In 1994, Algeria was in a state of Civil War. A Civil War that involved the Algerian Government, and several Islamist rebel groups. It was a bloody conflict, and one that would not see an end to the bloodshed for more than a decade. On December 24th of that year, four members of the the Armed Islamic Group boarded an Air France A300 Airbus at Houari Boumedienne Airport posing as Presidential Police, their intent, to hijack the plane carrying 227 passengers. What would follow over the course of the next 3 days, would be one of the most frightening televised terrorist ordeals prior to September 11th 2001. French Director, Julien Leclerq brings us an intricate and delicately handled depiction of the events in an electrifying white knuckle ride that focusses on the dangerous and heroic assault on the aircraft by the French SWAT team.
As the passenger A300 airbus completes boarding at Houari Boumedienne airport in Algeria and the pilot and crew are performing final checks, the aircraft is boarded by four heavily armed terrorists, with the sole intent of hijacking the aircraft. The fate of the 227 passengers already on board looks to be uncertain.
Over the next few hours, officials in the French and Algerian Government are involved in increasingly heated discussion. The Algerian Government, in the midst of a civil war, is refusing to deal with or even speak to terrorists, and won't allow French officials to lead negotiations on Algerian soil. The French insist that negotiation is critical, and if the Algerian government will not allow them to lead negotiations, that the aircraft and it's passengers should allowed to leave Algerian territory and fly to France, where it has prepared a special task force - the GIGN – a elite team of armed police, ready to board the plane and rescue the passengers. Meanwhile, the situation on board the aircraft grows more intense by the hour, as the four armed terrorists become increasingly agitated with the Algerian Government's refusal to interact with them.
After hours and hours of intense negotiation, the plane is granted permission to leave Algeria. Unable to reach Paris on the remaining fuel on board, the terrorists agree to allow the plane to refuel at Marseille Airport. Fears rise about the ultimate intentions of the terrorists upon realising that they had requests 27 tons of fuel, when they only needed an addition 9 to get them from Marseille to Paris. A mid level government official speculates that the additional fuel requested hints at the terrorists final intentions, that they plan to have more fuel than they need because they intend on crashing the plane into a building or national symbol in Paris.
Speculation gives way to precaution, and it's agreed that the plane should not leave Marseille. Once on the ground in Marseille airport, events culminate in an unbelievably intense and vivid assault on the aircraft in which the GIGN, led by Denis Favier (Gregori Derangere), attempt to storm the plane and rescue the hostages from a potentially terrible fate.
With The Assault, director Julien Leclerq sets out the timeline of events during the hijacking by mixing a dramatic and gritty portrayal of the surrounding events and characters, with actual news footage of the event taken from various news stations that covered the event in real time. He does this whilst deliberately steering clear of the politics of the situation, never passing judgement on anyone involved other than the terrorists who are clearly portrayed as the wrong-doers from the outset, choosing instead to focus on the intense build up to a thrilling climactic finale.
It's really rather a clever thing that he's done here in that he's managed to find areas of focus that don't leave the movie feeling weak or overly emotional, without wading knee-deep into the bubbling undercurrent of political unrest that the situation clearly invoked between the Algerian and the French Governments. For the duration, I felt I was seeing everything that was important in understanding the timeline, along with just enough of the politics without it getting too heavy.
Leclerq achieves the political angle by presenting it to us through the eyes of a mid level civil servant for the French Ministry for the Interior, Carole (Mélanie Bernier). She's passionate and enthusiastic, almost to a fault. We can empathize with her as she attempts to show her superiors that her theories on the incident are valid – constantly shouting to be heard in a political system that is more complex than she fully understands and more complex than we need to understand. This is really as far as it needed to go on a political level, and it benefits the movie greatly that Leclerq doesn't attempt to dissect things further.
To be honest, I didn't know much about the director before watching The Assault, but my interest was piqued. I couldn't honestly say that I know much more about him now, even having done some research after watching the movie. What I can tell you for sure, is that his directorial style is heavily influenced by some of my favourite directors out there, in particular, Tony Scott (Top Gun, Man on Fire), and perhaps even more-so Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, United 93) - so stylistically, he gets a pass from me.
