects the lives of real people, we should be sensitive to the possible repercussions of any given text. But, in my view, The Devil's Own is precisely that, and makes a brave attempt to embrace the difficulty of the position occupied by people outside the realities of a life lived in fear; a subtle rejoinder to the naivete of extreme reactions (which is, ironically, what the film provoked on its release).

But this does not necessarily excuse its deficiencies, and the film never really generates momentum or fully draws you in to the story. The muted development of minor characters is less a matter of creating a credible atmosphere than a clumsy script, and the disequilibrium resultant from the relatively late emergence of the central premise (Ford must hunt down Pitt) seriously hurts the entertainment value. It is a long way from the worst film ever made (either about Ireland or in general), but it's not one of the best either, and the seriousness of approach to the topic suggests that it is more disappointing than the likes of Blown Away or Patriot Games, whose ambitions never extended to those of this mature, adult thriller. It is a pity that it doesn't live up to its own promise.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.