NetFlix Review #16: Battle of Algiers

When I reviewed Zodiac I got into a couple of discussions about the genre of the police procedural. It's a fascinating little sub-genre that sets up many intriguing challenges as it takes something that should be pretty dull and tries to bring out the fascinating drama underneath. It's not easy to do, but when it is pulled off well, it's kind of a glorious, blazing miracle. Witness the rise of The Wire as one of the most acclaimed and admired television shows of our time. It's not big or flashy, it's just about people doing their jobs, but the brilliant David Simon knows how to mine intense drama even out of the most routine of cop work.

What's interesting is that whenever someone talks about a "procedural," they're almost always talking about a police procedural. Are there other kinds of procedurals out there that I'm not thinking of? I suppose you could have law procedurals, like The Verdict or A Few Good Men, although those always seem to be mighty close to police work themselves, especially how they're constructed storywise on film. I never got to see it, but could last year's highly acclaimed French film The Class be considered a teaching procedural?

Which is all to say that The Battle of Algiers basically plays like a war procedural, and is extraordinarily fascinating because of it. It strips away the grand heroics and heightened dramatics of typical war movies and uses a documentary-style approach to give it verisimilitude, so much so that some people thought the riot scenes and street scenes were actual documentary footage. The movie was banned for years in France due to its harsh depictions of the French police and soldiers, and the depictions of torture, considered quite graphic at the time, were cut out of many of the prints, including the ones shown in America.

For those unaware of the history, the French took Algeria as a colony around 1830 and kept it until a violent street revolution retook the country in 1962. The story of the film is the story of the fighting that happened in Algiers around late 1956 and early 1957 between French forces and the National Liberation Front (FLN). The filmmakers, as well as the book the film is based off of, are obviously aligned with the FLN, but given their alliance they present a pretty balanced and fascinating look at both sides of the struggle. The police captain is shown as both sympathetically lost in an unwinnable conflict in which his hands are tied, and monstrous, as when he lashes out from his feelings of powerlessness by sneaking into the Algerian slums and setting off a bomb in the same style as the FLN. When the French soldiers arrive they are led by Col. Mathieu, an imposing man in reflective sunglasses that give him soulless round spheres where his eyes should be. However, as villianous as he appears and occasionally acts, he is also oddly straightforward. Whereas the police chief was getting conflicting messages from his superiors and in turn passes down a muddled string of orders to his men, Mathieu strikes with near-jaw dropping bluntness. "Should we remain in Algeria?" he asks a group of hostile journalists. "If you answer 'yes,' then you must accept all the necessary consequences." He does not mince words. The movie allows him to be a soldier, and gives him his credit. He points out how many of the men in his unit fought for the French resistence in WWII, and some were even in Dachau and Buchenwald. He believes in the Algerian war as much as he believed in the resistence, and is willing to go to the same lengths for it. The FLN are also shown as vicious, violent and uncompromising. Not only do they attack the French, but they are more than willing to kill their own people if they find them morally corrupt or within their rather fluid definition of "traitorous."

The film becomes a game of strategy, the FLN versus the French, and their two primary weapons, terrorism and torture. They are both led by smart, thoughtful men who wish to accomplish their goals as quickly and effectively as possible. Mathieu knows the violence is coming from a small minority and lets his troops know that policing will be much more effective than military action. One of the leaders of the FLN, Ben M'Hidi, counters one of the members calls for violence by saying, "Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start, but then the people themselves must act."

M'Hidi is talking about a proposed strike that is the centerpiece of the film. The UN are debating "The Algeria Question," and as a sign of their strength and to garner world support, the FLN asks local merchants to go on strike. It's a bold move, as the strike is scene as an act of allegiance with the terrorists by the French and anyone taking part in it is considered an enemy. It raises the stakes, and forces the French to take action. It's a strategy that will eventually lead to the capture and/or execution of practically all of the FLN's leadership, but then only five years later the Algerians had banded together, partially if not largely over the fate of the FLN, to officially claim their independance.

In the end the movie is not about one side or the other, but about the possible impossibility of colonization. The situation itself was unmanageable, and the change that inevitably must come must also, unfortunately, usually come under the weight of heavy violence. Both sides are shown doing cruel, horrific acts, but they are both also portrayed as believing they are doing only what they must to survive how they see fit. There are scenes within the movie which are harrowing. The torture scenes are indeed awful. The section of the film in which three women in the FLN are each given a bomb to place is one of the most tense and riveting scenes I've seen. The women go through checkpoints, drop their children off with friends, engage with strangers, some of them very nice, whose deaths they will soon be responsible for if they drop off their bombs. The movie is basically about the conflicts of pragmatism and morality. How to best accomplish honorable goals that must be done through terrible means. The whole film is astounding, but it is worth it for the press conference alone, which pits the formidable Col. Mathieu against the captured FLN leader, the charming Ben M'Hidi. Watching these two men spar with wit, elegance, and an underlying yet ever-present ruthlessness is a wonder.

If a lot of these themes - occupation, clash of civilizations, war, terrorism, torture - seem pretty relevant to you, you would not be alone. In 2003 there was a showing of the film at The Pentagon. The flier advertising the screening read: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film." It showed only months after the infamous "Mission: Accomplished" banner made headlines. Makes you wonder who was in attendance?