No Stone Unturned Review
Alex Gibney is undeniably the most prolific documentary filmmaker working today. Since 2015, he’s devoted his time to making universally acclaimed exposés of scientology and the dangerous fallout from the US and Israel’s cyberattack on Iran, as well as making comparatively light hearted docu-biographies on Steve Jobs and Frank Sinatra. He has even managed to find time to experiment with fiction storytelling, by directing an episode of acclaimed drama Billions. By juggling so many projects at once, it can be easy to interpret Gibney’s documentary subjects as short term obsessions, that he won’t think twice about once his next project comes along - no matter how thorough, incisive (and in the case of 2016’s Zero Days, formally inventive) his films may be.
Gibney always tends to deal with well known public figures, or stories which have a contemporary resonance. With No Stone Unturned, he’s searching for truth in a story that has long since vanished from headlines - one that, despite being a major event in Northern Ireland, may prove to be a shocking discovery to many viewers in mainland Britain. If his other films could be cynically described as opportunistic, following a story that is already a prevalent fixation on the public imagination, then No Stone Unturned feels like a rare personal work for the filmmaker. It doesn’t quite provide full answers to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the atrocity it explores, yet there is something incredibly noble in his attempt to bring closure to the families affected by an awful massacre the wider world has shamefully forgotten about.
In voiceover narration, Gibney tells us that his film was originally intended to be a documentary short, that became feature length after meeting people in the community who he righteously believed deserved answers. That community is the small village of Loughinisland, Northern Ireland, where in 1994, six men were inexplicably murdered while watching the Ireland vs Italy world cup match in the local pub. It was an atrocity that temporarily shocked the whole world; those with loved ones who passed on tell Gibney that The Troubles were something that happened in Belfast, not a quaint community like Loughinisland.
As the story made international headlines, the police informed one of the widows that there will be no stone unturned in the handling of the case - only for the case to all but have vanished from sight while remaining open, with key witness investigations going missing, and crucial pieces of evidence getting destroyed in the years that followed. The refusal to explore a tragedy that made no sense led many in the community to believe collusion was going on, which Gibney’s documentary confirms, but never fully grapples with the enormity of the situation. He leaves significant details like how John Major’s government in mainland Britain were likely to have had a background role as mere footnotes. It’s a humanist look at harrowing subject matter, but one that will likely leave viewers as frustrated at the outcome as they will be angry at how this situation both happened and subsequently handled.
The film is essential viewing for its subject matter; a brief cinematic release will be followed by an airing on BBC Four’s Storyville, where it will likely become a major talking point. One of the film’s downsides, however, is that as well as uncovering this story, Gibney does tend to get too simplistic when explaining the political context of The Troubles. Narrating an animation documenting the turbulent events following Ireland’s declaration of independence, for example, feels like an unnecessary inclusion, especially when elsewhere he effortlessly manages to make the political feel personal. He does manage to get great interviewees and effectively horrifying archive footage to demonstrate the terror of living in Northern Ireland during the later decades of the 20th century, even if it does feel like he's temporarily dodging the duty to uncover the governmental collusion in his central case study.
When it comes to the collusion surrounding the handling of the massacre itself, many of his interviewees unintentionally incriminate themselves in telling refusals to answer questions, which often feel like bigger revelations than the revelations themselves. A theory that the attack was randomly orchestrated by Major’s Conservative government in Westminster to speed up the peace process is revealed, yet irritatingly not explored in the way a seismic suggestion like that deserves to be. Elsewhere, a climactic postscript informing the audience of the British government’s refusal to release hundreds of thousands of incriminating documents on the massacre may speak volumes, but it’s hard to not wish Gibney could find a way to confirm many of the harsher allegations of collusion himself, instead of ending his film by offering this piece of information as a mere side note.
But for all the frustration the film may cause, the documentary is ultimately about the grieving families, a broken community, and a search for truth that has stretched out for over two decades without fully coherent answers being given. It's a rare Alex Gibney film that with a personal, humanist approach, which makes it easily forgivable despite never sinking its fingers as deep into the subject matter as you may like.