Civic duty comes into play with Julien Leclercq‘s “The Assault“, the new French actioner opening this week. Filmmaking is not a hobby, nor is it broad labor, and one has a responsibility to the truth, both superficially and subtextually. To damn “The Assault” with the accusation of irresonsibility is broad and not entirely civil. It’s a blistering cinematic procedural, intense and upsetting in equal measures. And while, superficially, a procedural is “enough,” both the art form and the true-life account of what’s dramatized in the film demand more.
“The Assault” takes place in the early ’90s, with tensions bubbling between Muslim extremists and, we’re to gather, the happy home lives of France’s SWAT-like emergency specialists. We really only get to know Thierry, a distracted father and husband who still hasn’t found the way to his daughter’s heart; it’s suggested this may be due to his complex profession. He’s a member of the GIGN, who are mobilized soon after the film’s opening dream set-piece, a flight from Algiers taken over by violent Muslim separatists while sitting on the tarmac. We watch time tick away as innocents shrink from the bullying demands of the deeply religious “villains,” setting the stage for a hostage rescue mission.
But the deployment of our troops is put on hold as diplomacy works its way through the system. Allowed access to the negotiation process, the documentary-like handheld cameras peer, almost through covered eyes, into the representation of late 20th century diplomacy. The strongest portion of the film, these sequences, which may or may not be 100% accurate, capture exactly how we can be so close to, and yet so far from, actual danger, as we follow a young, somewhat unknown female bureaucrat as she hesitantly promotes an alternative viewpoint that both saves the day and proves the rest of her blowhard associates may not know exactly how to make concessions, false or otherwise, in the prologue to the War On Terror. Without explicitly stating as much, there’s a certain relationship between the class-frustrated Muslim extremists and this single woman burned from the heat of behind-her-back whispering that proves more familiar than the allegiance between herself and her own superiors.
The rest of Leclerq’s film, which treads the same “verite vs. action” ground as Paul Greengrass‘ earlier, knottier pictures, feels secondhand and almost television-bound, as if it was a dramatization waiting for an obvious context-clarifying voiceover. There would have been political value, and even black comedy in staging the diplomatic backroom dealings as the majority of the film, with the badass gunmen heroes simply waiting in a room like caged elephants ready to fight. Instead, “The Assault” needlessly provokes with the convincingly intense sequences inside the plane, with the terrorists immobilizing innocents, taking a gun to the head of anyone who opposes them.
At this point, what is there to gain from fracturing the narrative to show this side? Leclerq wants to make a “just the facts, ma’am” docudrama about a savage act of terrorism, but to be apolitical is to be completely political in the worst way possible. You can’t simply come out against extremism when the political purposes behind it are obscured. If we were granted a look into the French government’s war room, why not the terrorists’ equivalent? “The Assault”, which derives its title from the tense final action sequence where our soldiers finally get in the game, misinterprets post-Greengrass shaky-cam action as a levelling of the idealist playing field, a chance to allow all opinions to find simultaneous voice in the rush of onscreen action, when in fact it’s about the chance to allow and crave the order and humanity out of the chaos of widespread violence. There may be plenty of propulsive action in “The Assault,” but there is little humanity. [C]