Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tribeca ’11: The Assault

It was France’s Entebbe. In what is often referred to as “the most successful anti-terrorist operation in history” (at least among those not involving the Israelis), French commandos stormed an airliner hijacked by Algerian Islamist terrorists on Christmas Eve. The hijackers had no intention of negotiating. Their plan was to crash Air France 8969 into the Eifel Tower. The year was 1994. The missed lessons are painfully obvious. In a case of France eating Hollywood’s lunch, Julien Leclercq vividly dramatizes the historic raid in The Assault (trailer here), which screens at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

The Algerian terrorists were Islamic and they never let their captives forget it. As soon as they secured the plane, Abdul Abdullah Yahia and his accomplices forced all the women to cover-up with makeshift head scarves. The French being French, they first tried to appease GIA terrorists. Not surprisingly, the Islamist GIA was not interested in a payoff. They were hoping to make a big statement instead. Fortunately, they were delayed so long in Algiers (where the Algerians refused to remove the gangway stairs from the airliners, yet perversely denied permission for the French GIGN SWAT team to operate in-country), Flight 8969 was forced to stop for refueling in Marseilles.

Considering the film is called The Assault, it is not much of a spoiler to say the GIGN eventually board the plane. However, there is nothing video game-like about the film’s centerpiece action sequence. This is close quarters combat, vividly depicted as a distinctly violent, claustrophobic, confusing, and messy proposition. Tense and scrupulously realistic, these scenes are unlike anything peddled by recent antiseptic Hollywood action movies.

Reportedly, the terrorists were even more sadist than they are portrayed in Assault. Of course, there are understandable limits to what a commercial release can bear (particularly in France). To his credit, Leclercq and co-screenwriter Simon Moutairou never try to ameliorate the terrorists’ crimes with sympathetic back-stories. Instead, they show them executing hostages in cold blood. Frankly, the GIA as seen in Assault can only be described as hateful savages.

Assault’s one weakness is the rather cookie-cutter characterization of the GIGN officers. Viewers only glimpse the private life of Thierry, a family man wrestling with his conscience after his previous assignment. The rest are essentially interchangeable. However, Mélanie Bernier makes a strong impression as Carole Jeanton, an ambitious Interior Ministry bureaucrat, who goes from Chamberlain-esque appeaser to a Churchillian advocate for an armed response to terror in about thirty seconds flat. Maybe it was the guns pointed at her.

The Assault is the sort of action film Hollywood ought to be producing at regular clip, but refuses to do so for petty ideological reasons. Still, though the GIGN emerges as the film’s heroes, the French government takes quite a few lumps. Recreating an important historical incident with grit and tick-tock precision, Leclercq’s Assault is easily one of the best selections at this year’s Tribeca. It screens again tonight (4/23), tomorrow (4/24), and Thursday (4/28).