The Assault or L’assaut (2010)
When I was young, there was an experimental movement in film-making that we can now authoritatively call cinéma vérité. Both in true documentary and fictional forms, the director’s intention is to maximise the capture of reality on the screen. Some have believed the best way to do this is to hide the cameras. This would mean everything on the screen is unscripted and unrehearsed. All would, of course, be filtered through the director’s eye when it comes to cutting the raw images together and adding a soundtrack. But it would be “real life” on the screen. To a greater or lesser extent, other directors have moved away from this purist position depending on the extent to which they believe the known presence of the cameras affects the behaviour of those being filmed. Today we have “reality” shows on television where cameras follow groups of people in their “everyday” lives. We have been taught how to suspend disbelief given that many of those “captured” are behaving in a surprisingly uninhibited way. Ignoring the game-show formats, some of the more interesting are like Jersey Shore in which we watch people caught in an artificial situation. It’s a form of voyeurism albeit without the more overtly sexual content. Think of it being a voyeurism that breaches the usual presumption of privacy.
One of the features of all forms of reality filming is the use of the hand-held camera. This technique now appears in straight fiction where the intention is to heighten awareness of movement, to make the action feel more dynamic, if not real. One of the most interesting early examples of this style is The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which Gillo Pontecorvo made the film in the style of a documentary. Mostly shot in black-and-white, it’s considered one of the best of the early attempts to create a newsreel style portrayal of real events. Continuing in the theme of the conflict between Algeria and the occupying French, we now come to The Assault or L’assaut (2010), a recreation of the Christmas crisis in 1994 when four Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
There are several features which make this film by Julien Leclercq rather interesting. First, he knows his film will be compared to United 93 (2006) in which Americans were invited to confront a piece of their own history in the story of the real-life events on one of the planes hijacked on the 11th September. Both films carefully avoid sensationalising these events of national significance. What we might call melodrama has been limited. But, unlike Paul Greengrass, Julien Leclercq took the decision to include real newsreel footage. This takes us into the same territory occupied by Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Winterbottom uses both real and faked footage to enhance the sense of realism. The question, always, in this kind of film, is the extent to which it’s legitimate to fictionalise history. By definition, the moment you write a script, you are editorialising, deciding what to include or exclude, what emphasis to place on different events and characters. It’s so easy to lionise one side and demonise the other when it comes to stories about terrorism.
On balance, I think Julien Leclercq does a good job as director and joint scriptwriter with Simon Moutairou. The decades of conflict between France and Algeria showed both sides at their worst. That this film, as a French film, emerges with any sense of balance is a testament to the ability of a modern film-maker to forgive the enemies of his country’s past and to embrace both sides as warriors worthy of respect. I say this despite the lack of any background context for these events. I lived through this history with the Organisation de l’armée secrète’s campaign to destabilise the French government and frustrate the movement to independence eventually leading to the Algerian attacks on mainland France. I’m not sure whether this film would have benefitted from two minutes of historical introduction. Modern viewers are rather thrown into this story at the deep end knowing nothing of the background nor of the role of the French intervention force called GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale). Although we are now used to the idea of hijacking planes both to force governments to release political prisoners and to crash them into iconic buildings, I suspect a short introductory summary would have enhanced understanding of these events.
The story takes three different strands. The first focuses on Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a senior member of the elite commando force called the GIGN. He’s under psychological pressure, finding it difficult to cope with his shoot-first, ask-questions-later role. The relationship with his wife and young child adds depth to the character. We then have Carole (Mélanie Bernier) who’s struggling under the appalling weight of sexist discrimination in the Foreign Ministry. She has done the research and understands the risks rather better than her complacent male bosses. But she’s also not wholly ethical, being prepared to offer money to one branch of the terrorist group in the hope this will encourage them to call off the hijacking. Then we have the four terrorists led by Yahia (Aymen Saïdi). They come over as committed but emotionally vulnerable. The scene when Yahia’s mother tries to talk him into giving up is particularly telling. In another place, at another time, these would be good men leading ordinary lives with their families. Because of the lack of historical context, we are left to guess at what would have driven them to engage in this grand gesture of defiance.
The film leads us through the initial stages of the hijack as the four terrorists pray together, then just drive on to the tarmac and board the plane. These were the days before airport security was improved. At first, the Algerian government refuses to allow the plane to leave but, when a French citizen is shot, the French government insists the plane is allowed to fly into France. Now the stage is set for the countdown to the assault. The majority of the passengers were Algerian nationals. The terrorists made no discrimination between innocent and guilty. Everyone on the plane was a hostage. Remarkably, most survived.
There are several features in the final stages of this sad event that remain unclear. Why was the plane allowed to move from where it was first parked in Marseille? Why did the terrorists not simply start killing all the passengers. Why did the GIGN not shoot the terrorists through the windows of the plane? Such questions do not detract from the power of how the operation was concluded. Insofar as anything can be considered a triumph emerging from such a tragedy, this is what happened.
I’m not convinced this is the most entertaining of films. It certainly has no Hollywood pretensions to lift morale and show the “good guys” winning. Shot for much of the time in a pseudo-documentary “black and white”, it desaturates both the colour and, to some extent, the characters so that we can focus on the events as they unfold. This is not about the people so much as about the immediacy of what actually happened. This gives The Assault or L’assaut a raw intensity of emotional power. It commands attention from start to finish. I emerged from the cinema feeling saddened that humans can do such terrible things but heartened that, sometimes, people respond well in difficult situations. For those who enjoy realism, this is as good a film in the style of cinéma vérité as you are likely to see for a long time.
For a more general discussion of what constitutes a documentary, see Should historical films be like documentaries?