'15 Minutes of War': ('L'Intervention: La Naissance du GIGN'): Film Review

15-minutes-of-war Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of SND/Playtime
Great filmmaking, terrible script.

Bond girl Olga Kurylenko headlines this French genre item from French-Canadian director Fred Grivois.

A bus full of French children is hijacked by armed-to-the-teeth locals in 1976 Djibouti — then the last French colony — so, bien sur, a distaff American schoolteacher tries to heroically save the day in the action-drama hybrid 15 Minutes of War (L'Intervention: La Naissance du GIGN). This is the third film from Franco-Canadian director Fred Grivois, who directed the Reda Kateb and Ludivine Sagnier starrer Through the Air, and this sand-dusted genre film is his most fluid concoction to date — its frustratingly myopic approach to politics and an unnecessarily prolonged shootout in the finale notwithstanding (if only it felt as short as the English-language title suggests it lasted).

Headlined by French-Ukrainian Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, To the Wonder) as a teacher who's both maternal (toward the kids) and tough (with the terrorists), this should please older genre fans in particular, even though its politics are clearly problematic.

The rescue mission at hand, inspired by a true story, doesn't rely only on one female schoolteacher's bravery but also on a special unit of the French gendarmerie. These men — they were all men, natch — are flown in from Paris specifically for that purpose by a government bigwig (veteran comedian Josiane Balasko, in a deliciously stern cameo). The actual operation, here led by calculating yet fearless commander Andre Gerval (Alban Lenoir), would lead to the birth of what is now called the GIGN, a Gendarmerie Special Forces unit that’s routinely tasked with exactly the kind of impossible mission shown here. Cinephiles who are into French action films will be familiar with the GIGN from Julien Leclercq's The Assault, which dramatized the unit’s efforts to save the passengers of a hijacked plane, or Mathieu Kassovitz's Rebellion, a hostage drama set in New Caledonia.

15 Minutes of War was written by the director, newcomer Ileana Epsztajn and the prolific screenwriter and occasional director Jérémie Guez (the upcoming The Sound of Philadelphia with Matthias Schoenaerts). Their screenplay is interested mainly in the mechanics of how a white schoolteacher and group of five specially trained white soldiers found themselves trying to save a bus full of innocent white kids from the clutches of black terrorists who want the French colony Djibouti to become part of the already-independent Somalia next door. 

I note the skin color of the various characters to underline to what extent 15 Minutes of War really is black-and-white. It’s not so much the generic rock music that accompanies a montage sequence showing the soldiers' preparation at an airport that makes the film feel antiquated — though it does echo the aesthetics of jingoistic 1980s small-screen fare, like Tour of Duty and The A-Team — as it is the movie's extremely blinkered view of politics, race and historical context. The almighty French are clearly both the victims and the heroes here — the model-gorgeous American lady with a wobbly accent functions more as welcome eye candy than anything else — while the black men, fighting against the oppression of the French colonialists, are the bloodthirsty, trigger-happy bad guys whose cause is not even worth a few lines of dialogue. 

This is a major problem for a film released in this day and age. It wastes the high level of craft Grivois and his collaborators have brought to the project. In the first hour, the bus is hijacked, the highly trained gendarmes are flown in from Paris, and schoolteacher Jane Andersen (Kurylenko) wanders into the sandy no man’s land between Djibouti and Somalia, where the vehicle with 21 kids on board has come to a halt. Though very little finally happens, Grivois and mono-monikered editor Baxter expertly maintain the tension throughout, switching between Andersen and the kids on the bus, Andersen and the hijackers and Andersen and the five men who have trained their weapons on the bus but who need to wait for both a go-ahead from Paris and a moment during which they can take out all the bad guys without injuring the kids or the teacher.  

The shootout, when it finally occurs, is especially problematic, since it basically consists of 15 minutes of target practice on black men we don't know anything about other than the fact that they were desperate enough to hijack a bus full of French kids. It is indeed stomach-churning to watch, but not in the way the filmmakers intended. Yet again, however, purely in terms of filmmaking craft, this is a very solidly staged sequence, even if it clearly outstays its welcome. With the audience knowing nothing about the people on the "other side," the whole thing feels like a foregone conclusion before it has even started.

What we are thus left with is a film that's made with an impressive level of craftsmanship but with exceptionally dubious politics, as if 21st-century moviemaking magic had been let loose on a terribly conservative and hopelessly blinkered 1980s relic of a script.

Production companies: Empreinte Cinema, SND Groupe M6, Versus Production, C8 Films
Cast: Alban Lenoir, Olga Kurylenko, Kevin Layne, Michael Abiteboul, Sebastien Lalanne, David Murgia, Guillaume Labbe, Vincent Perez, Josiane Balasko 
Director: Fred Grivois
Screenwriters: Fred Grivois, Jérémie Guez, Ileana Epsztajn
Producers: Raphael Rocher, Henre Debeurme
Director of photography: Julien Meurice
Production designer: Halima Zniber
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Belocq
Editor: Baxter
Music: Mike Kourzter, Fabien Kourzter
Casting: Michael Laguens 
Sales: Playtime

In French, Arabic, English
98 minutes