RATING |

GEORGE S. Patton once said that, next to war, all other human endeavors shrink to insignificance.

Shrinking too are the combatants, a fact noted bitterly by a pair of recent movies.

First: "American Sniper," which begins with a boy holding a grenade and ends with another picking up an RPG, as though taking possession of some perverse and by now inevitable inheritance.

You see echoes of these images in the riveting "'71," the story of a green (pardon the pun) British soldier named Hook (Jack O'Connell), newly stationed in Belfast.

His first patrol ends in a bloody riot, he's separated from his unit and spends the following night hiding and running for his life.

What does the movie have to say about the Troubles?

Nothing new. Director Yann Demange is French, his POV even-handed to the point of political disinterest. He seems, at first glance, to frame the movie purely as a piece of suspense and action.

But note how Demange returns, again and again, to images of children as combatants, and eager ones - they grasp the fundamentals of war as if by instinct.

First, in the riot, opportunistic street kids confiscate abandoned weapons and relay them, along with battlefield intelligence, to their elders.

Later, in an amazing sequence, the soldier is shepherded to relative safety by a Protestant boy (Aaron Lynch), who seems part Patton himself - full of hilariously obscene bravado.

The youngster is stunned and intrigued to learn that Hook, so eagerly sought by both sides in this ripely sectarian conflict, has no religious affiliation, and appears not to have considered the question until asked.

This boy's role in the movie, small but important and vivid, ends with him taking a chair in a pub, as if he's about to order a pint. His posture says: We children can do anything you adults can do. It seems to be true, and that's as depressing as it is mordantly funny.

I find it hard to believe, incidentally, that this young actor's performance has not received wider acclaim - I think it's among the best performances by a child actor that I've ever seen.

It's O'Connell, though, handsome star of "Unbroken," who's getting the ink. The roles are similar - he says little, registers much, mainly bewildered paranoia at having been dropped into the blurry chaos of this deadly place, shuttled about among people he does not know and can scarcely afford to trust. (Echoes of more recent wars in regions of long-festering religious conflict seem intentional.)

As Hook's nocturnal nightmare unfolds, Demange cuts to the frantic efforts of warring parties to find him/kill him/rescue him - efforts complicated by double agents, informants, splinter groups and internal political intrigue. What emerges is a picture of managed bloodshed, of deeply cynical leadership mulling collateral damage and expendable assets.

Who would blindly trust such men?

Fight and die for them?

"'71" poses these questions and answers them with a shot of a child running eagerly with a stolen rifle.

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