Michael Cimino was one of many who tried to bring the story of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins to the screen and on the evidence of the mess he made of Salvatore Giuliano's story in The Siclian (and the bizarre gay love triangle in his proposed version) it's a good job he didn't. Kevin Costner's attempts resulted in some equally simplistic scripts that enshrined cliche over history before Warners decided to drop his version in favor of Neil Jordan's long-planned film. Even if they were motivated more by the success of Interview With the Vampire than the material, they made the right choice: Michael Collins is easily one of Jordan's very best films and a strikingly intelligent piece of political cinema. There are changes for dramatic purposes, but these generally seem made for sound reasons and don't change the essential truth of the Irish Republican hero who became a scapegoat for de Valera's failure to gain a Republic and ended up being assassinated by his former colleagues in Ireland's forgotten and bloody civil war.
Clocking in at little over 130 minutes, Jordan keeps a sense of momentum that occasionally loses the odd detail that would be helpful to audiences unfamiliar with Irish history (such as the way the popular hatred towards the rebels who fought in the Easter Rising was turned around by the disastrous decision of the British to execute its leaders) but which still manages to find room for character as well, personalizing the tragedy surprisingly effectively. One of the last historical epics to use real sets and real extras instead of CGI, the film feels grounded in reality while still being an enthralling and cinematic political thriller. Sinead O'Connor's screaming over the assassination scene is unhelpful, but even that can't destroy the film.
Keeping his promise to cast Liam Neeson despite heavy lobbying from Michael Collins lookalike Kenneth Branagh (who lacks the presence necessary for the part), Jordan gets good rather than great performances from his leads, although Alan Rickman nails de Valera's reptilian and hesitant delivery and Ian Hart impresses as one of Collins' lieutenants. The unwelcome presence of Julia Roberts threatens to turn the film into Hollywood but thankfully her extremely limited abilities aren't stretched to breaking point. Probably the only film about the IRA that protestants and Brits can see without bringing Molotov cocktails to the cinema, it's release fell foul of America's constant denial of the complexities of the situation, Ireland's denial of the civil war and the rest of the world's horror at the IRA breaking their ceasefire without warning and killing a little girl in the process. Rarely revived, it's definitely worth rediscovering.
The DVD comes with an excellent South Bank Show that fills in many of the film's historical gaps, including archive footage of Collins himself (who really was a dead ringer for Branagh), although it is irritatingly a flipper disc.