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Five Minutes of Heaven goes mano a mano with Northern Ireland conflict

Liam Neeson gives a complex performance as a repentant Irish terrorist in an intimate drama from the director of Downfall

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Even if you’ve never heard the name Oliver Hirschbiegel, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen his work. The German filmmaker directed Downfall, the superb 2004 drama about the Third Reich's final days. Last year, a clip of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler chewing out his underlings became a YouTube hit when an online prankster rewrote the subtitles so the scene depicted then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton raging against her campaign staff. Now you can find dozens of remixes that show Adolf hating on, say, the Avatar trailer.

Hirschbiegel can’t claim credit or blame for the pop appropriation of Downfall, but the original scene's dramatic power no doubt supports its viral following. Downfall’s depiction of the besieged Nazis combined epic battle scenes with more soft-spoken moments that illuminated Hitler’s historical legacy, such as Frau Goebbels quietly killing her own children rather than have them see an Allied victory. Hirschbiegel’s latest film, Five Minutes of Heaven, treats a confrontation between two men as another kind of microcosm for a historic event: the violence in Northern Ireland.

Five Minutes of Heaven depicts the buildup to a fictional meeting of two real men. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, a former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, an underground Protestant militia. In 1975, at the age of 16, Little gunned down a Catholic in reprisal over a complicated grudge. The victim’s young brother, Joe Griffen, witnessed the crime and grows up as a haunted, embittered man (James Nesbitt). The film’s first section re-creates the original crime and casts Mark Davison as young Little, who leads a group of spotty-faced teens eager to prove themselves by killing for the cause. The accents, slang and local references make the youths’ conversations nearly impenetrable, but Hirschbiegel builds suspense expertly, so the killing shocks us even though we know its outcome.

The film jumps ahead 25 years to show Little and Griffen as adults, being driven in separate automobiles to meet on-camera for a reality show about “truth and reconciliation.” Little served 12 years for the crime and experienced a change of heart in prison. As an adult, he’s something of a celebrity peace advocate, speaking out against violence to deglamorize homegrown terrorism. Neeson offers a fascinating portrayal of Little, whose sincerity initially proves ambiguous. He wrestles with guilt for killing an innocent man, but also shows plenty of media savvy. During a sound check for the TV program, he recites a self-description that puts his youthful actions in social context. Does rehearsing a public confession make it any less honest?

Griffen also has lived with guilt over the years, as his mother blamed his inaction for his brother’s death. Nesbitt makes Griffen sardonic and anxious as he snaps at his excessively solicitous handlers on the production crew. In extended chats with one of the show’s comely assistants (Anamaria Marinca), Griffen reveals his jealousy over Little’s fame, his awareness that the show is exploiting his brother’s tragedy, and his hunger for revenge over reconciliation. Superfluous, jarring voice-overs at times spell out his feelings.

Five Minutes of Heaven implies that a lifetime of bitterness twisted Griffen’s spirit, but Nesbitt’s complex performance reveals Griffen as almost rabbity, only a whisker away from being a full-on comedic hothead. The disparity between Nesbitt’s peevish snarling and Neeson’s noble brooding suggests that over time, the tragedy reduced Griffen while ennobling Little, which may not be the film’s intention. The choice of the two actors nicely evokes such excellent historical dramas about “The Troubles" as Neeson’s Michael Collins and Nesbitt’s Bloody Sunday.

Reminiscent of Frost/Nixon, Five Minutes of Heaven knowingly observes the stage-managing theatrics that arise whenever television tries to make history. Since Five Minutes of Heaven seeks to end with two men’s confrontation, the script finds frustrating contrivances to defer the face-to-face meeting. Nevertheless, the film provides a telling perspective on Ireland’s legacy of violence, which encloses Little and Griffen in the same bunker.

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