Sands was an Irish Republican Army volunteer, joining at the age of just eighteen in 1972, following years of attacks from loyalists. Upon his second conviction for possession of firearms, he was sentenced to a fourteen year stretch in the notorious Maze prison.
It is here that the film begins, though it is a while before Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) makes an appearance. Instead, we see new IRA prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) arriving, and refusing to wear the uniform. For this, he is labelled ‘uncooperative’. As an otherwise naked Davey goes ‘on the blanket’, he is shown to his cell, which Gerry (Liam McMahon) has smeared with shit from floor to ceiling. This is all a protest at the officers’ treatment of the prisoners, and especially the government’s removal of ‘political status‘ from IRA inmates.
Aside from the cinematography – which is the work of a skilled artistic eye – McQueen deserves much praise for his unflinching depiction of the institutionalised brutality at the heart of a previous ‘war on terror’, in a Lisburn Abu Ghraib overseen by the draconian but very plausible Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham). We witness the systematic degradation of prisoners, and gain some level of appreciation that they truly were living in a hell on earth. This is important, at a time when the United Kingdom government is deepening its attacks on ‘democratic rights‘ which have long been taken for granted by many people.
Ironically, problems with the film become clear when the Sands character is introduced. From this point onwards, it is very much his story in isolation, about his martyrdom, to the exclusion of everything else. In a twenty-plus minute scene, featuring perhaps the longest single shot in cinema history, McQueen has Sands tell a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plans to die, as part of a campaign for political status. After much backwards and forwards banter between the two men, the priest gets down to brass tacks and asks Sands why he wants to take this drastic step. The answer he gets is something about fields of waving barley.
By setting the film almost entirely within the Maze, McQueen has neglected almost everything that made Bobby Sands the person he was – someone willing to die for a political cause he passionately believed in. Though biopics are inevitably centred on one person, it is impossible to understand the person in isolation, without looking at the social forces that shaped that life, and the circumstances in which it is lived. From McQueen’s individualistic perspective, it looks as though the hunger strikers have brought all their suffering upon themselves.
Similarly, as we watch Sands die in agony, little context is provided. Although McQueen no doubt wanted his film to be inspiring, it is this omission which makes it depressing. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking the Thatcher government and the prison regime were all-powerful, as their fervent opponent literally self-destructs. In real life, as the strikes wore on and men started dying, massive public support put great pressure on the already unpopular British state – which eventually conceded two of the ‘Five Demands’ – and Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on his prison death bed.
This was the beginning of the IRA’s ‘armalite and ballot box strategy‘, which saw Sinn Féin become a force in electoral politics. Arguably, what makes the death of self-described socialist Bobby Sands all the more tragic is the sight of his former comrades administering capitalism in the six counties of northern Ireland, alongside bigoted upholders of the Crown.