Fifty Dead Men Walking
Martin McGartland, the subject of this film about the Belfast Catholic who spied on the IRA for the RUC, has disowned it, claiming, “The film is as near to the truth as Earth is to Pluto”. Given that the role of informant isn’t generally the most respected of activities, one might argue that McGartland comes off fairly well (anyone watching a dramatisation of a true story who expects fidelity to the facts is on a hiding to nothing anyway), as the makers make no bones about McGartland being a “hero” who saved at least the number of lives stated in the film’s title. Canadian Kari Skogland’s film is technically accomplished, but the script is a rote affair. The result is less than satisfying, despite Jim Sturgess’ strong work in the lead role.
Opening with an attempt on McGartland’s life by the IRA in 1999, Skogland then flashes back eleven years. McGartland went from petty criminal to driving for the IRA and simultaneously informing on them. It was his criminal activities that first caught the police’s attention, although McGartland disputes the film’s version, saying that he was working for the security services for two years before making contact with the IRA. This may be so, but the problems with the film mostly relate to the limited insight provided into the motivations of its protagonist.
We see McGartland disgusted by IRA bombings, and a kneecapping administered to a friend as “justice”. The film posits a generally simplistic viewpoint, that McGartland was trying to do the right thing; an initial attraction to the financial rewards for his services is intimated, but scene after scene relates to McGartland’s moral outrage (as if to confirm to the viewer that yes, this is the right choice). The choice to lead a double life has, at its best, resulted in films with a little more nuance that we see here (admittedly, most of the successes have concerned undercover cops). We don’t get to know McGartland, and he seems to juggle informing with leading a family life with relative ease.
McGartland’s meetings with his handler, “Fergus” (Ben Kingsley), provide the character with opportunities to vent steam over his situation, but this device quickly becomes repetitive; the scenes are overwrought and underwritten. It doesn’t help that Kingsley, equipped with a ridiculous toupee, is miscast. He’s too “big” for the part, and his choices, be it costume/make-up or accent, draw unnecessary attention to a character that needs to blend in.
In the final stages, the film veers completely off the rails. If McGartland’s escape from his IRA captors (upon discovery of his duplicity) is based on fact, the subsequent car chase is ludicrous, culminating in Kingsley firing at the pursuing IRA from the back of an ambulance.
It’s this kind of glamourisation, and a desire to cut corners of story and character, that render Fifty Dead Men Walking a serviceable thriller but redundant as any kind of insight or commentary on the Troubles. It’s a film with one eye firmly set on foreign sales (Rose McGowan’s cameo) and commercial concerns clearly took precedence.