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Contact (Alan Clarke, 1985)
A made-for-television movie unlike any other, Alan Clarke’s masterful Contact is a minimalist depiction of what life has become for a group of British soldiers on a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Although explicitly set during the period known as The Troubles, Clarke utilizes a nose-to-the-ground approach that drains overt politics from the situation, alternatively emphasizing monotony and tension instead. As Clark’s camera tracks his platoon through their routine flirtations with both actual death and a spiritual death at the hands of crushing boredom, the day to day realities of the conflict completely overtake any overriding ideologies. Although Contact depicts British soldiers trading gunfire with Irish militants and barking orders at Irish civilians, the majority of the run time involves the more mundane aspects of their patrols and bunker life. This approach eschews the rules of the Hollywood war film, or even plotting in a conventional sense, offering formless, but far from meaningless, documentary-style realism in its stead.
Because so much of Contact is boring by design, its outbursts of violence are both shocking and unexpected whenever they occur. What’s truly impressive, though, is that these jolts are not Contact’s most disturbing moments. Indeed, without ever betraying his hyper-realistic style, (the film utilizes handheld camerawork, a pointed lack of music, and an astonishingly naturalistic acting ensemble) Clarke is able to depict the psychologies of these troops, their enemies, and the innocents caught in the crossfire. What emerges from Clark’s unrelenting gaze is a pervasive culture of fear, in which everyone recognizes that death could occur at any moment. In Contact’s world gone topsy-turvy, noticing the slightest thing left out of place becomes an occasion for terror. A clip of ammunition left in a field and a car abandoned on the side of the road are transformed into potential death traps. Although Clarke’s camera sticks with his platoon, and follows only them home for the night, the effects that this sustained angst has on everyone, from passive farmer to sleeping child, is made more than evident.
Clark would further reduce his creative palette while portraying the violent results of these same conflicts in his later work Elephant, to more singular, yet less impressive, results. In Contact, we come to understand the ordeal of these troops’ assignments, and come to share in their agony as they cope with a life of constant pressure. He takes them, and his viewers, to a place where the horrific is pressed so tightly against the mundane that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. Throughout Contact’s depiction of what has become these soldiers’ unsettling reality, Clark’s refusal to beg for sympathy keeps the enterprise honest. His roving camera views the rolling green of the Irish countryside and the green of the troops’ night vision cameras with the same cold gaze.