Bobby Sands: 66 Days is a straightforward historical documentary exploring the hunger strike he embarked upon that ultimately led to his death. It is an engaging and even-handed film buoyed by several interviews and Sands’ own prison diary. As either an argument about the Troubles or a biography of Sands, however, it falls short; most of its claims are exaggerated and its coverage too scattershot. The film’s hyperbolic arguments and haphazard approach to Sands’ life are ultimately in the service of promoting an uplifting message about the superiority of nonviolence in the face of violence to catalyze structural transformation.

Sands was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos) serving a 14-year sentence on weapons possession charges at the H-Block prison unit of Long Kesh Detention Centre. Following revelations that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) committed systematic torture of 342 prisoners in 1972, Republican prisoners had been imprisoned more humanely and with special status. However, this status was revoked in 1976 and offenders were sent to the newly-constructed H-Blocks. The prisoners instantly protested this treatment through various means, including an aborted hunger strike in 1980. On 1 March 1981, Sands—by that time the commanding officer of the Provos within the prison—began a new hunger strike demanding reforms to the incarceration paradigm.

The film opens on day one of the strike, filling in much of the backstory of both Sands’ life and Republican prison life during the Troubles through flashbacks. Sands’ childhood, recruitment into the Provos and arrests are covered. Notably, director Brendan Byrne does not discuss the RUC’s notorious torture policy, but otherwise sets the stage for uninformed viewers.

At its strongest, Bobby Sands details daily life in the prisons. In the period of special status, prisoners lived together, read and discussed political theory and developed a burgeoning intellectual community. The film is particularly astute at linking prison life to the Provos’ ability to contextualize their struggle within contemporary anticolonial Third Worldist. The post-1976 reforms transformed prison life; existence in the H-Blocks was miserable, intense and isolated. Prisoners protested their conditions by painting their cell walls with feces and rejected prison uniforms by dressing only in their blankets. The horrors of these conditions are well-displayed by the film.

But even here, where Bobby Sands is at its best, there are inexplicable exclusions. Sands became famous in his H-Block as a storyteller and poet, which the documentary alludes to only briefly. A more noteworthy absence is any discussion of Irish, the study of which had enriched prison life during the special status days. Sands was a particularly accomplished student of the language. In the lonely squalor of the H-Blocks, he was beloved for shouting Irish lessons to teach the language to his fellows. Irish was central to Sands’ identity and its exclusion from Bobby Sands is jarring.

The film’s narrative momentum comes from its subtitle and the way it counts each day of the hunger strike. As the counter approaches 66, the viewer’s dread increases, knowing that Sands’ death is imminent. Smartly, the film in its final minutes shifts perspective from a focus on Sands to his legacy. Byrne draws two direct lines from Sands’ hunger strike: one to a decrease in Republican violence during the Troubles and another to the Good Friday Agreement, which ultimately brought the Troubles to an end.

For the first of these claims, the film highlights Sands’ own electoral campaign for a seat in the House of Commons (from his jail cell) as signaling a shift in Republican tactics, with pursuit of political office beginning to replace the armed struggle. Sands, Byrne contends, showed that victory would come to the side that suffered most rather than the side that inflicted the most suffering. There is surely truth in this claim, but it is also an exaggeration; for another two decades armed men committed numerous violent and terroristic acts in the name of the Republican cause.

The film’s second claim, that Sands’ sacrifice begot the Good Friday Agreement, is also hyperbolic, albeit less so. What the 1981 hunger strike did was definitively change the way Irish-Americans viewed the Troubles. In the 1970s, the conflict in Northern Ireland featured two sides who were equally difficult to support: an occupation army versus car-bombing, civilian-maiming Republicans. Sands offered an avenue for support: inarguably victimized, an avatar of moral goodness whose presence castigated British intransigence. One of the film’s bright spots is its withering critique of Thatcher’s inhumane pragmatism in the face of Sands’ monumental suffering. With solidarity marches in New York and Boston, U.S. politicians, including Irish-American Senator Ted Kennedy, could legitimately pressure for a resolution to the Troubles. Sands, in effect, inverted the way the Troubles were viewed, allowing Republicanism to become respectable. The participation of the United States was undoubtedly central to the Good Friday Agreement, but the line from Sands to the formalization of peace is not quite as straight as Byrne claims.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days will appeal to anyone interested in Sands’ story and will provide a good introduction to the complexities of the Troubles, but as a film it is plagued by aesthetic plainness and indiscipline in its ambitious, often tenuous arguments.

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