reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, November 17, 2003
We've all seen it dozens of times: the middle-aged bad guy throws a punch at the willowy heroine, but she evades it with a wire-assisted backflip. Then she slams home a half dozen kung fu kicks, and, if it's a Quentin Tarantino movie, pulls out her samurai sword and lops off a few limbs and the top of his skull case. You go, girl!
In "Veronica Guerin," the small but honest and uplifting biopic about the crusading journalist who became Ireland's new national heroine, that scene, however, plays out differently, shockingly so. Ace actress Cate Blanchett (Oscar-nominated for "Elizabeth") cheekily bangs on the imposing front door of Ireland's biggest heroin importer. When the bantamweight thug emerges, she asks him to confess his crimes for publication in her newspaper column.
Enraged, the gangster slams his fist into her face, breaking her nose. He pummels the defenseless woman with lefts and rights, leaving her a bleeding shell. There's nothing feministically empowering or fetishistically titillating about this horrifying depiction of what violence between a woman and a man really looks like.
Veronica Guerin, an accountant turned PR flack turned investigative reporter, normally fought Ireland's organized criminals with a woman's best weapon: words. To write crime stories that no other reporter could (or would) pursue, she flirted with both policemen frustrated by Ireland's mobster-friendly laws and vainglorious underworld snitches. As Blanchett observed in an interview, Ireland's a "country of great talkers and she was an extraordinary listener."
Ultimately, Guerin became a martyr for law and order. Most people in Ireland can remember where they were on June 26, 1996 when they heard a hit man had assassinated her. She was an Irish Princess Di who actually did before she died.
The social collapse that devastated American cities in the 1960s had reached Dublin by 1994. Heroin addicts sprawled about the public housing projects while lenient laws allowed major dealers to operate with impunity. Like much of Europe, Ireland hadn't yet woken up to the grim but workable tradeoff that the U.S. stumbled upon first: to enjoy the cultural liberation begun in the 1960s without the accompanying chaos, an urban society must imprison many of its most dangerous men on drug charges.
In 1994, Guerin started writing exposÚs on the heroin rackets. She quickly became a star with a public desperate for news. Other journalists, however, despised her amateurism, her grandstanding, her extravagant bravery, and her lack of faith in leftist mantras about the "root causes of crime." Even a few years after her murder, journalist Vincent Browne was still denouncing her in Ireland's Sunday Business Post: "The drugs trade will continue as before until the social conditions that underlie it are tackled through radical redistributive policies. But the Veronica Guerin phenomenon is obstructive of all that."
"Veronica Guerin" was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the kaboom-monger behind "Pear Harbor," and directed by Joel Schumacher, the drek-meister behind "Batman & Robin." The reputation of this frequently gruesome twosome accounts for many of the bad reviews the movie has received from American critics, who denounced "Veronica Guerin" as self-evidently unrealistic, arguing (contradictorily) that the portrayal of Guerin was either too hagiographic or too egotistic and reckless.
A Google search, however, would have shown them that Irish reviewers uniformly admired the movie's accuracy (the most common Irish complaint was that a politician celebrated for flaunting parliament's dress code was shown wearing a tie), the balanced characterization of Guerin, and even the Australian Blanchett's impeccable accent.
As last spring's nifty mini-thriller "Phone Booth" showed, Schumacher is less egregious when held to a modest budget. Bruckheimer allowed him only $17 million (one third of the average Hollywood picture's cost) because he understood that while "Veronica Guerin" is a perfectly fine middlebrow movie, it has to be marketed here as a limited release highbrow film because of the impenetrable brogues of the lowbrow boyos. All the crooks sound like talk show appearances by the Irish "It" Boy Colin Farrell, who, indeed, pops up for an amusing cameo.
"Victoria Guerin" is so brief (about 20 minutes shorter than the typical 115 minute movie), that it barely sketches out why Guerin repeatedly risked her life and that of her husband and little boy. Instead of concocting some bogus childhood trauma -- a flashback showing, say, little Veronica's drunken da killing her pet bunny -- the film merely has her mother (Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker from "My Left Foot") reminiscing that she always was a hypercompetitive tomboy.
Guerin scoffed at threats: "Nobody shoots the messenger." Perhaps she reasoned that the more hard-hitting her stories, the more famous she'd become, and the more famous she was, the less the gangsters would dare kill her for fear of a vast backlash -- a magnificently courageous miscalculation. Yet, she didn't die in vain, because the public rose up and forced the politicians to finally crack down hard on crime.