For a dozen years, Alex Gibney has been one of our most important and exciting documentary filmmakers: a solo industry of explosive non-fiction. Gibney works with a devoted team, but the director is a multi-tasking engine; he never stops. The range of subjects he tackles is extraordinary — from Enron to WikiLeaks to Al Qaeda, from Elliot Spitzer to Hunter S. Thompson to Frank Sinatra — yet the range wouldn’t mean much if Gibney’s reach weren’t as deep as it is wide. My feeling is that Gibney, though he’s long been a wizard of documentary aesthetics, has only grown as a filmmaker. His 2014 film “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” was the grandest of his artist portraits, and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which came out in 2015, was arguably his greatest achievement: the movie that peeled back every layer of the Scientology onion, and did so with the sinister bravura of a profound thriller.
All of which makes “No Stone Unturned,” which premiered today at the New York Film Festival, a true Gibney anomaly. The movie is his investigation into the Loughinisland massacre, one of the signpost tragedies of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It’s the first Gibney film that has almost no connection to events happening in America — but, ironically, it’s also one of the only Gibney films in which he declares, right up front, his personal relationship to the subject: He had spent time over in Ireland, working on a project that connected him to The Heights Bar, a small-town pub on an isolated road.
On the night of June 18, 1994, two gunmen, wearing boiler suits and balaclavas, burst into the pub and opened fire with assault rifles, killing six of the patrons, all of them Catholic. The massacre took place during the World Cup, when the bar was packed with people who had gathered to watch the Republic of Ireland face off against Italy. It was quickly established that the gunmen were members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the loyalist paramilitary group that might roughly be described as the loyalist equivalent of the IRA. (The moment you apply a word like “equivalent” to the Troubles, you’re looking for trouble, but that, I believe, is an accurate assessment.)
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The massacre was headline news around the world, but Gibney felt the shock and horror of seeing people he’d fraternized with attacked. His movie is a detective story that investigates the truth of what happened: Who, exactly, were the gunmen? And why, for years, did the crime remain unsolved? Gibney, like many observers, alleges a cover-up, one that reaches to the highest levels of the British government, and he offers convincing evidence. Yet in a strange way, the movie, as doggedly made as it is, remains stubbornly uncompelling. That, I think, is because Gibney’s own connection to the subject, while it charges him with righteous passion, has resulted in a rare loss of perspective.
The movie presents the Loughinisland massacre as a defining cataclysm of the Troubles. The conflict in Northern Ireland, of course, stretches back to the 1920s, and in the 1960s and ’70s the bombings and retaliations, the thickets of loyalty and recrimination, the tribal face-off between republicanism and unionism became a kind of national hornets’ nest, a daily bloodbath of tragedy and rage. There were hundreds upons hundreds of murders. Civilians died. And, as in the Middle East, the belief held by members of each side in the inviolable rightness of their view — the whole double-edged absolutism that ruled the land — became the fuel of an undercover war that ground on without end.
In “No Stone Unturned,” Gibney’s technique is to take the Loughinisland massacre and treat it as if it were Watergate or the Enron scandal: a massively layered crime of transcendent significance, one that, if he finally gets to the bottom of it, will offer up a scalding truth that sets us free. He begins by re-staging the massacre (a good example of why dramatizations in documentaries, even when they’re by good filmmakers, almost always come off as chintzy and manipulative, like something on a tabloid news show), and he shows us grisly photographs of the aftermath. The film’s attitude is: Even within the Troubles, this was a singular horror.
But without in any way minimizing the hellish tragedy of it, the viewer may be moved to ask, “Really? Why?” Six Catholic civilians were murdered in cold blood, and that was a human obscenity, but so were many of the other murders in Northern Ireland, stretching back for decades. “No Stone Unturned” immerses us in the minutiae of the Troubles (weapons shipments, factions within factions), but it focuses on this tragedy as a prima facie crime at the expense of fully coloring in the vast thorny context of it.
The majority of film dramas about the Irish conflict, even the greatest of them — like Paul Greengrass’ amazing docudrama “Bloody Sunday” — have been, implicitly or explicitly, on the side of the IRA, to the point that watching them, you might almost think that the conflict was between Irish people who want their country back and an oppressive colonizing force of Britishers who want to keep ruling it. The colonial dimension is there, of course. Yet the conflict resides as well in the reality that most of the residents of Northern Ireland — that is, the Protestant majority — are not in favor of severing the tie with Britain and reunifying the country. This counterintuitive fact cannot be grasped as if it were part of some national “turf war.” It can only be understood as a complex battle of religious identity.
In “No Stone Unturned,” Gibney investigates the volatile issue of “collusion”: the charge that the Northern Irish police have collaborated with the UVF, and that the police themselves have been treated as an arm of the British military, and the British government. Depending on your point of view, this is (or is not) a scandal, but it is not news — at least, not to the degree that Gibney applies a kind of “shocked, shocked” response to it.
There were abundant clues to the identities of the killers in the Loughinisland massacre, like an abandoned getaway car and an assault rifle that were found near the scene. Then much of that evidence gradually disappeared. (The car was brought to a dump.) This is an outrage, but since it’s known that the murders were committed by UVF members, the film’s insistence on establishing their exact identities is a quest that never acquires the moral significance Gibney attempts to charge it with. We meet the victims’ family members, who understandably want closure, but against the backdrop of a larger political conflict, it’s hard not to think about how many of the killings during the Troubles have been committed anonymously, and therefore remain “unsolved.”
After a while, the film itself attains a kind of closure. Information is revealed; cover-ups are uncovered; and thanks to Gibney’s probing camera, we see the main killer with our own eyes. (It’s a real banality-of-evil moment.) The families, in the end, achieve something of the release they’re looking for, and that’s a moving thing. Yet the film never succeeds in showing us how the meaning of this horrific event syncs up to the larger meaning of a violent conflict that stretches back 100 years (however much it’s now winding down). For decades, the members of the IRA defended themselves against the charge of “terrorism” by claiming that they were not terrorists; they were soldiers in a war. But in “No Stone Unturned,” Gibney treats the Loughinisland Massacre as, quite simply, a crime. It was a crime, and a hideous one, but the meaning of that crime — not simply the horror of it, but the whole reason it ever happened — remains, in the movie, more of a question than an answer.