It’s all but impossible to tell a story about the historical conflict in Northern Ireland without picking a side; a properly even-handed film would be endlessly complicated, due to the need to pick apart personal motivations among the pattern of violent escalation and retaliation. Kari Skogland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking takes a simpler, more direct approach: She demonizes both sides equally. The British are violent, oppressive thugs; the IRA are kneecapping, torture-loving bullies. There’s victimization and suffering on both sides. The film almost feels like an anti-war tract, but the actual focus is even narrower: By showing both sides as deeply problematic, Skogland gains a little elbow room for her protagonist, himself a compromised man navigating a horrific moral dilemma.
Fifty Dead Men Walking dramatizes the real-life story of Martin McGartland, a young Catholic Irishman who infiltrated the IRA and became an informer for British security. Jim Sturgess (Across The Universe, 21) plays McGartland as a smug, cocky young hustler struggling to eke out a living in a society where Protestants control the jobs, and people of his age and upbringing are largely unemployed. A British agent (Ben Kingsley) identifies McGartland as an ideal spy, enough of a hard-ass to keep his dangerous secret, but also enough of a softie to resent the IRA’s hardliners and feel for their victims. Much of the film follows him as he sweats his way deeper into the organization, playing both sides of the fence and trying not to get caught.
But while Skogland provides plenty of by-the-book spy-game tension and potentially lethal close calls, the film doesn’t fully hit its stride until its third act, and McGartland never entirely comes into focus as a character. The screenplay is based on his memoir, but it features precious little insight into his motivations; his horror over IRA torture sessions and bombings seems real enough, but doesn’t explain why he chooses to risk his life, or side with an enemy that offers him more contempt than comfort. The scenes between Sturgess and Kingsley are riveting, as Kingsley alternately cozens and commands, playing his reluctant informer like a fish on a line. But Kingsley’s cop seems to know McGartland far better than the audience does.
What makes Fifty Dead Men work is the story’s sheer moral complexity, which dares viewers to sympathize with anyone onscreen for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s a dirty war on all sides, and there’s little sense that McGartland is actually doing the right thing by anyone. The question isn’t whether he’s a hero, but where heroism lies amid moral impossibility. He might be caught and killed at any moment, but he’s just as likely to lose what little moral clarity keeps him going. It’s a delicate balancing act, wondering whether his spy game will end because of his external enemies, or the internal ones.