'In the Name . . . ' looks at concepts of manhood

January 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Such an odd couple. One's a working-class mate, a gangling fletch of a man, big-eyed and tumultuous, with a ragged mop of hair and a fund of ready resentments, spitting anger and energy. He could be a Boomtown Rat.

The other's a trim and tidy intellectual, under a neat spritz of TV-weatherman's hair, who can discuss Freud and Oedipus as they play across Irish literature, or the nature of dramatic structure in a voice both gentle and exquisite.

What a team. Mutt and Jeff? Abbott and Costello? Good cop, bad cop?

Actually, their unlikely union came about because of bad cop, bad cop, and Gerry Conlon, the first of the duo, can tell you all about bad cops. He spent 15 years locked in a British prison for a crime he didn't commit; a crime the bad cops knew he didn't commit. They even knew who did commit it.

And Jim Sheridan, the second, already famous for directing "My Left Foot," has co-written and directed "In the Name of the Father," which chronicles not merely Gerry's engagement with British justice, but also the engagement of his father, who was also swept up in the net and who also spent years in prison for a crime he -- and the cops -- knew he didn't commit.

The film opened Friday, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Gerry Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite as Giuseppe Conlon.

So here in a Washington hotel, what we have is a team called: good victim, good director.

Conlon, a petty thief who'd fled Belfast after irritating the IRA, which put him in danger of a bullet in the kneecap (the IRA's way of saying "naughty, naughty") came to London in the early '70s and took up a feckless life as a hippie squatter and small-time thief. He was completely unaware of the larger forces deploying around him: a terror- bombing campaign unleashed by the guerrilla wing of the Irish Republican Army and the aggressive response by British security forces. Thus, when a bomb was detonated in a soldier's pub in Guildford, killing five, he thought nothing of it; it had nothing to do with him.

But because he was Irish and because he was available and because someone already arrested gave up his name, he was picked up by British police, who were themselves under extraordinary pressure. The "Prevention of Terrorism Act" had been passed within a month of the bombing, and under its mandates the police were able to hold him for a week without recourse to legal counsel. During this time, pressures could be applied to produce "confessions."

The movie is merciless in documenting interrogation techniques that would do the KGB proud: physical beating, sleep deprivation, torture, endless psychological pressure. In the end, Conlon signed a confession prepared for him, even though the police had not only verified his alibi but determined which cell of the IRA actually had planted the bombs. But institutional pride was at stake.

"I can close my eyes and see it as if it were today," says Conlon, indeed closing his eyes and conjuring, through his demons, that moment: "The prison. The vomit, the stench, the violence. My humiliation was complete. The screws [guards] showed me the concrete posts in the building and said to me, 'We'll squish you like a bug against them posts if you give us any attitude.'"

Then they dumped him in total darkness, where they kept him for 16 hours.

What sustained you during all that, he is asked.

The answer is not illuminating, for such answers rarely are.

"Oh, I never gave up hope. I despaired at times but I never gave up hope. I'd had a social life -- I was one for lights, for parties and bars and such. Suddenly I was in the dark. But somehow, I just kept on going."

Yet by the strange alchemy of the human spirit -- and even Gerry confesses that such a thing happened -- he has to admit that the ordeal in some sense improved him.

"I'd never read a book. I'd never thought a thought. And I was tremendously moved by the people I met. My best friend was a Jamaican, and today if I hear an Irishman say something bad about the blacks, I cut him dead. I end the friendship then and there, for good. This man's wife would pick me mother up and drive her to prison on visiting day, then drive her back home and make sure all was well. For no reason, other than her own `D goodness. That's what I learned in prison, not hate but goodness. I don't see color no more, I only see people."

Not anti-British

Both Sheridan and Conlon agree that the film isn't meant to be an angry, anti-British screed. It's about healing, between English and Irish and between Catholic and Protestant.

"The Protestants who see it," says Sheridan, "are the most profoundly affected. They've been trained to see the Irish Catholics as such scum, and in the film they learn again that we are merely people, such as themselves."

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