When the Sky Falls (2000)

D: John Mackenzie
S: Joan Allen, Patrick Bergin

Well meaning but flawed crime film inspired by the true story of Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, whose investigation into Dublin crime in the mid 1990s resulted in her assassination. The film is fictional (the character's names are changed and many of the incidents did not happen) though it is based loosely on the details of what took place between 1994 and 1996. Guerin herself actually collaborated with original writer Michael Sheridan (eventually co-credited with Ronan Gallagher and Colum McCann) on the early stages of the project's development. Then, it was to be a story about how the journalist blew the lid on the new generation of vicious drug barons which flourished in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Cahill (immortalised in not one, but three films in the last few years including John Boorman's The General and Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Ordinary Decent Criminal). The film was originally to climax with Guerin's character (here called 'Sinead Hamilton' and played capably by Joan Allen (Pleasantville, Nixon)) receiving a prestigious international award for her courage. Following her death, the script was heavily revised to incorporate her murder and attempt to explain why she persisted with her investigations despite being the mother of a young child and being repeatedly warned that her life was in danger.

Despite the potentially stirring subject matter and the most honourable of intentions on the part of its writers and performers, When the Sky Falls is actually a less compelling film than the story demands. It lacks genuine penetration on a thematic level, ultimately reducing everything to a simplistic attempt to justify Hamilton's mix of foolhardiness and bravery because she wanted a better life for her son. While quite possibly true, this explanation is not the most powerful element of this story. There are scenes in the film dealing with gang violence, drug culture, bureaucracy, media exploitation, and the ethics of journalism and law enforcement. It contains elements of the classic urban crime film and the newspaper movie, and with many fine precedents to draw upon in both genres, it is unfortunate that the writers ultimately opted primarily for domestic drama. Scenes detailing the character's home and family life provide the film with its moral anchor, contrasting domesticity and personal commitment with the sleaze and horror she found herself fighting in her professional career. This actually comes across as a rather limp tribute to her courage which encourages empathy with her character rather than draw attention to the issues at stake. While this is a laudable attempt to heighten the human tragedy of Guerin's death, it is something of a disservice to her life. Rather than focusing attention on the activities of Dublin's underworld and raising pertinent questions about Irish society in the late twentieth century as she was trying to do, the film encourages the audience to indulge its empathetic emotions like a second-rate TV movie.

Director John Mackenzie is still best remembered for his razor-sharp gangster film The Long Good Friday (so influential on British cinema that is progeny are still running amok, e.g. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Gangster No. 1), but has recently done a lot of work for television. When the Sky Falls is partly financed by British Sky Broadcasting, a UK based television company (part of News Corporation) which has recently branched into film production. Mackenzie's edge is definitely dulled here, partly by budget, and partly by the script.

The crime scenes are handled well. There are some genuinely dark moments and one occasionally feels the sense of paranoia and frustration of its characters (more Patrick Bergin's hamstrung Garda than 'Hamilton' though). There is a good rogues' gallery of supporting characters played well by a variety of Irish and British actors. Pete Postlethwaite (Romeo + Juliet) plays this film's equivalent of Martin Cahill in the opening scenes, Liam Cunningham (A Love Divided, Sweety Barrett) plays another more traditional gang leader, and Gerard Flynn makes a chilling nemesis as the new-breed mobster most directly responsible for 'Hamilton''s demise. Smaller roles are filled equally well. Bergin has the most challenging character in the film, a cop who bends the law to see justice done. He has some edgy moments along the way (nothing to compare with Sidney Lumet's The Offence, mind), and is deliberately unglamorous in a way so few leading men are these days. The scenes dealing with the details of 'Hamilton''s investigations and dealings with underworld characters are moody and effective. There are some tense moments of muted and more extreme confrontation, some of them rightfully shocking and violent.

All of these elements Mackenzie is in control of, and the film is all the better for it, but on the whole it suffers because of the punctuation of the narrative with domestic drama. The overall pace lags as the moments of intimacy between 'Hamilton' and her husband and son are repetitious and more suited to backstory, and the climax is peculiarly anticlimactic because the crime plot never has a chance to develop the necessary momentum. The film is finally not nearly as emotionally wrenching as it seems to hope it is and probably should have been. The fact that the bigger story is not resolved by the end (we are told that Guerin's death resulted in changes in the law and that her killers are being brought to trial, but the opportunity to explore some of that with Bergin's character has not been taken) also contributes to the feeling that the script is out of focus.

There are other problems too, smaller ones maybe, but important enough to dull the impact of the film on the whole. The newspaper scenes are painfully unauthentic. Apart from the fact that the fictional "Sunday Globe" offices are rather too much like comfortable corporate offices (Guerin wrote for The Sunday Independent, whose facilities are considerably less glamourous, not to mention less well lit) and the staff too much like extras pretending not to notice the camera, the whole atmosphere of journalism is sanitised and simplistic in a way which is entirely unnecessary given the precedent set by the likes of All the President's Men. There are small suggestions of some of the internal politics and questions of responsibility raised by crime reporting and its effect on circulation, but not enough. The newspaper is more a generic setting than an integral part of the drama, which again limits the movie's ability to delve deeply into the issues. The film's timeline is also compressed, 'Hamilton' seems to spend relatively little time investigating any one article before it hits the streets and escalates the drama, and there seems to be no attempt to actually historicise the action despite the reliance on real events for at least some of what happens ('Hamilton' drives a car with a 1999 registration). There is also therefore not really enough time for the sense of fear and anxiety to mount as the film reaches its climax, and really the only scenes which register increasing tension are the domestic ones, which, as noted, are less gripping than the others. Also, the decision to periodically focus on Bergin's character, while it provides some good scenes, does affect the structure. It is as if the film has two parallel plots which do not quite tie in, and raises the questions about the professional/ethical relationship between Bergin and Allen, which are never really developed.

This story needed to be told, and it is both good and honourable that the writers have attempted to prevent Guerin's life from becoming a manipulative, over-glamorous tale of liberal martyrdom (she specifically instructed Sheridan not to let this happen during the early stages of development). But it is hard not to feel disappointed that such a potentially revealing and incisive story of contemporary Ireland has become a low-range crime thriller not too many steps above the risible Irish gangster movie The Courier and well below Boorman's The General in every respect. When the Sky Falls is an honest movie, but this doesn't necessarily make it a worthwhile one. Pity.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.