Movie Review: Rebellion
Pros:It's one of the more entertaining cinematic history lessons of recent years; there is a palpable authenticity and intelligence to the way in which the story is told.
Cons:The pace feels slow at times; it will occasionally prove confusing to viewers who don't possess a detailed knowledge of world affairs.
A compelling look at the morally murky world of French politics, circa 1988, and specifically, the events that led to the country’s troops killing 19 Kanak separatists in New Caledonia.
From Generation Kill to The Hurt Locker, there’s been a conspicuous change in the way mainstream war dramas are being made in recent years, and Rebellion, a new offering by Mathieu Kassovitz, is no exception to this trend.
Based on actual events, Rebellion is set in France in 1988, when the country was rife with ideological divisions, with rival candidates Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac engaged in a battle based on political point-scoring ahead of the looming presidential election. Meanwhile, a group of Kanak separatists had simultaneously gained control of part of the French colony of New Caledonia, killing three men and taking 26 French officers hostage in the process. Captain Philippe Legorjus (who wrote the book on which the film is based) is thus handed the unenviable task of attempting to resolve the tensions between the officers and the natives. And to make matters worse, his efforts to appease the hostile separatists are undermined by Chirac’s aggressive rhetoric and insistence that the hostages are rescued by force. In addition, Mitterand, with public opinion swaying in his opponent’s favour, consequently feels obliged to authorise a violent approach as a means to an end in this life-or-death dilemma.
So, unlike many classic war films, but similarly to the aforementioned contemporary efforts, Rebellion adopts a deliberately understated tone. In contrast with movies such as Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line, poetry and sensationalism are sacrificed in favour of verisimilitude, hand-held cameras and historical accuracy – a style which effectively goes as far back as Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful 1966 docudrama, The Battle of Algiers.
Furthermore, while Rebellion will undoubtedly be classified as a war movie, it could just as accurately be described as a political thriller. The film’s heart does not lie in its rare action sequences, but in its thoughtful discourse largely relating to the pros and cons of intervention by force, following the Kanak separatists’ provocative actions. It does a better a job than many more high-profile movies (Lincoln being a prime example) of representing both sides of the argument in a credible fashion. Though the audience is undoubtedly implored to acquiesce to the protagonist’s peaceful outlook, the bureaucratic manner in which these incidents are dealt with is portrayed in a thoroughly convincing and authentic fashion. As a result, the film is far more complex than your average good-guys-versus-bad-guys tale, and the eventual callous massacre of the separatists seems understandable, if not excusable.
There are very few downsides to the film, but two of its primary shortcomings are linked. Its pace feels sluggish and laboured in the story’s early stages, and this problem is at least partially owing to the complexity of the narrative, along with the sometimes vague manner in which it is presented – it presumes you’ve done your research on groups such as EPIGN (the Gendarmerie Parachute Squadron). Accordingly, audience members with only a cursory knowledge of French political history will struggle to grasp some of the nuances of the plot initially. However, patient viewers will be rewarded, as the action becomes increasingly compelling as events develop, and its focus gradually acquires a more universal feel.
The end result is a triumph, in particular, for Kassovitz. He is especially outstanding amid a coterie of fine individual performances, as he brings substantial screen presence to the role of the Captain, even if it does seem a little vain and indulgent for a filmmaker to unabashedly cast himself as the hero of his own movie. Moreover, he directs and co-writes the story with considerable assurance. Therefore, Rebellion ultimately amounts to Kassovitz’s best directorial effort since making the acclaimed urban drama La Haine in 1995. But more importantly, it’s the latest impressive instance of the increasingly changed face of the modern-day war drama.