Ken Loach’s Route Irish is a dead end

This Iraq War thriller is really a simplistic revenge fantasy for a frustrated and impotent anti-war movement.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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The problem with the majority of films about the Iraq War is that they’re just too, well, political, or at least politically posturing. Often we learn more about the anti-war credentials of the director than anything meaningful about the conflict. Artistry comes a poor second to didacticism. America has behaved badly; the war was illegal; and the coalition soldiers will, almost without fail, treat the ‘ragheads’ as little more than torture opportunities. From Brian de Palma’s Redacted to the Tommy Lee Jones-vehicle In the Valley of Elah, the same clichés of anti-war criticism stand in for insight.

There are good films involving the Iraq War, but that’s mainly because they approach it at a tangent. The Hurt Locker, for instance, focuses upon a danger-obsessed bomb defuser and, in doing so, captures something essential about the semi-psychosis induced by a war without strategic purpose or moral legitimacy. And before that there was Jarhead, a film that reveals a great deal about the Western narcissism of the most recent Iraq War by focusing upon its 1991 precursor. But these are exceptions that buck the trend and, sadly, Ken Loach’s latest effort Route Irish is not exceptional.

It takes its name from the 12-kilometre-long road that links the fortified International Zone at the centre of Baghdad to the city’s international airport. And it’s on this road, on an unspecified date in 2007, that private security contractor Frankie (likeably played by stand-up comic John Bishop) is found dead in the burnt-out wreckage of an SUV. As Walker, the nefarious boss of Frankie’s private military contractor, explains to Frankie’s relatives and friends, ‘What you have to understand is that Route Irish is the most dangerous road in the world… He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’

Fergus (Mark Womack) – an ex-SAS man, one-time employee of Walker’s firm, and most important of all, Frankie’s childhood friend – isn’t having any of it. Something is not right about the official story, as his friend’s increasingly anxious phone messages before his death indicate. Fergus, alternately really angry, sullenly angry or raging angry, sets out to uncover the truth, and in doing so, Loach hopes, to reveal to the audience just how evil private military contractors are.

Route Irish almost sounds like the thriller it’s marketed as. It even uses a thriller-ish typeface. But it’s not really a thriller because, for one thing, there aren’t that many thrills. To have thrills you need a sense of peril, but here Fergus, the protagonist, is just too convinced, too implacable, not to mention too tough, to ever be in danger. He’s a force of righteousness, not a potential victim of corporate-funded iniquity. And there isn’t any suspense, either, because the bad guys running the private security firm are about as threatening as the random piece of cardboard from which they’ve clearly been cut.

Route Irish is better grasped as a revenge fantasy for anti-Iraq War protesters, a Death Wish for the Stop the War Coalition. There’s even a scene where one of the security firm’s thugs is waterboarded by Fergus during his transformation into a right-on version of Falling Down’s William ‘D-Fens’ Foster.

If you’re one of the converted, you might enjoy all this, but if you’re not, you’ll just find it preachy. Route Irish doesn’t show, it tells. In one particularly absurd moment, an Iraqi singer informs Fergus and Frankie’s girlfriend Rachel that ‘human anthropologists have shown that Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilisation’. The problem isn’t the veracity of the statement, it is the absurdity of its context. This is meant be drama, not documentary. There are no characters here, just ciphers for a worldview which wouldn’t be so annoying if it wasn’t so frequently simple-minded.

There is subtlety and depth at the edges of Route Irish, a sense of innocence lost, and an awareness of the deep, knotted bonds between two childhood friends that render their fates inseparable even after death. But at the film’s centre there is just a drama-less critique of the central role of private military contractors in the continuing devastation of post-invasion Iraq. Driven solely by a search for profit, these companies – these private, unaccountable militaries – don’t care who they kill, they only care about the next contract, the next client. As Walker explains to Fergus, ‘Iraq is dust, it’s time to move on to pastures new’, before adding, ‘we could clean up in Darfur’.

The source for Loach’s animus is probably Blackwater, the private security firm, which in the same year the film is set – 2007 – gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians on the basis that they might have posed a threat. But rather than treating the predominance of such firms in post-invasion Iraq as the product of Western nation states’ inability to exercise their own authority, militarily and morally, in Baghdad or Basra, Loach treats such firms as the cause. They ruthlessly and unscrupulously exploit a country’s chaos. And their sole motivation is money. ‘Criminal sons of bitches on the make, that’s what we’ve been’, says Fergus reflecting on his own part in it.

This myopia – a product of the simple-minded politics of the anti-war brigade where everything seems to be laid at the feet of money-grubbing security firms – does something strange to the film. It inadvertently redeems the state’s monopoly on the means of coercion. After all, the army has a code of conduct, and its own court of law; its interests aren’t solely economic, they’re moral, too. But these security firms, run by sly southerners with rictus grins and smart suits, lack such principles. They profit upon disarray, they depend upon societal breakdown.

It’s a strange, inadvertent message from someone like Loach, whose other films, such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley, exhibit little but antipathy for the British state. But perhaps that’s what happens when you try to force reality to conform to a simplistic idea.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Watch the trailer for Route Irish

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