SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 148 - May 2011


Death on the road

Route Irish

Certificate 15, 109 mins

Directed by Ken Loach

Reviewed by Greg Maughan

KEN LOACH’S latest film, Route Irish, is a tight thriller. In it, a conspiracy surrounding the death of a military contractor in Iraq is the starting point for an exploration of the psychological impact of war and the increasingly open commercial drive behind the violent reality of occupation. The title is named after the road that connects Baghdad airport with the Green Zone – purportedly the most dangerous in the world – and the film follows the attempts of Fergus to discover the truth behind the death of his childhood friend Frankie on that road.

Frankie is competently performed by stand-up comedian John Bishop in his first major acting role. But the bulk of the film is carried by Mark Womack as Fergus. His individual development and gradual realisation of what they had been responsible for, as soldiers and private contractors, form the emotional drive.

Fergus is psychologically scared by his time on the frontline and has brought plenty of emotional baggage back home with him to Liverpool. This is made explicit by the way that Baghdad is physically brought to the Mersey over the course of his investigation. Car bombings, armed raids of peoples’ homes and water boarding are made all the more shocking for their familiar settings.

Fergus’s sense of alienation from the rest of society after his return from Iraq will be painfully familiar to anyone who has served in the armed forces or who has friends or family who have. This is reminiscent of Robert De Nero’s character in The Deer Hunter, lost when he returns to America from Vietnam. In Route Irish, however, the focus is on the predatory role that private military contracting companies play, rather than the individual decisions of The Deer Hunter.

Twenty-four thousand people leave the armed forces every year. Grants are available for retraining, although these face cuts along with seemingly everything else today. And they are not clearly promoted to ex-service personnel. One former soldier explained to the BBC: "The MoD [Ministry of Defence] was not that helpful. I ended up spending about £500 on security courses - I didn't realise I was entitled to three courses costing up to £1,000 over ten years". Statistics in 2010 showed at least 1,100 ex-soldiers sleeping rough on the streets of London every night. In addition, roughly 3% of Britain’s prison population are former military.

This insecurity and alienation from society is preyed upon by private companies. In Route Irish we see a contracting executive handing out business cards to lads at Frankie’s funeral! Loach also explores the difference that the profit motive makes to operations. In one scene, Fergus recounts how he left three other contractors to die: "Deliver the package and fuck everything else".

There has been a ten-fold increase in the number of private contractors in Iraq compared to the Gulf war of 1990-91. Up until 2007, private contractors in Iraq had no need to register the names of individuals, armoury or anything else with the governments of countries they were operating in. As of October 2007, this has changed, although registration with Iraq’s puppet government amounts to very little and these private companies still act with relative immunity.

It is difficult to explain the most interesting points in the film without giving some spoilers. But Fergus’s insistence on defending the general actions of the military and private contractors in Iraq, while condemning the death of his friend, gradually gives way as he gets closer to the human impact of occupation and, specifically, the private companies’ operations.

The film contains a number of disturbing scenes, including an extended water-boarding interrogation. That this produces a false confession that misleads Fergus on his quest for revenge is a perhaps too heavy-handed irony. But the torture scene is very powerful. Overall, Route Irish is an interesting and watchable movie. It has a strong narrative drive, not always present in Loach’s films. It is a consciously political piece of work, and manages not to become overwhelmed by that.

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