April 1988, Ouvéa Island in the French colony of New Caledonia. 30 policemen are kidnapped by Kanak separatists. 300 French special-forces operatives are sent to restore order. Two men face off: Philippe Legorjus, captain of the GIGN, an elite counter-terrorism police unit, and Alphonse Dianou, the rebels' leader. They attempt to find a peaceful solution based on common values and dialogue. But, against the backdrop of presidential elections in France, the political stakes are high, and order is not necessarily a moral question.
Mathieu Kassovitz takes very few risks with this straightforward account of the 1988 Kanak separatist attack/hostage situation on New Caledonia that left three gendarmes dead. But his bare-bones aesthetic is wisely employed; Rebellion is Kassovitz’s best work since his explosive debut, La haine (1995).
After a lamentable decade in Hollywood that yielded the forgettable Gothika (2003) and the unfathomably awful Babylon AD (2008), Kassovitz scaled back his trademark visual bravado to tell a story that shifts seamlessly between taut character drama and high-stakes political maneuvering. It’s unmistakably the work of a director unburdened by inflated expectation or budgetary largesse; Kassovitz never lets the lean, biting script (which he co-wrote with Benoit Jaubert) be subjugated by his camera. 'Just the facts, ma’am" could be his mantra; all other attributes of Rebellion (and there are many) flow from his application of confident, concise film language.
Writer/director Kassovitz does triple duty as leading man, playing counter-terrorism expert Capt. Philippe Legorjus of the Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN), France’s elite team of SWAT-like special assignment cops. He’s a negotiator by training, and when news of the indigenous uprising in the island territory reaches the capital, he’s dispatched to make contact with the rebel leader, Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas), and talk him into handing back the captives. Added pressure comes from French powerbrokers (most notably, Daniel Martin’s vile interior minister, Bernard Pons), who are gripped by election fever as the national polling date nears. Employing soft-hand tactics to ensure both Alphonse’s army of 'fisherman and fathers" and his own comrades are freed unharmed, Legorjus is betrayed by the ambitious politicking of Chirac and Mitterand who want to see decisive, bloody, vote-winning action.
Kassovitz’s camera glides along with the action on-screen, capturing precise moments of crucial dialogue while smoothly propelling the story forward. It’s a shame his technical skill did not find greater favour in the US; the compelling to-and-fro between his humanistic Legorjus and the many suits with heartless agendas, brimming with dialogue that puts a lot of faith in the audience’s intelligence, is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or high-brow big-screen efforts like Fair Game (2010) or Breach (2007).
Even those unfamiliar with modern French history are left in no doubt about the tragic outcome, so the focus becomes the morality of those involved. Whose principles will cave first? When will Legorjus realise the futility of his endeavours? When do morally-sturdy, second-tier characters such as Malik Zidi’s GIGN 2IC Perrot, Alexandre Steiger’s respected local magistrate Bianconi or Stéfan Godin’s idealistic Gendarme Colonel Benson grasp the sad inevitability of their dire situation?
Kassovitz’s examination of the compromises our leaders embrace to further their own slanted view of democracy is both vibrantly intelligent and entertaining.