Director Nick Hamm's The Journey, now streaming on Netflix, might be "based on a true story," but for decades the events depicted in the movie seemed as fantastic as something J.R.R. Tolkien might have written.
In 2007, two men who considered each other mortal enemies and had spent much of their lives opposing each other met to talk peace in Northern Ireland. The Rev. Ian Paisley, played by Timothy Spall, who has starred in the Harry Potter movies and several films by independent British director Mike Leigh, was a forceful Protestant pastor who founded the Democratic Unionist Party, which pushed for the six counties in the north of Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Paisley opposed civil rights for Catholics in the region and even called the pope the Antichrist.
Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Commitments) led the talks from the other side. As a member for the Sinn Fein party, McGuinness was an advocate for uniting the six counties with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Actually, he was more than an advocate. In 1972, he was arrested for carrying ammunition and explosives, and in 2001 he admitted to being a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
The Journey explores how the two men went from not speaking to each other to earning the nickname "The Chuckle Brothers" for their genial demeanor when they eventually led the power-sharing agreement.
Hamm, a native of the Northern Ireland capital Belfast, explains that the war before power sharing was particularly appalling because it took place over a region with a relatively small population. Northern Ireland is roughly equivalent to the Kansas City metroplex with 1.8 to 2 million people. While the American city has a high crime rate, it's still lower than the 3,500 people who died during The Troubles from the late 1960s to the early 2000.
Hamm recalls, "That doesn't even account for the people who were maimed, injured, psychologically disturbed, thrown out of their houses, had to move countries, declared traitors, had boiling oil poured over their heads, lived in total poverty and conflict, had riots in the streets, had their shops burned, had their industries burned to the ground. Imagine all that happening in Kansas City!"
From the Extreme
Hamm says the agreement ironically worked because the two men started so far apart.
"That's the point of making the film in that sense. The only two guys who could bring peace to this situation and start the process anyway are from the extremes of both constituencies. You're not going to be able to lead from the middle in a time of conflict and war. You can't do that. You have to lead from the edges and you have to be able to bring leaders from the edges to the middle, and they'll only do that if they feel like their act of compromise is going to result in something that is positive," he says.
"And you can only do that if you have leaders who are big enough to have been through 30-40 years of conflict and who have watched that attrition happen. They all knew that the IRA would never militarily defeat the British Army in Northern Ireland, and the British Army would never, ever militarily defeat the IRA. That was a fact of life. You were simply dealing with a war of attrition that would continue for years and years and years.
"There was a famous phrase among certain people on the Protestant side that if 'Big Ian' is good with this, I'm good with it. In other words, Ian Paisley was so powerful and so consumed with hatred with anything from the Catholic side, could come around and say I can do business with this guy, then I'm OK with that."
The Fanciful Journey
While the flight the two men took from Scotland to Northern Ireland really did take place (it prevented McGuinness and Paisley's more violent followers from attacking the plane), Hamm admits when the film takes liberties with how the negotiations really happened. (Paisley died in 2014, and McGuinness died in January, so it's not as if we can ask them.)
For example, it doesn't mention that the plane was owned by musician Chris De Burgh ("Don't Pay the Ferryman"), and McGuinness would never have ridden in a car provided by the British government.
"They were constantly being bugged. Martin McGuinness never got into a government car, even when he was in government, even when he was a member of the government of Northern Ireland on the British side. He was part of the British group in charge of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein never used government cars," he recalls.
"Everyone was overheard; everyone was listened to. A lot of this was pre-cellphone. Now everything is being heard. You and I are being listened to now. That's why we did those scenes early to show the context. That's why I put in the John Hurt (who portrays a semiretired MI5 agent, trying to coax McGuinness and Paisley into a civil conversation) stuff in and the Freddie Highmore (who plays a driver) stuff in because I wanted to show the British Government was trying to engineer that conversation. I was trying to represent a political friendship that took place over 10 years in an hour and a half."
Nonetheless, Hamm says presenting a long car ride that didn't feel tedious was a challenge.
"That was the challenge. I love challenge. It's like The Odd Couple in the back of a car. It's a political road movie. One of the ways you do it is that you shoot the car really well. You shoot the dialogue in the car really well so the audience will lean into that and are really fascinated by the confines of the car, if you like. And how all of those things become kind of fascinating to watch," he explains.
"You rehearse it with the actors, and then you cut out to big wide shots, big shots of the landscape, shots of John Hurt (who's bugging them), so that when you go back you want to go back. You have to time it so that you're out for long enough to make the audience want to go back."
The Journey has some of the same humor Scottish filmmaker Armando Ianucci brings to Veep (and his Oscar-nominated In the Loop). Hamm, who won a BAFTA or British Oscar for his short The Harmfulness of Tobacco, is quick to point out that his film takes a different view of the political process, in part, because it documents a series of events that actually led to something positive.
"A lot of political stories now, they come at it from an incredibly cynical viewpoint," he says. "I can't name you a TV show that doesn't show you a politician being utterly craven and the people who are around them being complete idiots and the people who support them being dumb ... . That's OK, but there's a consequence to that: Every show's the same."
MovieStyle on 11/24/2017
Print Headline: Director: The Journey like Odd Couple in back of car