Michael Collins has long been an obsession for Jordan, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay several years before he achieved international prominence with Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. The movie virtually ignores Collins' formative years, and instead begins quite literally with a bang, in 1916, as Collins and his comrades are bombarded into ending their occupation of Dublin's General Post Office. In the aftermath of that doomed enterprise, Collins vows never again to fight the British forces on their own terms, through means of traditional warfare. And with that, the Irish Revolution begins in bloody earnest.
This, of course, is based on documented fact. Collins is widely credited as virtually inventing urban guerrilla warfare as we know it, using ruthlessly efficient hit-and-run techniques that were later studied by such revolutionary leaders as Mao Tse-tung and Yitzhak Shamir. (Indeed, Shamir was so enamored of Collins that, during the Israeli war of independence against the British, he took the code name "Micail" for his Irgun unit.) But truth, even historical truth, often is more complex, and a great deal more ironic, than filmmakers usually present it.
Jordan presents Collins as a rough-hewed common man who miraculously transforms himself into a brilliant military strategist. Even as his legend spreads and his prestige increases, he never tries to be anything more uncomplicated than a simple, backslapping "big fella" who is more at ease in a neighborhood pub than in a political negotiation. The Collins of Jordan's film stands in marked contrast to Eamon De Valera, Collins' mentor and eventual rival, who is portrayed here as a bookish, effete neurasthenic with a perpetual air of prudish disapproval. (One of the movie's biggest laughs: While Collins and his men are undertaking a daring jailbreak to free De Valera, the latter upbraids Collins for using foul language.)
The real Michael Collins was indeed a hearty man of action who believed in plain speaking, and who felt ill-equipped to negotiate a peace settlement with better-educated British representatives. On the other hand, he was by no means the Irish equivalent of a country bumpkin. According to biographer Tim Pat Coogan, Collins was the youngest of eight children born to a relatively prosperous farming couple in West Cork. Although his parents received little formal education, they knew French, Latin and Greek and were considered, in Coogan's words, "unusually intelligent and well-doing." Before his heyday as a revolutionary, Collins lived in London, where he worked as a clerk for a firm of stockbrokers, and later found similar employment with the local branch of the Guaranty Trust Company of New York. He was an avid theatergoer, with a particular appreciation for George Bernard Shaw, and a voracious reader. By the time he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a forerunner of the IRA) in 1914, Collins had seen something of the world, and understood much about it.
To be sure, it wasn't absolutely necessary for Jordan to mention any of this in Michael Collins. (A good thing, too, because he doesn't.) But it might have been interesting if there were at least one scene that had Collins reading G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel that figured heavily in the real Collins' radical education. The Chief Anarchist in Chesterton's book advises: "If you don't seem to be hiding, nobody hunts you out." Collins took that lesson to heart, and it served him well during the guerrilla campaign that takes up much of Michael Collins.
The movie is briskly paced and grippingly suspenseful as it shows how Collins and his small band of Irish Volunteers made life miserable for the British army and police throughout Ireland. Assassins calmly walk or bicycle out of crowds, fatally shoot some specifically targeted enemy, then disappear. Anonymous clerks and laborers employed in hotels, post offices and even Dublin Castle, the seat of British administration in Ireland, routinely pass information about paid informers and repressive counteroffensives to Collins and his men. Stephen Rea, the sad-eyed IRA irregular in The Crying Game, plays the most important of Collins' spies, a Dublin Castle functionary who knows the whereabouts of all the bodies that Collins wants to bury.
Throughout it all, Collins casually strolls through the streets of Dublin with a well-pressed suit and an impeccably polite manner, occasionally nodding at the very officials who are determined to capture him. He is never recognized, even while he is the most-wanted man in Ireland, mainly because -- well, he doesn't look like a revolutionary. It helps, of course, that the British never manage to obtain a decent photograph of their quarry. Neeson plays Collins as a radical with a conscience, a man who turns to violence only as a last resort. ("I hate them," he says of the British, "because they make hate necessary.") He is tortured by guilt -- not only because he is responsible for murders, but also because he is ordering the young men under his command to pull the triggers. "You'll have to do the shooting," he grimly informs a gathering. "Don't expect it to be pleasant." One assassin is seen visiting a church before he goes about his bloody business. Another hesitates before firing at an unarmed man, almost long enough for the man to reach a hidden gun and fire first.
Jordan borrows a few pages from Francis Coppola's The Godfather, most obviously during a sequence that contrasts a quiet interlude with Collins and his beloved Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) with a series of killings by the Irish Volunteers. You have to give Jordan credit, though -- he knows enough to pilfer from the best. Michael Collins is moodily photographed in gray, overcast tones by cinematographer Chris Menges, and comes very close to matching Coppola's masterwork in terms of conveying a sense of a terrible destiny unfolding with unforgiving inevitability.
Even so, Jordan could have given us more. While dashing through the historical events that Collins shaped, and was shaped by, the filmmaker resorts to sketchiness and simplification. It isn't clear just who is responsible for some of the violent reprisals against the Volunteers and their sympathizers -- British forces? the paramilitary Black and Tans? a rogue band of Hollywood B movie villains? -- and it's even less clear what role Collins is playing in the new Irish Free State government during a civil war against his former comrades. Jordan has drawn fire for hinting that Eamon De Valera, played with scene-stealing imperiousness by Alan Rickman, was at least indirectly responsible for Collins' assassination in 1922. (The movie indicates, and many historians agree, that De Valera deliberately made Collins appear to be a traitor for negotiating the treaty that led to the end of British rule and the partition of Ireland.) But such speculative interpretation is almost impossible to avoid in this type of movie. What should have been avoided is the Old Hollywood hokum of a romantic triangle. In the world according to Jordan, Collins must vie with his dear comrade-in-arms, Harry Bolland (Aidan Quinn), for the affections of pretty Kitty Kiernan. That Julia Roberts has a difficult time sustaining an Irish accent only serves to make this malarkey all the more bogus.
Even so, despite its shortcomings and simplifications, Michael Collins is an impressive piece of work. More important, it is profoundly moving in the way it makes us see that this story is but the prologue for the seemingly endless internecine warfare that continues to blight Ireland. Collins ultimately was consumed by the fires he ignited. And those fires continue to blaze in the hearts of those who are far less careful about how much blood they spill.
Directed by Neil Jordan. With Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts.