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Viewer Guide: Michael Collins and The Lucky Ones

March 24, 2021 | Richard Peña


Michael Collins (1996)

This week’s classic is Michael Collins, the 1996 biopic written and directed by Neil Jordan.

Chronicling the pivotal years in the centuries-long saga of Ireland’s fight for independence from England, Michael Collins stars Liam Neeson in the title role as the legendary central figure in the fierce and violent struggle.  Picking up Collins’ story in 1916 after the failed Easter Rising rebellion in Dublin, the film introduces Collins along with fellow rebels Harry Boland and future prime minister of the Irish Republic Éamon de Valera, played respectively by Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman.  While many of the Easter Rising insurgents are executed, de Valera was spared due to his American citizenship, while Collins and Boland were ultimately freed after two years in jail.  Upon their release, Collins and Boland find themselves under the surveillance of Ned Broy, a plainclothes double agent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police played by Stephen Rea, who turns out to be a source of invaluable intelligence.  Injured during a melee following an election rally speech, Collins is treated on a friend’s farm by Kitty Kiernan, a self-sufficient young woman played by Julia Roberts, who becomes romantically intriguing to both Collins and Boland.  The struggle for freedom rages on, and Collins ultimately forces the British to negotiate a treaty for a free Irish state. Even more seeds, however, for conflict have been sown, driving old friends and allies apart on the seemingly endless road to Irish independence.

An early Hollywood biography of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins appeared in fictionalized form in 1936 as Beloved Enemy, with Brian Aherne starring as a rebel leader named “Dennis Riordan.”  Since then, a number of other unproduced Collins biopics, with casts including stars like Richard Harris, Robert Redford and Gabriel Byrne, have come and gone.  Finally, Irish director Neil Jordan gained traction for his own Collins script after scoring a box office hit for producer David Geffen in 1994 with Interview With a Vampire and securing Geffen’s support to move forward.  Hot off his international success in Schindler’s List, the Irish-born Liam Neeson became the clear choice to star.  Featured in a small role in the film, Irish actor Brendan Gleeson had previously played Collins in a 1991 Irish TV movie titled The Treaty, and reportedly Neeson conferred with Gleeson on how best to approach the role.  Mary-Louise Parker had been in advanced discussions to play Kitty Kiernan, until Julia Roberts expressed interest in the part.  As is often the case with movie biographies, the film does take a number of factual liberties, including the death of Harry Boland, who was actually killed leaving a Dublin hotel and not trying to escape in the Liffey River.  The film also generated controversy with its suggestion that future Irish prime minister Éamon de Valera had played some role in Collins’ assassination, a rumor that de Valera had always denied.


The Lucky Ones (2008)

This week’s indie is The Lucky Ones, a 2008 comedy drama directed by Neil Burger.

Presumably set during the Iraq War—although the name of the conflict is never mentioned— The Lucky Ones is the story of three army soldiers of different rank, age and circumstance who encounter each other on a flight out of Germany to New York’s JFK Airport.  Tim Robbins plays Fred Cheaver, a retiring career army Staff Sergeant on his way to permanently reunite with his wife and son in St. Louis.  Rachel McAdams plays Private First Class Colee Dunn, traveling to Las Vegas to return an heirloom guitar to the family of her killed-in-action soldier-boyfriend.  And Michael Peña is Staff Sergeant T.K. Poole, whose unfortunate groin injury also has him Vegas-bound…to seek the services of “specialized” sex workers in hopes they can “rehabilitate” him before he reunites with his girlfriend.  But upon arriving at JFK, the trio is dismayed to discover that all flights have been cancelled following a city-wide power outage.  However, occasionally bad luck can become good fortune, something the trio soon discovers as they manage to rent the last available minivan for an unexpected road trip to points west.

In the vein of films like Coming Home, The Hurt Locker and the classic The Best Years of Our Lives, The Lucky Ones focuses on the experiences of veterans returning from the battlefield as they readapt to civilian life—a readjustment that’s many times confusing at the least and often deeply traumatic.  While “coming home” is the dearly held dream of most service members, wartime experience is a rough act to follow.  Taking inspiration from the 1973 comedy-drama The Last Detail, The Lucky Ones’ director Neil Burger chose not to directly reference the Iraq War in order to keep the dramatic focus on the lives of the soldiers and not the politics.  And despite the casting of the famously anti-war Tim Robbins, The Lucky Ones was one of the few recent Hollywood films to receive complete production support from the U.S. Army.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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