X-men, The Matrix and an angry green giant all year long, pixel-pushing superheroes have been smashing their way across cinema screens. In Ireland, a quieter kind of crime fighter is pulling in the crowds: Cate Blanchett as Veronica Guerin, the Irish reporter who went head to head with Dublin's drug barons in the mid-'90s and paid for it with her life.
Veronica Guerin the second film about the iconic journalist follows her as she digs for the source of the city's drug supply. Hardheaded and hungry for a story, Guerin is threatened, shot at and severely beaten before finally fingering untouchable kingpin John Gilligan. We know the ending too well: on June 26, 1996, while waiting at a traffic light, she is gunned down. Veronica Guerin may not have been bulletproof or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but for many in Ireland, she is a real-life superhero.
But unlike, say, the Hulk, Guerin needs more than special effects to bring her legend to the big screen. Blanchett does a wonderful job of paying homage to the woman behind the headlines joyfully brandishing Guerin's signature brazenness and grounding her with tender vulnerability. And the melodrama is relatively restrained, considering the director is thrill seeker Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth) and the producer is Hollywood's explosives expert Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor). But as with so many films rooted in recent history, Veronica Guerin is already being accused of reshaping the truth for the sake of entertainment. "We expected it," Schumacher told TIME. "I've made movies before that have caused controversy and I think that's a good thing. There are a lot of movies out there that are just medication."
Typically, filmmakers will hide a few facts behind artistic license, especially to make sure a hero's death is never in vain. "This is a dramatic movie, not a documentary," Bruckheimer says. "Veronica made a huge difference in Ireland and changed the laws. Unfortunately, she had to die first, but hopefully the country's better for it." The film does highlight the government's response to Guerin's murder: a zero-tolerance policy that made it easier to investigate suspected criminals and reduced the overall crime rate in Ireland by 12%. What it leaves out is that despite the crackdown, violent crime in Ireland has risen sharply. This omission aggravates those who work close to the statistics. "You get the impression from the film that organized crime in Ireland has been closed down," says Paul Williams, a reporter with the Sunday World who was Guerin's main rival. "But you can see from the amount of dead bodies around that just isn't true."
Those would be the bodies of murder victims caught in Ireland's drug wars. There have been 13 gangland killings so far this year in a country of just 4 million people and it's only July. "The young guys who have taken over the drug scene in Ireland are far more ruthless than Gilligan's gang ever was," Williams adds. And he would know. A few years ago, Irish journalists felt safe on the crime beat, with the attention from Guerin's death driving would-be assailants underground. Now a new generation of drug lords are using fear to try to silence reporters. Williams and his family are being protected by armed police after a plot to attack him at his home was uncovered last month.
Perhaps inevitably, the film over-simplifies the reasons behind Guerin's maverick ways. There's no doubt she was driven, but some think her role as the Sunday Independent's star reporter may have pushed her to be reckless. "She wasn't on a mission to fight crime, she was on a mission to get stories," says Paddy Prendiville, Guerin's best friend and editor of the satirical magazine the Phoenix. "There were cutbacks in the newsroom and two of their most senior journalists had left, all of which put pressure on her to produce the goods." Prendiville even considers he might have had a small part to play, admitting he encouraged Guerin to press charges against Gilligan after he beat her up when she questioned him about his drug connections. "Maybe that makes me guilty, too, but at least I didn't profit from it," he says.
As celluloid incarnations, Guerin's editors show concern, suggesting she trade crime reporting for something less dangerous, like fashion or politics. In reality, though, some criticize the paper for not doing enough to discourage her. "She told me a year before she was killed that she wanted to write about politics, but they wouldn't let her anywhere near it," says Prendiville. "She was too political. She was a republican. But all that is airbrushed from her memory now. It's not part of the Joan of Arc image."
Even the attempts to show Guerin's flaws have come under fire. In the film, Guerin's obsession with her work seeps into her family life until she starts neglecting her husband and 6-year-old son, Cathal. In a poignant scene, Cathal is unwrapping his birthday presents and holds up a new skateboard to show his mother. When she asks who gave it to him, he replies, "You and Daddy did." Guilt spreads like a shadow across Guerin's face as the consequences hit home. For some, the scene is one step too far. "That was so unfair," says Prendiville. "It just wasn't true. She was totally immersed in Cathal." He remembers how desperately Guerin had wanted another child, and how her fight with cancer made it impossible something you would never know from watching the movie. And then there's the end. When the film's crime boss played by a brilliantly menacing Gerard McSorley is escorted away in handcuffs, there's the sense that justice has been served. But Gilligan was acquitted of her murder. He is serving an unprecedented 28-year sentence for dealing cannabis, but is appealing his conviction, stating that the testimonies against him came from former accomplices. And he could succeed, since another case built around the same witnesses quickly fell apart.
Still, some close to Guerin forgive the revisions. "It is a wonderful tribute to her," says her mother Bernie (played with tremendous grace and dignity by Academy Award winner Brenda Fricker). For her, the film's accuracy isn't as important as its positive message, even if that message begins with a fable. Veronica Guerin opens with the day Guerin appeared in court for speeding. Her mother asks a priest to pray for her daughter to lose her license so she will have to stay home. Bernie says that never happened. "She didn't tell me she was up for speeding," she says. "She may have been a tough cookie of a journalist, but she was afraid to tell her mother she was up in court."
A thumbs-up from Mom goes a long way "If I had disappointed her mother, I would've been devastated," Schumacher says but Guerin's friends and family don't hold the monopoly on her memory. She is a source of national pride in Ireland, so the real test is whether or not the paying public who followed her story will accept this version of it. So far, so good. The film has already brought in an impressive €400,000 in Ireland alone (it's released in the U.K. on Aug. 1 and across Europe starting September) and kicked Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle out of the No. 1 spot. Veronica Guerin may blur the lines between fairy tale and fact, but as an ode to bravery and spirit, it's proving stronger than your average superhero.