Tall Tale
Michael Joshua Rowin on Michael Collins

The biopic remains a continual thorn in the side of narrative cinema. Its problems are two-fold: audiences expect filmmakers to represent period details (décor, music, costumes, accents) with impeccable mimesis while eliding biographical facts for narrative and thematic clarity. This contradiction stems directly from cinema’s unique properties—a recording medium also perfect for manipulative purposes, cinema (especially the mainstream narrative variety) comes veritably equipped to depict in stunning fidelity the tall tales from which real-life legends are born yet is awkwardly suited to offer bibliographies, indices, and footnotes for verification of the historical accuracy that supposedly buttresses mimetic presentation. Whereas other genres and styles—documentary, realism, neorealism, and even the biopic’s close cousin, the fictitious historical epic—fuse cinema’s dichotomous strengths, the biopic rarely rises above its limitations, settling for irreconcilable contradiction instead of fermenting tension. Adherence to convention long ago calcified the biopic into a state of obsolescence. Filmmakers, often those of intelligence and artistry, repeatedly focus the biopic’s energies on makeup, wigs, and histrionics to mask over the reduction, compaction, and simplification of a historical reality too unwieldy and ambiguous to truly fit formal straightjackets. The narrative trajectories fashioned to make sense of chaos—the rise and fall of, the picaresque adventures of, the transformation of—do little to satisfy history, which at the very least begs for revelatory, dialectical lessons.

The case study here: Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic of the early 20th Century Irish Republican Army’s rabble-rousing, deadly Director of Intelligence. Or, as Liam Neeson’s Collins better puts it, “Minister for Gun-Running, Daylight Robbery, and General Mayhem.” Right off the bat, Michael Collins throws the viewer into the heart of the Irish Republican Army’s struggle for independence by opening with a reenactment of the failed 1916 Easter Uprising; a summary of the already young revolutionary’s early years (and, as is par for the course in so many biopics, psychological underpinnings) is thankfully eschewed. Nonetheless, Jordan is so eager to get to the action that he offers an unsatisfactory account of what political reasons brought Collins into Sinn Féin’s war against Britain. What are the stakes? Made for a universal audience extending far outside Ireland or the United Kingdom, the film indulges mass expectations of carnage and intrigue without ever properly introducing political material so far removed from the average non-Irish viewer. A few first act scenes instead initiate the faint characterizations and binary oppositions that will plague the film: Collins as jovial, inspiring outlaw delivering speeches and running afoul of the authorities, allowing instant connection to Collins’s Robin Hoodian archetype; Collins meeting future wife Kitty Kiernan (a totally unprepared Julia Roberts), at first girlfriend of best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), forcing a pointless human interest subplot that squanders considerable screen time; Collins clashing with IRA president Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) over effective tactics for engaging the British, setting up the good guy/bad guy conflict that, from all accounts, inadequately represents the complexity, and complex relationship, of both figures.

Jordan’s film finally launches in earnest when it portrays the chaos that followed Collins’s particular brand of revolutionary genius, and it’s a launch that aims straight for the fantastical side of the fantasy/realism equation. Not surprising: Jordan’s eye is clearly trained on the romantic, and Michael Collins never feels so weighted down as when it must deal with the dry mechanics of history. As problematic as it sounds, the film only soars when it reimagines the spectacles of history, i.e., spectacular violence. Establishing contact with Dublin policeman Edward Broy (Stephen Rea, playing a real-life person functioning in the film as that typical biopic device, the composite character), Collins shifts away from de Valera’s defensive diplomacy—in a puzzling move, the president even ignores a Broy warning of impending top-level Sinn Féin arrests in order to capitalize on their useful PR possibilities. Collins decides the IRA must leave behind the impractical, conventional warfare tactics that led to the Easter debacle and creates his famous flying column of soldiers and the Twelve Apostles assassination squad to carry out guerrilla hits on British officers and collaborators. Jordan’s lens loves the intrigue and the dramatic imagery promised by it. While de Valera and Boland are off on a support-gathering mission in America (the latter is separated from his best friend because the two together would inflict even more damage if working together), Collins, using information obtained by Broy, attacks the Northern Unionist detectives handpicked by Churchill himself to properly clean up Dublin Castle and destroy the IRA. The assassinations are conducted at the break of dawn, and Jordan makes good use of parallel editing, cutting between the separate acts (a detective on his morning workout is allowed a final prayer; another tries to defend himself but is shot down along with his girlfriend; detective leader Soames is betrayed by his cleaning lady) and Collins’s whispered grievances and wishes to Kiernan, poetically explaining his reasons for having to resort to violence. With weeping blue and gray color scheme, operatic employment of foggy landscapes and hushed interiors, juxtapositions of violence and contemplation, and the transgression of brutality into the most intimate settings, the scene owes a fair amount to The Godfather’s famous baptism interrupted by simultaneous gangland hits. And yet, there’s a notable difference between the two: whereas Coppola none-too-subtly contrasts the sacred and profane to highlight Michael Corleone’s final dissent into hypocrisy, Michael Collins forsakes such contrast and never holds its protagonist and his methods up to moral questioning. Even if we’re to ignore extra-textual evidence that Collins often violently attacked men who were never proved collaborators, there’s still the problem of who, according to the film, can claim violence as defensible and who cannot.

