War is a profitable business for some. The latest collaboration between writer Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach probes the murky world of private security contractors, which operate with impunity throughout Iraq.
By 2007, these companies outnumbered US troops in the country. In the last five years, they have been involved in two hundred “escalation of force” incidents, where they opened fire on men, women or children they considered to be a threat. The most notorious case was in 2007, when mercenaries working for Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked massacre in Baghdad. As British and US troops withdraw, it’s increasingly these private contractors that represent the latest phase of the occupation of Iraq - which makes Route Irish all the more timely.
The film follows Fergus (Mark Womack), an ex-SAS soldier and security contractor, who persuades his best friend Frankie - played by stand-up comedian John Bishop - to join him in the lucrative world of private security. When Frankie gets killed on Route Irish, the highway from Baghdad to its airport - “the most dangerous road in the world” - a grief-stricken Fergus determines to get to the bottom of his friend’s death. In the process, he unearths a massacre which puts him on a violent collision course with those determined to keep it covered up.
It’s a dark, bleak and brutal piece of work, pulling no political punches and never losing sight of who the real criminals are. As Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay, pointed out, “While lowly contractors gambled with lives and limbs on Route Irish, the Chief Executives of those same companies made fortunes.” There’s a lot of focus in the film on how war brutalises those involved, many of whom suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress. At a particularly poignant moment, Fergus tells Frankie’s widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe), “I just wanted my old self back. I wish you had known me then.” The experience of war has left him deeply damaged, unable to form human relationships.
But the film also focuses on the impact of the conflict on Iraqis. Iraqi musician Talib Rasool plays Harem, an Iraqi exile living in the UK, who helps Fergus unravel the murderous events that led to the killing of his friend.
Route Irish is a far cry from Loach and Laverty’s last offering, Looking for Eric, which is a feelgood movie by comparison. I suspect that mainstream reviewers may pan it or just ignore it for not fitting into the accepted narrative. All the more reason to make sure you see this hard-hitting, highly political piece of cinema.