Monday, 23 April 2012
Attack forces: "The Assault"
On Christmas Eve 1994, a quartet of young Muslims with ties to the extremist group GIA boarded an Air France flight in Algiers. Disguised as presidential policemen, they promptly took all 172 passengers and crew hostage. The faction's stated aim was to secure the release of two political prisoners - though there were equally claims made at the time that the hijackers intended to fly the plane into a major Parisian landmark. The Assault, writer-director Julien Leclerq's no-nonsense, straight-ahead reconstruction of these events, follows the official response along two lines: that of Carole Jeanton (Mélanie Bernier), a foreign ministry worker in Paris who'd collated intelligence on the GIA, and that of the special forces team sent to assemble at an airfield in Marseille, where the plane would eventually be due to refuel.
With its washed-out colour palette, jittery camerawork and cast of largely unknown (thus expendable) faces, the style is what we have now to describe as knock-off Greengrass. Yet where, in the British director's United 93, we knew exactly how the story would be resolved, The Assault both suffers and benefits from non-French viewers' unfamiliarity with these events. There are a lot of indecipherable acronyms flying around: the GIGN, the DGSE, the FIS; there's even mention of something referred to as The Chrysanthemum Operation, which we may have to get Alan Titchmarsh in to brief us on. On the plus side, the film unfolds as a genuinely tense experience for those of us without prior knowledge of the story, particularly when the plane finally receives clearance to take off, heading one cannot be sure where, and later approaches Marseille, with the snipers lined up in residence.
Leclerq marshals his hardware - the guns, the planes, the Pumas - with some skill; he's good on the aircraft's confined space, managing to pin down the exact position of his characters within the cramped cockpit during the final push, here less of a clear-cut "let's roll" moment than a bloody war of attrition. If there's a weakness, it's that the strict adherence to procedural norms leaves the characters barely less developed than you'd get from a newspaper account of the stand-off; these figures often seem less like people than pieces to be pushed around a table top, or pins being pushed into a map. (United 93 had something of the same problem, arguably.) Jeanton, for one, is rather too obviously conceived as a movie archetype (lone dame working within an all-male institution), there to have her suggestions shushed by the GIGN committee, or be ticked off whenever she attempts to take charge.
Similarly, while special forces leader Thierry (Vincent Elbaz) is meant to be suffering some kind of trauma as a result of a botched operation, it's left naggingly unclear what he's supposed to have done in the rushed-through prologue. The terrorists, for their part, are allowed their prayer rituals, and some acknowledgement of their strength of faith ("If this goes on for a year, we'll be here for a year"), but keep being contrasted, rather too simplistically, with the idyllic family life Thierry enjoys with his blonde wife and super-cute daughter. (In one of those you-couldn't-make-it-up moments, one hijacker seizes the impasse as an opportunity to propose marriage to one of the female passengers.) It all grips like a vice, but a little more sensitivity - some greater understanding of what it is to make a film about the actions of extremist groups in this day and age - wouldn't have gone amiss; as it is, like its muddle-headed special-ops hero, The Assault storms in, paying little heed to the possible consequences of its (admittedly well-staged) action.
The Assault opens at the Institut Français in South Kensington today.