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Riveting from start to finish, by way of 'United 93's' faux-verite style that conveys keenly the immediacy and tension of the real-life events
French director Julien Leclercq's sophomore feature is a dramatization of the events of Christmas Day, 1994, when a group of four heavily armed men from the Algerian Armed Islamic Group hijack an Air France flight bound for Paris. The comparisons with Paul Greengrass' 'United 93' are inevitable- besides the fact that both concern themselves with the hijacking of a commercial plane by Muslim extremists, Leclercq also employs the same hand-held, faux-verite style that Greengrass used to convey the urgency and immediacy of the unfolding events.
For the most part, Leclercq succeeds in creating a gripping chronological account of the events leading up to the French GIGN's (the elite counter-terrorism paramilitary unit of the French National Gendarmerie) storming of the plane stranded on a runway in Marseille airport where it had stopped to refuel. Still, his film lacks the intensity and emotional muscle of 'United 93', which is perhaps also a consequence of the more drawn-out nature of the incident (two days compared to United's two hours) which it portrays.
Leclercq, who co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Moutairou, chooses to tell the story from three parallel lines. Thierry (Vincent Elbaz) is one of the squad leaders of the GIGN, and the film's opening minutes attempt to contrast the harrowing nature of his daily work with the calming father figure he tries to be at home to his baby girl. On the other side of the barrel is Yahia (Aymen Saidi), the leader of the terrorist group who finds justification (however misguided) for his actions through fervent and frequent prayer. There's also Carole (Melanie Bernier), a French Interior Ministry staffer who finds it an uphill task to prove to her condescending male colleagues that the hijackers are in fact on a suicide mission.
The choice of these three perspectives is interesting, especially the contrast between Thierry and Yahia. Leclercq draws similarities between the two, despite their relative sides in the impending battle. A poignant sequence where Yahia's mother meets him face-to-face to convince him to surrender affirms that Yahia is, like Thierry, a family man. Just like Thierry too, Yahia finds himself the rallying figure for his men, the symbol they look to for strength amidst their fears and anxieties for the task in front of them. Carole, on the other hand, portrays the authorities' unpreparedness in dealing with the threat of Muslim extremism, much of the dithering on the part of the French probably manifested in the same way by the American authorities when 9/11 hit.
The fact that these three story lines unfold almost independently of each other means that there is less screen time for each of the characters- but Elbaz, Saidi and Bernier perform admirably in lifting their characters beyond caricature. In particular, Saidi is surprisingly effective as the determined terrorist leader who nonetheless is not without shades of humanity and concomitant uncertainties about his course of action. Bernier also convinces as the bold and resolute junior staffer willing to take risks to circumvent layers in Government authority.
Together, the well-chosen cast hold your attention until the final 20 minutes where the action kicks in proper. There will certainly be detractors who will find fault with Leclercq's choice to shoot most of the action in close-ups, as it also means that it is sometimes difficult to follow the swiftly unfolding action. Nonetheless, this climactic showdown is no less heart-thumping, and perhaps it is even more so because Leclercq conveys it through the eyes of those thrust into the highly charged situation (think of it as a first-person shooter experience).
And indeed, even if Leclercq was clearly influenced by Greengrass' method, there's no denying that he has utilised it effectively to retell a similarly harrowing real-life drama with style and verve. There is a raw energy to his technique of hand-held, documentary-style shots, and the intertwining of the dramatized events with real-life footage enhances the highly-fraught tension-filled situation. This isn't your standard-issue action thriller, but one which reminds us of the clear and present real-life danger present in our world out there, as well as the true heroes who put their lives on the line for those of others.
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