Although I'm not a huge fan of the IRA (who once bombed the railway station via which I commuted to and from school in Manchester every day--luckily for me this was years after I had left both school and the Manchester area), but Bobby Sands comes across as a weird kind of saint in this film. Partly I think this is because of a kind of absence of both time and violence in the beginning of the film, which creates a certain kind of context. A context in which sainthood seems possible. What do I mean? Well, here's the absence I'm talking about. We see a man wash his bloody knuckles before we see him get them bloody, and it's not really clear whether the later scene is a flashback or whether there is just a cycle in his life of violence and cleaning up after violence. This unclarity creates a sense of spinning wheels, like a vehicle stuck in mud or snow, the wheels going round but the overall movement amounting to nothing more than a little move back (flashback?) and a little move forward (no, this is the next day), then back again. We see the same man checking his car for bombs before driving to work, but not finding any. We also see a man clutching some kind of weapon or tool, followed by a wound on another man's head, without seeing the violence between the mere holding of the weapon and the existence of the wound. We see power and suffering, that is, but the violence is only implied. It is ubiquitous, though, this invisible violence.
After this beginning there is plenty of visible violence, mostly inside a prison, and mostly involving prisoners and what look like riot police: the few against the many, the unarmed against the armed, the naked against the uniformed, the visibly human against the machine-like, the wild against the controlling. It is hard not to sympathize with the prisoners. Christ's crucifixion with criminals is even brought up at one point, in a conversation between Sands and a priest, so martyrdom is in the air. So is nature, as a childhood trip from the city to the countryside is central to the ending of the film. Sands' hunger strike is presented as a kind of victory for the human spirit despite attempts to suffocate it.
But what kind of victory is it? We aren't given much reason to believe that the IRA's cause is just. Sands asserts that it is, or that he believes it to be. The priest he talks to (there is very little dialogue in the film apart from this conversation) sympathizes, and comments on the evils of "the Brits." But who exactly are the Brits, and what exactly have they done? Their face is the prison guards (who would be Northern Irish Protestants, of course, not people from Britain) and their voice is Margaret Thatcher, whose speeches we hear at times, without ever seeing her. "The Brits" are not really people, in other words, but a government or system, a force. It is clearly not a force for good. Its evil is far more clear in the film than is the goodness of Irish national unity. The attempt to fight an evil system by killing people, though, like the attempt to fight terror or terrorism by killing people, seems badly misguided. Understandable, but misguided.
The film shows us two other ways to fight the power. First is the dirty protest. Prisoners refuse to wear prison uniforms (which mark them as criminals rather than political prisoners) and cover as much of the prison as they can with shit and piss. Some of the smearings look like abstract expressionist art, but mostly I thought of the smell. I don't know how you could live like that and not vomit. Nasty physical reality versus something higher, less concrete, half beautiful, half insane. We oscillate between the mundane and the ideal.
The second way is Sands' hunger strike. He dies (after 66 days), as do nine other hunger strikers. So do some prison guards, who are killed during the strike (there were 16, I think, but this statistic is far harder to find online than the number of hunger strikers). As a result of which the British government gives in, quietly, to the prisoners' demands. These demands, though, mostly concern what clothes the prisoners wear. The clothes have significance--are the IRA prisoners merely criminals or not?--but it's hard to see that it is worth dying or killing over this. Especially, turning to reality outside the film, now that the IRA has more or less died out without having got the united Ireland it wanted. Sands' death was not a battle won on the way to winning the war. The war, although I suppose not quite over, has pretty much been lost. If it is ever won it will be by peaceful means. So it won't be a war that is won. And it isn't clear that it matters whether it is won or not. What seems to matter is violence, human rights, democracy, (etc.) not the locations of borders or the colours of flags. ("Imagine all the people..." Corny, but better than nationalism. And much better than nationalism-inspired terrorism.)
And yet Sands' starving himself to death does not seem pointless. What matters is not so much what he achieves but that he refuses to give in. And it isn't what he refuses to do (wear these clothes, etc.) that matters, but his refusal to be controlled by a faceless, almost anonymous power ("the Brits"). His methods wouldn't work against any other kind of enemy. They are an assertion of humanity, especially mortality, against an inhuman force. But that sounds too trite. It's a very mysterious kind of act. What's so great about dying? What's so great about shit? It's almost the pointlessness of it all that is the point. If the goal is to achieve something then whoever has the most power wins. One way to beat power is to play a different game, a non-consequentialist game, a game that is played outside the causal nexus. If he wins at all he wins by being human. The reward is to die as a human being.