No resolve

A troubled past leads to a haunted present in Five Minutes of Heaven
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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It was the last Bush administration's master PR stroke to render terrorism completely abstract while appearing to frame it in layman's terms. There's no real choosing sides when the choices are "evil" and "freedom" — who's going to say slow down there, pardner, when the cause is painted as humanity against the inhuman? That equation bought carte blanche approval for a lot of dumb subsequent moves, with the world arguably no safer as a consequence.

Most Americans have an absolute faith that we're the good guys. But most bad guys were good guys once — it's a process, not a natal condition. It's unpleasant but valuable work to imagine exactly how fanaticism can create a sense of righteousness in violence, as opposed to the zero brain power required to think an entire country or religion might wake up one day and say "Let's be evildoers!"

We'd like to think our principles would withstand hunger, torture, propaganda, Rolfing, whatever. But who really knows what we're be capable of after a few weeks, months, years of deprivation or indoctrination? It took Patty Hearst just 71 days to become machine-gun-wielding Tania. Who can blame her if she chose a life of John Waters cameos and never discussed the matter afterward? The woman who robbed a Hibernia Bank must seem like a stranger — the kind who nonetheless can shame you by association, like an embarrassing relative or something said while very drunk. Her personality was bent against her will. Luckily, it sprang back.

The character played by Liam Neeson in Five Minutes of Heaven deals with his terroristic youth in precisely the opposite fashion — it's become both penitentiary cause and ruination of his life. Neeson is an actor who carries his looks and towering stature like a burden — few stars are so at home communicating guilt, masochism, and rueful sacrifice. His Alistair is an esteemed present-day lecturer, activist, and conflict-resolution mediator of violent group behavior.

His qualifying original sin: in 1974, at age 17, he assassinated a young Catholic local to prove mettle within a midsize Irish city's pro-England, Protestant guerrilla sect. He served 12 years for that crime. But Neeson's face knows Alistair's punishment is neverending. In mind's eye he keeps seeing his young self (Mark Davison) committing murder — as witnessed by the victim's little brother, Joe (Kevin O'Neill).

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, German director of 2004's Downfall, Five Minutes of Heaven — the ecstatic timespan James Nesbitt's flop-sweating adult Joe figures he'd experience upon killing Alistair — is divided into three acts. The first is a vivid, gritty flashback. The second finds our anxious protagonists preparing for a "reconciliation" TV show taping that doesn't go as planned. Finally the two men face each other in an off-camera meeting that vents Joe's pent-up lifetime of rage.

Heaven has been labeled too theatrical, with its emphasis on two actors and a great deal of dialogue. But the actors are fantastic, the dialogue searing. There's nothing stagy in the skillful way both rivet attention. This very good movie asks a very human question: how do you live with yourself after experiencing the harm fanaticism can wreak, as perp or surviving victim? Surely we're better off for understanding what shapes terrorism. The alternative is psychological non-insight as blunt as the concept "evildoer."

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

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