Friday, April 18, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Hillsborough (2014)
Decades Of Pain Times 96 And A Shaky Road To Justice

Doreen Jones, who lost her son Richard on April 15, 1989, in Daniel Gordon's documentary "Hillsborough".
  ESPN Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, April 18, 2014

Twenty five years ago this week the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield, England claimed the lives of 96 fans of Liverpool Football Club.  Those fans were crushed to death due to overcrowding by police during the 1989 FA Cup Semi-Final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.  The worst event in British sports history is chronicled to disturbing, heartbreaking effect by filmmaker Daniel Gordon through distressing video footage of the fatalities in his documentary "Hillsborough".  (A 1996 namesake docudrama is also highly recommended viewing, as is the 2013 BBC Panorama documentary "Hillsborough: How They Buried The Truth".)

Mr. Gordon, himself a Sheffield Wednesday Football Club fan (he was coincidentally born on a Wednesday and in Sheffield no less), expands "Hillsborough" into a stirring, painful and horrific anatomy of institutional corruption, willful failure and complicity.  Yet most of all "Hillsborough" is moving advocacy storytelling which seeks to correct the record and perception the world had of that tragic April 15th day.  As such, the film becomes, whether intentionally or not, a quiet drumbeat for justice voiced through on-camera recollections by several members of the bereaved families.  Their pain is unbearable to process as they recall what the South Yorkshire Police, the British press (notably The Sun) and numerous politicians did to perpetuate a grievous, appalling lie, blaming the dead for causing their own fates.

The architecture of "Hillsborough" is class tensions, safety last-money first business interests, police incompetence and indifference, and upper-crust politicians who slandered Liverpool fans as hooligans and criminals conveniently for establishment-absolving.  The heart of "Hillsborough" though, is in the resolve and determination of the families it portrays as they pursue wrenching decades-long efforts to clear their deceased's names and achieve justice for them.  "We should have walked out right then!  But we didn't," one family member says, after a second government-appointed Hillsborough investigator, Lord Justice Stuart, mocks Liverpool fans just prior to a meeting with the families.

The South Yorkshire Police has its share of culpable officials, whom to this date have not been held civilly liable or criminally prosecuted for the 96 deaths.  Some police manipulated fellow officer and fans' eyewitness statements, altering them to shine the best light on police and the worst on the dead.  This was after most police simply stood and watched people die in the Hillsborough stands.  It is this double outrage and second death that Mr. Gordon outlines in a cool yet damning and dispassionate way.  Professor Phil Scraton is the film's sobering anchor, a key investigatory punctuation mark to what are renewed and still-ongoing inquiries which began late last month. 

Somberly told, "Hillsborough" operates successfully and achieves its great effect on many levels as a keen, powerful and all-encompassing elegy to 96 people who should still be alive today.  Mr. Gordon's documentary gives sports and non-sports fans alike a window into passion for the global game of football, the pride of the city of Liverpool, the excitement of the atmosphere of a big match, the machinery of how an old football stadium with a prior history of crowd-crush problems was ignored, poorly organized and mismanaged by police, Sheffield Wednesday officials and the Football Association. 

"Hillsborough" is an uncomfortable but necessary look at how a system betrays the very people it is supposedly in place to protect, in an era where crowd control meant more to police than crowd safety.  Its greatest power is in the grass-roots activism and campaigning of the families who lost everything and are very slowly getting a little closer to the justice they thought they'd never see.

Note: "Hillsborough", part of ESPN's "30 For 30 Soccer Stories" series, will be shown in the United States on ESPN2 cable television on Sunday, April 20 (at 7pm Pacific/10 Eastern) and Monday, April 21 (at 6pm Pacific/9 Eastern).

"Hillsborough" contains highly disturbing images and accounts about the fateful day of April 15, 1989 and its aftermath.  Its running time is one hour and 45 minutes.

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