In a similar vein to the wondrous drama Good Vibrations – about record store owner Terri Hooley – here comes a film that uses a common source of escapist entertainment as a catalyst to explore a destructive society amidst the Northern Irish Troubles. In the case of James Erskine’s Shooting for Socrates it’s football, providing a stark contrast between a sport that unites people, and a war that tears those very same people apart.
It was the same with music, to take a universally appreciated art-form, that anybody can share irrespective of your religious or political allegiances, which become futile. While the context provided enriches and informs this narrative, bringing about a depth and profundity to proceedings. However Erskine’s endeavour is without that same enchantment and sense of charm that illuminated Good Vibrations.
A common denominator between the two films is actor Richard Dormer, who in this plays Arthur, the father to the blissful youngster Tommy (Art Parkinson) who dreams of one day playing for Northern Ireland – to replicate the success of his heroes on the pitch. For Billy Bingham’s (John Hannah) side have just qualified for the 1986 World Cup – and been drawn against the best footballing nation in the world; Brazil. For the team captain Sammy McIlroy (Ciaran McMenamin) it’s a dream come true – but nobody is more excited than the young David Campbell (Nico Mirallegro), called up to the squad for the first team and presented with the opportunity of sharing a pitch with his footballing idol – Socrates.
The issue with Shooting for Socrates, is that it simply doesn’t feel like a naturalistic portrait of the events that took place, all too cinematic, losing sight of the realism. That’s not always an issue, as filmmakers are naturally granted some creative licence, but when depicting real occurrences that includes real people – and those we know well, like Pat Jennings, for instance – realism becomes a virtue not a mere side-note. Erskine shoots himself in the foot by attempting to recreate the matches himself, using actors to shoot the games, rather than merely showing us the archive footage. Perhaps it’s a copyright issue, but either way, the film would be improved dramatically had they managed to get their hands on the actual, real footage from the World Cup matches.
What doesn’t help this title, is the lack of focus, without any palpable protagonist. We flirt, carelessly, with several character’s story-lines, and we’re missing that one role to emotionally invest in. Is it the young Tommy? Or a player, such as McIlroy or Campbell? Nobody takes centre stage and it makes for a somewhat disengaging experience. Nonetheless, what does run through the core of this title is a traditional, sincere tale of the underdog which provides an affectionate familiarity of sorts – but that’s about as far as the story goes. It’s not a compelling, fairy-tale narrative. It’s pretty impressive, granted, for Northern Ireland to have played Brazil in the World Cup finals, but smaller nations play larger nations all the time, it simply doesn’t feel unique or significant enough to warrant a cinematic retelling.
Nonetheless, Shooting for Socrates has its heart in the right place, making for an undemanding, easy to enjoy picture – and what it lacks in pathos and nuance, it makes up for in affability. However given the excellence of Erskine’s preceding documentaries such as One Night in Turin – you can’t help but feel that perhaps this tale may have been best presented in that particular genre itself.