A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2009

Rank:  #24


2009, R, 90 mins.


Liam Neeson: Alistair Little / James Nesbitt: Joe Griffith / Anamaria Marinca: Vika

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel / Screenplay by Guy Hibbert

Most films that are based on true stories are often regrettably short on veracity and heavy on make-believe.  Oliver Hirschbiegel’s FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN is a fact-based story that is in a categorical new league all in its own:  Half of it actually happened and the other half of it - intentionally so - is complete fiction.  The first section of the film showcases the brutal assassination of 19-year-old Irish Catholic named Jim Griffin by a 17-year-old Irish protestant named Alistair Little, which occurred right in front of the eyes of Griffin’s 11-year-old brother, Joe.  The killings actually occurred in 1975, which is not historically disputed, but the remainder of the film – during which Hirschbiegel depicts a fateful meeting between the pair 33 years later – is total fictional.

This unique approach to the underlining material is only one of the intoxicating aspects of the whole enriching, atmospheric, and tension- filled character drama.  Screenwriter Guy Hibbert worked closely with the real life Alistair and Joe, who allowed their names to be freely used in the narrative.  The recreation of this film’s central murder – and the build-up to it – is one of the most mercilessly atmospheric prologues of any film from 2009, and it is handled with a bravura handling of pitch-perfect period production design, editing, performances, and sound design by Hirschbiegel (he is no stranger at effortlessly and completely immersing viewers in films, seeing as his DOWNFALL from 2004 was an unforgettably moody and meticulously designed plunge into Hitler’s bunker during his last days).  Yet, as commanding and splendidly realized as the film’s opening is, the real emotional and thematic pulse of FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN lies mostly with its fabricated storyline in the latter sections that deal with a tantalizing what-if scenario:  What would happen if a murderer and a member of his victim’s family would come face-to-face, as adults, to confront each other regarding the slaying? 

What’s even more endlessly intriguing is how the film deals with the adult mindsets of these two men.  The former Protestant terrorist has reconciled for his past ill deeds, globe trotting around the world as a resolution expert in a peaceful effort in countries as far ranging as Kosovo and South Africa.  He is a man that has paid his debt back to society.   Joe, on the other hand, is a victim, to be sure, but his lifelong hatred towards his brother’s killer has made him fanatical for revenge.  Both men share a terrible memory of a past atrocity, but the central irony of the film is that it is the perpetrator that is attempting to better himself in the wake of the deed and the victim has destructively morphed from a sufferer to a vengeful man that wishes to use violence as a cathartic means to end his emotional suffering.  At its core, FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN is a deeply introspective and intensely humanistic drama that highlights how a past act of violence can have divergent side effects on all those involved.   

Few films this year have been so thoughtful and engaging when it comes to dissecting the whirlwind of emotions that people go though when it comes to political/religious violence, which makes it that much more relevant today in our post-9/11 world.  FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN wisely asserts that there is an unyielding need to educate the young and impressionable before they are recruited and brainwashed into the fanaticism of their religion that forces them to commit atrocities that surrenders their free will and humanity.  On top of that, the film also equally emphasizes the disparaging nature of how a past action can have irreparable psychological effects on the victims, where they become so swallowed up in an eye-for-an-eye focus for revenge that they become no better than the executor. 

There is actually yet another layer of meaning to the film, which is largely captured during its fictional sections: the perverted nature of the modern media in their attempts to exploit people for ratings.  In the present day a television producer thinks that a huge ratings score could be netted if he found a way to gather these two men in a room, place them in front of a camera and…well…see what happens.  Alistair has a bit of an idea of what Joe’s possible reaction may be while finally confronting him after all of those years, but he nonetheless decides to participate, perhaps because he finds that one of the last things he needs to do before he can finally atone for his deed is to confront his victim and offer heartfelt condolences.  Joe, on the other hand, seems more compelled to act purely out of festering contempt.  His has lived most of his adolescent and adult life with gut-wrenching guilt (in flashback, we see some venomous moments where his mother berates him for not stopping the murder).  With a sharp knife concealed under his suit, Joe has only one planned response to the man that has been a nightmare for him for three decades. 

FIVE MINUTES FROM HEAVEN is a sparse, economical, but profoundly evocative film largely because of the actors playing Alistair and Joe, and they give are two of the most tailored and beguiling performances of 2009.  Alistair is played with a melancholic, quilt-ridden timbre by Liam Neeson, and its another one of those performances by him that begs the question: is there a more quietly authoritative actor in the movies than Neeson?  He is so resoundingly empowered playing up to the physicality of many of his past roles, but he never gets the credit as he deserves for encapsulating the low key dignity of his parts.  As Alistair he imparts in the role a sense of penetrating regret for his past deeds and a deep seeded need for redemption, but Neeson never pores on the emotional grief this man suffers to egregious, melodramatic levels.  He occupies a lengthy – and masterfully acted - monologue where Alistair stirringly reveals his 30-year-plus remorse for the killing and also makes a soulful pitch to the youth of today to think twice before taking another life in the name of anything.  For a less dignified performer, this scene could have been overplayed to shamelessly bait Oscar voters, but Neeson’s detached, but calm spoken and reflective, nuance he embodies here is thoroughly stirring on its own. 

The other noteworthy performance is that of James Nesbitt, which is an astonishingly explosive and fever pitched portrayal of over-anxious paranoia and fear with darker undercurrents of a predator-fuelled anger.  Nesbitt plays an innocent man that has been savagely wracked with guilt over what he did not do to halt Alistair’s horrible actions, and he has lived the rest of his life within a tightly wound bubble of self-loathing and culpability.  What’s is extraordinary about Nesbitt’s riveting turn here is how he so radically segues from being affable, quick witted, and well mannered to being a man consumed with furious antagonism and spite.  The fact that he makes these transitions often within a few short minutes is miraculous testament to how strong a performer he is, and when he does finally have his confrontation with his target, you never once doubt the emotional integrity of his performance. 

Nesbit and Neeson’s impeccable performances – alongside Hirschbiegel’s effectively laid back and straightforward direction – are what makes FIVE MINUTES FROM HEAVEN such a alluring portal into the psyches of these two very different people.  Ostentatious style and visual flair would have drowned out the film’s central focus on these two tortured men, and Hirschbiegel understands that the key here is to maintain the intimacy of the drama first and foremost.  There are a few areas where the film stumbles: Firstly, it seems highly incredulous to believe that security would not be high for the TV taping of the meeting between Alistair and Joe, so it seems highly unlikely that he would not be frisked before coming in (which means that his concealed weapon seems unlikely).  Also, the film’s conclusion and final scene left me asking more than a few questions: it simply felt rushed and a bit unresolved.   

Yet, FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN is an incredibly innovative, moving, and sobering look at the aftershock of violence.  Thankfully, the film subtly addresses- without slavishly sermonizing - the political/religious nature of a Protestant terrorist murdering a Catholic (it’s important for the setup, but does not bare much more scrutiny later).  If anything, the film comments, more or less, on the senselessness of the type of extremist urban warfare that has had deep-seated effects on both sides.  The way the film points out how past acts of mortal aggression can change the perpetrator for the better and the victim for the worse is chilling.  These are men that are paralyzed by one past incident and their only outlet of release is to face up to one another, no matter what the outcome.  And the build up to that moment is undeniably riveting and filled with pathos.

  H O M E