Route Irish Review
Ken Loach is a director who, in the larger picture, constantly raises important social and political issues in his films, issues that are challenging to the political establishment and are often enlightening for his cinema audiences. In the smaller picture, he also shows concern for ordinary people who are caught up in these bigger issues, the impact it has on them and how they live with them. The social message balance of the Ken Loach political film then lies in the intersection between the two and Loach is at his most successful when he is able to get that balance right, combining the bigger picture with the smaller scale, making a broader political statement through the details of the lives of his characters. When the balance weighs too heavily towards one side or the other, the inevitable consequence is that the film can seem preachy and polemical or just misguidedly venting anger.
Whether the balance is right or not can also depend on the sensibility of the viewer and whether it meets their own expectations, and in the case of Route Irish, the subject raised – the use of privately contracted armed forces in Iraq and the abuses they commit there – is an important one that is certainly of interest to the average viewer and merits a rigorous and challenging approach from the filmmaker. Loach, with regular writer Paul Laverty, not unexpectedly, finds that the best way of broaching the subject and making it accessible for a UK audience is to approach it from the point of view of an ordinary working-class Liverpudlian family who find themselves caught up in the murky dealings of a corporate and political machine, one with commercial interests to preserve over truth and decency. It’s a valid approach and Route Irish consequently raises a relevant issue and puts it in terms that are meaningful for anyone, but unfortunately in the process it fails to make a convincing drama out of it all.
It’s not through any fault with the actors or the casting. Even though the sight of scouse comedian John Bishop as Frankie, a mercenary soldier chasing down insurgents in Iraq does take one initially by surprise, he has a down-to-earth Liverpudlian personality that suits his everyman character and comes across as a natural on the screen. Also effective is Mark Womack as his best mate Fergus, the two of them growing up together and forming a bond that makes them closer than brothers, a bond that is deepened by the experience the two men share in the army and later when they sign up to work for an organisation providing security and bodyguard services in Iraq. It’s understandable then that when news of Frankie’s death arrives – killed in an ambush on Route Irish, the road from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone, one of the most dangerous journeys in the world – Fergus, who has missed his friend’s calls on account of being involved in a nightclub incident, is understandably upset and wants to know the details. Something however, he suspects, just doesn’t add up, and when a mobile phone from Frankie is passed on to him, containing incriminating movie footage of an incident in Baghdad, Fergus tries to investigate what looks like a cover-up operation.
The clue to where the drama of Route Irish fails its subject is in the last sentence there. A mobile phone from Frankie comes into Fergus’ hands and just happens to have incriminating footage of near-movie quality, with a good eye for cinematography, in a manner that fortuitously and unambiguously captures the whole incident. If only things were that clear-cut in real-life. Yes, footage showing controversial behaviour and abuse by troops in Iraq has indeed surfaced in real-life and been leaked before and has proved to have had a major impact on the public’s perception of the war, but it’s all a little too convenient here. As a means of connecting the wider ethical questions of the liberties afforded to commercially-run forces in Iraq and the legislation that allows them the same dubious freedoms as regular soldiers when it comes to opening fire, arresting and interrogating Iraqi citizens, and in how it relates to Frankie’s family and through them why it’s a serious issue that the general public should be concerned about it, it’s barely adequate as a dramatic device.
Unfortunately, the events that follow fail to convince on either a dramatic level or personal level, as the drama starts to gain the momentum of a conspiracy theory thriller, while the human drama – great performances from Andrea Lowe and Mark Womack notwithstanding – fail to involve the viewer, tending, in a Loachian manner towards frequent outbursts of anger, violence and strong language that is not the most articulate or expressive means of putting his message across. Route Irish is a strong drama that does succeed in raising an important issue that many people may not have been previously aware of, and it gives good reasons why we should be concerned about the activities of private contractors in war zones, but the focus of the drama is wrong. We should be much more concerned about events in Iraq and how they apply to the Iraqi people than in how they affect a family in Liverpool. It’s in stretching this point over to the UK that the film fails to convincingly sustain the drama that ensues, and it certainly fails through Fergus’s actions to suggest any kind of meaningful real-world response to the problem.