It’s unfortunately an important question: Will The Assault, France’s newest filmic tribute to the skill of its police force, benefit from the recent rise of interest in the French special forces after last month’s standoff against Mohammed Merah? Merah, a French-Algerian living in Toulouse, turned a cold-blooded killing spree into a prolonged standoff with the cops, at the end of which seven people had been killed. Pictures of elite French cops in full combat gear have been ubiquitous in the news ever since.
Back in 1994, four members of the Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group) — to which Merah never belonged, but with which by all accounts he shared a deep ideological affinity — hijacked an Air France flight on the runway of Algiers Airport. The resulting standoff left seven people dead and dozens shot or wounded, as the plane was flown to Marseille, where elite French cops stormed it and killed the hijackers.
The filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated such relevance when they scheduled the US release date for The Assault, but no major movie is going to complain about free press, however morbid. The real question is whether the film does any justice to the 1994 event, especially within the new context of Merah’s murders, or whether it was always going to be a simple action movie dressed up smartly to exploit a tragedy.
Politics inextricably wrap around both hostage situations and movies, though no doubt in the latter they are a good deal more trivial. Trivial wouldn’t quite describe The Assault, which moves with a commando’s swiftness through the key points of the Air France hijacking, focusing almost entirely on the police. But the film has at least as much of an interest in making its cops look good as the French politicians who greenlit the assault had at the time.
If you take newspaper accounts of the actual hijacking at their word, it’s clear that director Julien Leclercq has sliced out key chunks of the story to speed up the action. The four GIA terrorists posed as presidential inspectors (normal folks to see at an Algerian airport) and innocuously boarded the plane, armed with hidden machine guns, grenades, and dynamite. Once they made their intentions known, they forced the female hostages to cover their heads, Muslim style, a detail which is included in the movie. They demanded to fly to Paris, but the Algerian government decided they weren’t going to let them, leaving the stair-car attached to the plane’s door. In response, three hostages were shot in the back of the head. Eventually, the French pressured the Algerians to let the plane fly to Marseille, because the French wanted to deal with a French problem in a French way. That they did, which is where the movie version gets its name.
The film’s main character, the cop who eventually leads the assault, is known simply at Thierry (Vincent Elbaz). It’s clear that he’s the guy on the strike force who’s most willing to go head-to-head with a killer and, if need be, take him down. Still, the audience can plainly see that Thierry’s bracing for the oncoming PTSD: before the plane is stormed, he practices shooting potential targets in the shoulder, to avoid having death on his hands. The movie follows him from his family’s humble flat, to a training facility, to the airplane hangar where he and his team prepare to make the movie live up to its name. In the process, few details are spared to demonstrate the toughness and focus it takes to be a line-of-fire cop. The trouble is, the more we’re made to focus on Thierry, the more obvious it becomes that the hostages, the people in the most danger, are not the point of this movie.
By the time of the actual assault, the facts start to move in staccato fast-forward. Cop-related details are the movie’s bread-and-butter, but unflattering details like the last-minute moving of the plane to a position more difficult for the cops to raid, or the fact that the stair-cars on which the cops rode towards the plane had to be readjusted while they were being shot at just so the cops could enter, are left out.
It isn’t hard to see why. The professionalism of hard-fighting Frenchmen is a sacred thing in The Assault, and the filmmakers are loath to sacrifice any bit of it to facts that might have slowed the action or made the cops look foolish. Pains are made to stress the verisimilitude of the operation by showing the cops doing trial runs of the assault, by detailing the nuts and bolts of French-Algerian political wrangling, and by focusing on the stress and conflict stretched across the faces of the hijackers. But contrast this type of verisimilitude with this movie’s most obvious antecedent, Paul Greengrass’s United 93, and The Assault’s flaws become obvious.
United 93 not only chose a more compelling story (and I don’t say that because it’s about Americans), but also told it despite much less information being available about the actual hijacking. Still, Greengrass’ film is about people who had no choice but to face the realities of involvement in a hostage situation — people who weren’t trained to do anything in response to terrorism but (from what we can tell) did so anyway. It’s true that The Assault could never live up to United 93 simply because its story’s outcome was much more positive. But that doesn’t make the comparison invalid: both films go out of their way to humanize the hostage-takers — a courageous move, especially in countries where terrorists are more often demonized than understood. The difference is that while 93 focused on the hijackers and their victims, The Assault focuses on hijackers vs. cops, transforming the event into an action-packed spectacle.
To date, the general thrust of movies that fictionalize actual terrorist events has been to back off from glamorization and treat the events as a tragedy. In some ways, this restraint is amazing, given the general crassness of big-budget moviemaking. The Assault isn’t crass; it’s a highly effective action film. But it helps open the floodgates: Will we be seeing a fictionalized Merah in 20 years, with faceless bodies piled around him and determined cops staring him down?