That being said, this style is not for everyone. It's frenetic, and jumpy. It's in your face cinema - the kind that isn't afraid to obscure half of the screen with an extreme close up over the shoulder. It can be jarring, particularly on a big screen. There are scenes in The Assault where I felt it was slightly overused, such as the scene when the GIGN, the French equivalent to SWAT, are being summoned to an emergency briefing. It's almost impossible to keep up with the camera's frantic glancing this way and that, intended to convey the sense of urgency and gravity that the situation held. The problem with replicating or copying the behaviour of the eye via the camera, is that it's not us that chooses what to focus on. This can sometimes feel pretty unsettling – something I'd even take Paul Greengrass to task on with The Bourne Ultimatum.
However with subject matter like this, the benefits of the handheld shaky cam feel outweigh the disadvantages, particularly in conversation scenes between government officials. It really makes you feel like you're there, watching things happen in real-time. It's not a new technique, and it's clearly something that Leclerq took inspiration from Greengrass's work on United 93 for, especially given the similar subject matter.
Shots of people walking quickly down corridors often cut out small sections of the scene, zooming in at the beginning of cuts on the character's back, adding a sense of pace and immediacy – almost like you're running to keep up with them. It's a clever trick, and is used extremely effectively here.
Something else that Leclerq has injected into his style with The Assault, is the extremely desaturated colour scheme. It's practically black and white. Definitely something that he felt added a sense of realism to the movie, and I'd agree to a point, but more on this in the Picture section.
Casting is decent too. Vincent Elbaz does a remarkable job as the tough GIGN officer and father, Thierry. He straddles the loving father routine with the inner turmoil of seeing such horrible things day to day in his work extremely well. Offering a performance that is not just believable, but at times, gut wrenchingly intense. Marie Guillard does well as Thierry's wife, Claire. Though a slightly more isolated role in that her interactions mostly revolve around their daughter. She turns in a strong performance. Mélanie Bernier is great as the naive but ambitious civil servant, desperate to make her mark on her superiors. At times she comes across rather like a French Demi Moore, very capable as the strong female co-lead. Solid performance.
Finally, a word on Aymen Saidi, who plays Yahia, the leader of the four armed jihadist terrorists. His performance, though at times slightly overly manic, is captivating. He gives us a sense that his character doesn't really know how to deal with the rapidly changing situation, a kind of desperation in his eyes that implies that Yahia is as much in the dark as to what's going to happen as the passengers. Struggling to contain his emotions in front of the passengers and the other three terrorists in his charge, there's an inner battle raging with Yahia that remains unspoken, yet obvious. Worthy performances on the whole.
What we're left with is one long epic build up of tension, relentless in how it piles on more and more pressure by the minute, forcing you further and further towards the edge of your seat. It's a well presented insight into how these frightening events transpired, and it effectively manages to show the contrast in emotions between the people directly in contact with the plane and those close to the situation but more indirectly. It shows us how the emotion of the scenario affects people differently, from Thierry, the GIGN officer from whose perspective we witness the assault, Claire, his wife, who we follow as she struggles to come to terms with what she is seeing on television knowing her husband is to be a part of the team tasked with neutralising the situation, and from Carole, the civil servant who happens to be the only one in government that is capable of cutting through the bureaucratic red tape and coming up with an idea that may actually save the lives of those on board. It's gripping stuff from start to finish.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Assault. I found it to be a gritty and visceral portrayal of three different perspectives on the same scenario. It's honest in it's approach, and yet it still manages to underline the humanity of the situation, rather than the bureaucratic political aspects – no mean feat with such controversial subject matter, but Leclerq delivers a non judgemental and fast-paced, pressure-cooker narrative. Seamlessly weaving between actual news footage, cleverly positioned within the movies structure, it's a great example of blurring the lines between reality and film – Exactly the kind of movie that doesn't come around often, and when they do, are seen by too few.
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