Julien Leclercq’s The Assault works hard at finding its human factor, the thread linking the cold-blooded facts of the 1994 hijacking by Muslim extremists of Air France Flight 8969 and the plane’s passengers. The characters, especially the GIGN (think American SWAT team) task-force leader, Theirry (Vincent Elbaz), who leads the charge at the end, never feel larger than life. Technically, the film is untouchable; Leclercq has proven himself again, and if this were just another action thriller about fictional events there would be nothing to say, save for “good job.” But The Assault raises many more questions than it answers, and its overall objective is puzzling and remains shrouded in political agenda.
The quandary is this: The events of the Flight 8969 hijacking in Algiers have already been seen on television by close to 21 million people, as the actual taking of the plane and footage of the assault were broadcast live from the tarmac as it happened (Leclercq actually weaves most, if not all, of this original footage into the final minutes of the film). What’s gained by reliving these painful moments in history, especially when nothing enlightening seems to be added to the conversation about terrorism, and no new ground seems to be broken on the subject of the ‘94 atrocity that saw the death of quite a few civilians, police, and terrorists alike? Instead of looking forward to promoting peace and understanding in these times of continued tension between Islam and the Western world, The Assault creates a good-guy/bad-guy cowboy story that seems to provoke division instead of work toward unification. If nothing else, this movie incites hatred.
It’s in this way that the film feels moderately regressive; there is, of course, a patent and dire condemnation of religious extremism, but then there’s also a glorifying depiction of another type of fanatical belief: the overzealousness of national pride in one’s country on the part of the French. The portrayal of the Muslim terrorists is frightening and intense (the effort from Aymen Saidi as the terrorist leader is so filled with anger that it’s painfully good), despite conveying a sense of insanity that seems circumspect, and the Algerian government is painted as dumbly trying to endanger French citizens as long as they possibly can, with only the French seeming to come out in a good light, when the assault on the plane saves the day.
Whether or not these events were as black and white as the movie indicates is irrelevant; no effort is made to show both sides of the story. Repeated shots of the Islamic extremists praying on the plane while having to shoot innocent civilians seems to say, “Islam is bad.” And in light of the very recent French ban on Islamic practices, it’s hard to look past the blatant anger and dislike apparent in Simon Moutairou’s screenplay. Suffice it to say, the political motivation of the movie swells with a sort of anger-inciting, hatred-instilling, and anti-Islamic sentiment that overpowers the film, and leaves the true-to-life narrative of a plane full of people on the verge of death, the important part of this narrative, and a government’s struggle to save them while minimizing casualty and not giving in to terror, to dwindle in the shadow of political muscle-flexing.
That said, one can’t deny the power of this film as a story about real human beings and their struggle to survive. There’s a fine line between making people interesting and dramatic enough for the big screen and sticking to their real-life personas when directing a dramatization, and Leclercq walks it well. He’s careful not to embellish too much, and he sticks to the script as it were, letting the straightforward events speak for themselves. The Air France hijacking was terrifying in its own right, but compared to the silver screen (for example, see Executive Decision, made just two years later in ‘96), and what we’re used to seeing in action films these days as an audience, The Assault is pretty drab.
The tactical move on the plane held hostage at Marseilles takes place in broad daylight, live on television no less, and utilizes sheer brute force, with no special operatives in night-vision goggles or secret government technology. There’s a certain narrative power to the film’s depiction of this mission, as a simple and true unfolding of events carries more weight than any amount of shoring up with special effects or spy-movie conventions. The rest of the movie builds toward this moment and it’s a bit of a letdown, but in a sobering and pleasant way. The GIGN forces carry old-fashioned six-shooter pistols, and the attack doesn’t work as well as had been hoped, reminding us that these types of operations are rarely pretty and not done with the finesse Hollywood would have us believe.
On-screen text at the end of the film fills us in on the lives of the people involved and how they got on afterward. Toward the end of this bit, it’s revealed that French police were able to effectively “save” the Eiffel Tower by stopping the extremist group from flying Flight 8969 into it despite this intention only ever being a hypothetical motivation for holding the plane hostage in the first place. Ultimately, the claim may seem to a New Yorker watching the film like a reminder that our government wasn’t able to save the Twin Towers, and it leaves a somewhat bitter taste. It’s hard to say what the filmmakers’ intention is here, and it was strange to see the words appear, but what’s clear is that The Assault further solidifies the reasons first put forward by the release of United 93, why dramatizations of true events that we’ve already witnessed firsthand once, where real people were brutally murdered, shouldn’t be misconstrued by the movie-watching public as entertainment, and should be left alone to be memorialized in public sculpture and not exploited for monetary gain.