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Five Minutes of Heaven

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Cast: Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt

(Element Pictures; US DVD: 15 Apr 2010)

Northern Ireland: a legacy of violence and its human cost.

“I was fourteen when I joined the Tartan Gangs, and fifteen when I joined the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force”. 
—Alistair Little


One night in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, a car pulls up to a dingy line of row houses. A masked UVF gunman steps out and fires three shots through a front window, killing Jim Griffin, a Catholic who threatened a Protestant neighbor. Griffin’s 11-year-old brother Joe is standing on the sidewalk with a soccer ball. The gunman and Joe’s eyes meet, then the gunman steps back into the car.


Five Minutes of Heaven is loosely based on the murder of Jim Griffin by 17-year-old Alistair Little. What makes the film unique is its focus on the after-effects of a violent act and the lasting damage on people’s lives. 


Thirty-three years after the murder, a television program attempts to reunite Little (Liam Neeson) and Griffin (James Nesbitt) for a “Truth and Reconciliation” event. 


After serving 12 years in prison, Little is still haunted by the killing: “Once you have signed up to terror and joined the group, your mind closes down”, Little says. “It becomes only our story that matters, not their story—the Catholics. It’s only my people that are being killed. The Catholics being killed? It doesn’t enter your head”.


At the beginning of the film, we see the 17-year-old Little preparing for the assassination. The acne-scarred teenager searches through a toy box, sifting through Legos and pop records until he finds what he’s looking for: a Smith and Wesson .38 with a cache of bullets. 


Thirty-three years later, the war is over for Little. Sickened by bloodshed, Little believes that redemption is only possible though honesty–about his own violent past and the nature of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. 


For Joe Griffin, the war is never-ending.  As Griffin is being driven to the studio, we see in flashback Griffin’s mother lashing out at her 11-year-old son after the murder:  “Why didn’t you do something!” she screams at him. “You could have stopped him!” On the day of the funeral, young Joe takes his mother’s hand, but she pushes him away. 


The memory is still so painful that Griffin doubles over in the backseat of the car. Then he remembers locking eyes with his brother’s killer. “Now I’m riding in the car to visit you”, Griffin murmurs. Once he arrives on the set, we learn that he’s stashed a knife inside his waistband. Griffin confides to a studio gofer, Vika, about his intentions:


Griffin: “The man who shot my brother three times in the head…should I shake his hand or should I kill him?”


Vika: “Killing him wouldn’t be good for him—or for you either”.

Griffin: “Not good for me…my five minutes of heaven? How would that not be good for me?”


The scene is chilling and we realize that the show’s producers have been impossibly naïve—there’s no chance of truth and reconciliation here. Little tells the show’s director: “Griffin doesn’t want an apology—he has come here and I have come here so that he can confront me. What I have to do is be honest with him. That’s the most difficult thing.  But that’s what he’s going to need from me”.


The approach of the two lead actors in this film is striking. Neeson gives a quiet, understated performance as Little, effectively depicting a reformed terrorist who has had a lot of time for reflection.  Nesbitt’s performance is intense and riveting–a victim tortured by the past, once a damaged child, but now a dangerous zealot driven by revenge.


The film’s moral perspective is risky, for the viewer’s sympathy tilts away from the victim and toward the reformed killer. Yet the conflict between Little and Griffin underscores the larger tragedy of Northern Ireland: an endless cycle of violence that’s tribal, senseless, and devastating.


“The story is almost Shakespearian”, according to director Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Two men destined like trains to hit each other.  If they want relief–either forgiveness or revenge—then they have to meet, they have to collide. It’s a universal story, it could be set in Bosnia or Lebanon just as well”.


Five Minutes of Heaven was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and won two Sundance awards for best director (drama) and screenplay. The bonus features on the disc include interviews with Hirschbiegel, Neeson, Nesbitt, and writer Guy Hibbert.  Although interesting, these interviews are brief and appear to have been heavily edited.

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John Grassi lives in Norman, Oklahoma. His work was recently published by Centipede Press in their latest Film Studies collection, 'Night of the Living Dead'. He can be reached at john.grassi@att.net.


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