The Assault (L’Assaut) kicks off with a heavily armed, black-clad French SWAT team breaking into a barricaded building. Guns aim, foreheads frown, and tension builds. One of the men manoeuvres the device they will use to smash down the door. What is this high-tech implement? A garden rake. Despite this unorthodox approach to counter-terrorism, the film is pretty enjoyable.
Based on a true story, The Assault recounts one of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Europe in the 1990s: the hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 on Christmas Eve 1994. We see the events through the four Muslim-extremist terrorists, the hijacked passengers and crew, the SWAT team (or GIGN as they are known in France) and the authorities on the ground. In particular, it focusses in on senior GIGN man, Thierry, played with conviction by Vincent Elbaz, civil servant Carole played by Mélanie Bernier, and the leader of the terrorists, Yahia played by Aymen Saïdi.
Thierry is the character we get to know best, he is the only person who is given a serious amount of backstory in fact. His wife doesn’t like it that her husband’s job has such long hours and is so dangerous, but he is dedicated to his work despite being haunted by a raid that went wrong. Carole appears to be the only government official with any sense. She realises what the terrorists are up to first, but is ignored by until the last moment.
This brings us to a key problem with the film: few of the characters really come alive as more than just ciphers to move the plot along. Lead terrorist Yahia spends his time yelling that God is Great and that he is one of His soldiers, but it is hard to see what motivates him. Is he nursing some greater grievance? What does he hope his actions will achieve?
It all takes a while to get going. The plane is initially hijacked in Algiers and sits on the runway a long time before moving, while negotiations take place. When things do finally pick up, the film becomes more enjoyable. Director keeps the pace up with jumpy hand-held camera work and rapid editing. (He also gives the film a washed out colour scheme, verging on black and white, presumably to add grit-factor.)
Finally, we get to the ending, which is genuinely exciting. This too starts with a slightly daft moment as the GIGN slowly ride towards the hijacked plane on passenger boarding stairs, but as it is based on fact it would be foolish to blame the filmmakers. Elsewhere The Assault is not afraid to employ many stock-in-trade elements of terrorist films, but it gains a certain integrity as it is grounded in real events.