'The Siege of Jadotville': TV Review

Jadotville - Still - H - 2016
Karen Ballard/Netflix
Skillful combat, shaky drama.

A military unit led by 'Fifty Shades of Grey' star Jamie Dornan goes to battle in Netflix's retelling of a little-known Cold War siege.

It's 1961, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba has been assassinated, and civil war in the African state of Katanga is all but assured. A U.N. task force overseen by Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold (Mikael Persbrandt) and his lackey Conor Cruise O'Brien (Mark Strong) prepare to launch an offensive code-named Operation Morthar, the aim of which is to bring down the mercenaries who have pledged themselves to Lumumba's replacement Moise Tshombe (Danny Sapani). Caught in the middle is Irish commandant/devoted husband Pat Quinlan (Jamie Dornan) and his battalion of peacekeepers, all of them trapped in the small Congo city of Jadotville and under siege from Tshombe loyalists led by Frenchman Rene Faulques (Guillaume Canet).

It's all true, or much of it is. But the burden of actual history weighs down Netflix's semi-rousing new war film The Siege of Jadotville in the early going. A likely composite character named Madame LaFontagne (Emmannuelle Seigner) acts as a sort of Basilette Exposition, walking the green but tenacious Quinlan through the tempestuous politics of the Congo while giving him come-hither stares that our stoic hero roundly refuses to meet. After all, he's got a loving wife — played with zero complex shadings by Fiona Glascott (not that Kevin Brodbin's by-the-numbers script affords her any) — waiting for him back home.

There's no room in this particular world for women to be anything other than adoring spouses or cynical temptresses, though first-time feature director Richie Smyth (co-helmer of the U2 music video "The Fly," off of 1991's Achtung Baby) quickly dispenses with the opposite sex to focus on the macho goods. A tense run-in between Quinlan and Faulques in a Jadotville dive bar, each verbally one-upping the other in-between swigs of cognac, is the gruff prelude. Then the bloody siege promised by the title — and clocking in at almost an hour, with minimal interruption — begins.

It's an impressive spectacle, sort of Saving Private Ryan Jr. in its clear delineation of both battleground space and broad-strokes characters. (There's the ace sniper, the loyal seargent, the, uh, guy with glasses.) Dornan unsurprisingly looks great weaving his way around the bullets and barking orders with that sadist's allure he brings to both Christian Grey and The Fall. And the film never sinks into repellent single-minded patriotism, something real life helps with to a degree: The Jadotville siege was disavowed for years to avoid a PR disaster for the U.N., and the soldiers weren't officially recognized for their service until 2005. So there's a sense that this is in some ways the culminating step toward righting a historical wrong.

Good intentions only take us so far, of course. Whenever Smyth moves away from the battlefield, the film is on shaky ground, with the near-comical scenes involving Strong's cowardly subordinate a real low point. (He might as well be the big-government equivalent of Animal House's Dean Wormer.) The final scenes are also way too rushed, condensing the Jadotville siege's outcome into a few quick shots and some hasty voiceover that essentially boils down to, "We were captured. Then we were freed!" Would that our current armed conflicts were as easily resolved.

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Jason O'Mara, Mark Strong, Guillaume Canet, Mikael Persbrandt, Emmannuelle Seigner, Fiona Glascott, Michael McElhatton, Sam Keeley, Danny Sapani
Director: Richie Smyth
Writer: Kevin Brodbin, based on the novel by Declan Power
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Cinematography: Nikolaus Summerer
Editing: Alex Mackie

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)