A terrorist attack occurs and it’s revealed that agencies entrusted with the public’s safety failed to act upon information that might have prevented the tragedy. No, it’s not a movie about Sept. 11, 2001, but rather about Aug. 15, 1998, when a car bombing in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh claimed the lives of some 29 passers-by and injured hundreds of others. A riveting docudrama about that day and its aftermath, “Omagh” serves as a companion piece to writer-producer Paul Greengrass’ superb 2001 pic “Bloody Sunday,” but emerges as a startlingly powerful achievement in its own right.
Among the most timely and topical of the politically-charged pics unveiled over the past 12 months, no matter that it takes place six years ago, appropriately discomforting pic (winner of Toronto’s Discovery award) could nonetheless find a small, but supportive audience in the hands of the right distrib.
The single most devastating act of terror in Northern Ireland history, the Omagh bombing was particularly incomprehensible, coming at a moment when peace in the long-troubled nation at last seemed imminent, thanks to the April 1998 signing of the Good Friday Peace Accords. But at the same time, there existed radical factions (like the fringe group calling itself the Real IRA that would come to take credit for Omagh) intent on continuing the violence.
Much as “Bloody Sunday” created tension by slowly drawing together its two parallel storylines of the Londonderry demonstrators and the military paratroopers charged with their suppression, “Omagh” begins by cutting between the Real IRA members converging on the town and the Omagh denizens going about their daily business. As the bomb is loaded into the back of a sedan and driven to a choice spot on a busy market street, men, women and children shop for blue jeans, sticky buns, etc. Among them is Aiden Gallagher (Paul Kelly), the son of local auto mechanic Michael Gallagher (Gerard McSorley, who himself hails from Omagh), unaware of the lurking danger.
Director Pete Travis maps these scenes out with remarkable verisimilitude and an immersive sense of geography, so that the audience quickly understands the lay of the land. In a mind-boggling snafu, local police are alerted by an informant that a bombing is about to take place, yet end up rerouting Omagh traffic in a way that actually herds pedestrians closer to the location of the bomb.
The explosion turns the streets into an opaque battlefield of carnage, dotted by ramparts of blasted brick and severed limbs — images that powerfully resemble those of widely broadcast news footage of the event.
Pic shifts to depict the search by family members for news of their loved ones, coming to focus on Michael as he traverses police stations and hospital waiting rooms accompanied by a picture of Aiden.
These scenes are deeply moving on their own terms, and it is impossible to watch them without being reminded of similar quests undertaken by so many in the wake of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks.
While movies in recent years have given us no shortage of parents’ lives upended by the sudden loss of a child, the extraordinary depth of feeling in McSorley’s performance causes “Omagh” resonate in a way few such pics have outside of Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room.” From the subtle flecks of pride he shows in an early father-son bonding scene to the way his face drops, like the elastic has been let out of it, at the moment Aiden’s death is confirmed, it’s a brilliant piece of acting.
“Omagh” then flashes forward two months to address the feelings of abandonment and despair that arise in the town over the police’s slack handling of the their investigation.
Finding himself installed as the chairman of a support group for victims families, Michael, throws himself into his own fact-finding mission, arranging meetings with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, attempting to file a civil suit against the Real IRA and, ultimately, prompting an official review of the matter by the independent police ombudsman (Brenda Fricker).
At this point, a rat’s nest of communications breakdowns and cover-ups comes to light. Yet, rather than devolving into one of those narrowly focused, little-people-take-on-the-system movies, “Omagh” remains a potent call for peace and non-violence that casts its eyes far beyond the borders of Northern Ireland.
As was the case with “Bloody Sunday,” this small-screen pic has bigscreen muscle, particularly in the form of Donal Gilligan’s agile, but never self-conscious handheld camerawork and Clive Barrett’s razor-sharp editing.