The British certainly don’t factor into this dilemma—if anything, the film could have been even harsher in depicting British oppression. Instead, it’s Jordan’s disingenuous handling of the Collins-de Valera split that forces his film to skirt larger issues. Throughout the film, Collins is presented as unequivocally noble, courageous, and practical in his necessary use of violent maneuvers to fight for independence. Conversely, de Valera is weak-willed, opportunistic, and above all an image-conscious politician who prefers diplomacy to revolt, talk to action. Both caricatures hardly do justice to these difficult historical figures. But after de Valera—against Collins’s greater understanding of the fight—orders another large-scale assault on a strategic British institution, the British ask to negotiate a treaty for an Irish Republic, and the Collins-de Valera coin flips. (Strangely, the film shows the fiasco of de Valera’s conventional declared act of war to prove Collins right, yet never explains how or why the British eventually buckled).

Collins is sent off to Britain to head the Irish delegation—in reality, he served as Arthur Griffith’s deputy—in a move he immediately interprets (and historians have also subsequently interpreted) as backhanded: De Valera, knowing Britain won’t allow Ireland to become completely independent, passes the buck, and the blame, unto his colleague. Collins returns with a disappointingly compromised treaty that gives most of Ireland freedom but apportions the North to the United Kingdom and forces the whole to pledge allegiance to the crown. De Valera feigns outrage; Collins justifies the treaty by claiming he and the Irish people are tired of bloodshed. Their positions, in effect, switch: Collins has now become the politician, defending a treaty he should be riddling with bullet holes, while de Valera plays the purist. Jordan might have examined the role reversal to expunge the meanings underlying this historical juncture: How do Collins and de Valera (and others who are given shorter shrift in the film) claim to speak for Ireland? Why? Did the concept of “Ireland” historically split into variant strands, leading to an Ireland divided? How did this occur over the centuries? Of course, the standard biopic contains no room for these questions. It must hold fast to binaries, deferring ambiguity to the textbooks. Jordan somehow expects the viewer to believe that Collins’s moral framework dictates ours. When Collins conducts a campaign of violence, it is necessary. When he decides to stop the campaign, even when the dream of a free Irish republic has not been fully achieved, it no longer is. Even if de Valera avoided the negotiations to avoid scapegoat status, even if his previous, film-exaggerated objections to brute force could be appropriately deemed cowardly, his cry of “What do you know of peace?” to Collins’s explanations of the treaty resounds throughout the rest of the film. It’s a cry shouted down by Jordan—Collins always gets the last word—but lingers in the ear of any discriminating viewer.

If anything, the film’s Collins-de Valera debate should open space for a discussion on the ethical implications of using violence for political struggle (a discussion that has assumed more importance in America than it has in Ireland since Michael Collins’ release—a question left unattended in the film is whether Collins would now be considered an insurgent or a terrorist). But that space is taken over by hagiographic melodramatics—the biopic excels at conflating the political with the personal in an emotionally manipulative, not dialectical or even thought-provoking, manner. Boland, who has sided with de Valera, is killed in the civil war that has broken out over the parliamentary acceptance of the treaty—his death in the fighting, started partly because of Collins, is made even more tragic by the fact that Kiernan had rejected him to become Collins’s fiancée. Boland was actually assassinated and not killed in the way the film suggests, in which better timing could have prevented his relatively arbitrary demise. Jordan makes this alteration to frame a “This madness stops now” moment when Collins discovers the body of his former friend—the tragedy of the civil war can only hit the viewer when a well-liked character snuffs it. Ultimately, everything revolves around our hero’s suffering purity, which is why the film must end with Collins’s assassination and martyrdom.

From its first frame to its last, Michael Collins slavishly follows the mainstream narrative model of representing history. Jordan has fun with set design and costumes in recreating 1910s and 20s Ireland, and he clearly jumps at the opportunity to construct scenes around intense violence and underground plotting, but he never engages the complications at the heart of Irish identity and patriotism, and fails to gauge Collins’s effect on contemporary Irish politics. Formal dictates of the biopic strangle the “excesses” of historical narrative and twist fact into pure invention to create familiar characters and a palatable story structure. Is there a generic corrective? Two alternatives come to mind. The first is the orthodox interpretation of historical record: Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc and Emile de Antonio’s In the King of Prussia (not biopics per se, but nonetheless renderings of historical accounts) use court transcripts as dialogue to maintain maximum fidelity to the actual proceedings. Of course, much of the action represented in Michael Collins and similar films unfolds without such documentation. In order to open up the cinematic text and allow for greater “transparency” between film and viewer the director could foreground source material and call attention to how it is used—direct address and written disclaimers aren’t as eye-catching as dramatic reenactments, but they do provide greater informational accuracy, if that be the filmmaker’s aim.

The second is a more subjective opening up of the text as suggested by Peter Watkins’s biopic subversions, most notably in his experimental, but by no means impenetrable, Edvard Munch. Watkins’s heterogeneous approach allows for a plurality of voices and viewpoints in taking careful note of the painter’s class, culture, and the historical context in which he was creating art—these fields equally apply to his acquaintances and contemporaries. A third-person narrator provides dialectic analysis and oppositional stances; images remain incomplete—not mere dramatizations of voice-over but confrontational tableaux (the same scenes are brought back for second and third viewings, as if for further readings) enticing the viewer to make connections. While still working within historical biography, Edvard Munch explodes set generic patterns by undermining spectacular diversion, closure, and the filmmaker’s usually unquestioned authority. I excitedly imagine Michael Collins in this vein. Had Jordan thought outside mass marketability’s broad reach—while our case study remains the second highest grossing film in Ireland, its artistic and historical influence has been, understandably, minimal—he might have found Watkins’s innovations better suited to a subject as multifaceted and controversial as Michael Collins.