15 Minutes Of War (L’intervention)

France/Belgium (2019) Dir. Fred Grivois

Contrary to what each generation may think, terrorism is not a new concept although it has admittedly been on the rise over the past two decades through disputes involving the Middle East. 15 Minutes Of War is based on true events of a 1976 hostage situation that could have easily taken place today.

In the French colony of Djibouti, a group of terrorists hijack a school bus with 21 children on board, stopping in a no man’s land on the border between Djibouti and Somalia to release the driver but keep the children hostage. The children’s American teacher Jane Anderson (Olga Kurylenko) arrives on the scene and evades the French Legion to approach the bus, demanding the terrorist to let her stay with the children.

Meanwhile, the French government dispatches a newly formed unit of crack marksmen to Djibouti to assist the Legion, arriving just as the Somali National Army has set up camp behind a barbed wire fortress on the border. Butting heads with the French Legion, squad captain André Gerval (Alban Lenoir) devises a daring plan to take out the terrorist and save the hostages with as little fuss as possible.

One might suspect director Fred Grivois has a thing for guns and sharpshooters since his directorial debut Through the Air also centred on a skilled rifleman required to hit the bullseye under unsavoury circumstances. But with this follow-up rooted in reality, there is no similar compunction behind the protagonists’ reasons for shooting anyone – in fact, as it is their job this elite group are rather nonchalant about it.

Well, they are French after all. Okay, that may sound a bit flippant but the script doesn’t do much to flesh out this trigger happy quintet, beyond revealing via light humoured skits that burly Georges Campère (Michaël Abiteboul) is gay – just don’t mock his age! Two of the others are almost identical in appearance made worse by the fact they aren’t so readily identified with any frequency for us to recall their names.

Fortunately, they are given fairly tropey personalities to help perpetuate a distinct sense of camaraderie and mutual respect based chemistry between them, though the only one seemingly on the outside of this is leader Gerval. He shows no signs of having a sense of humour but his dedication to his job and his cause as protector of the people means he is on the ball at all times, leading to many clashes with the Legion officers over how to approach the situation.

A similar problem regarding the lack of character definition befalls the terrorists and their motives for this drastic action. It is not until halfway through the film that we learn this is about making Djibouti an independent state like neighbouring Somalia (which actually happened a year later). Only terrorist leader Barkhad (Kevin Layne) is given more to do beyond waving a gun about, and even then, his rationale is never quite quantified.

Claiming to be a teacher himself, Barkhad tells Jane he became one to help Somali kids have a better future, so the logic of robbing a load of French kids of their future is hard to parse, though it facilitates Jane’s role as the designated totem for the opposing view. She too is full of intrigue, almost maternal towards her pupils which she coyly implies might be the result of a tragic past, refusing to elaborate on with a terrorist.

Because the minutiae of the story is nowhere to be found, there is little investment for the audience beyond good guys/bad guys, whilst some might even look further at how this is also essentially black bad guys vs. white good guys. The geographic details make this somewhat inevitable so this can’t be viewed as racist propaganda, but even so, with no attempts to allow the terrorists the chance to put their side across, this dispute is sadly reductive in its execution.

The first hour plus sees Grivois tease action but not deliver – as the title reveals, the inevitable shootout lasted fifteen minutes – punctuating the odd impasse with arguments between Gerval and the Legion general, and his boss back in Paris (Josiane Balasko) for the order to attack. One Legion guard is fatally shot traumatising the kids otherwise things remain quiet until Gerval gets the go-ahead and it’s on!

It essentially ends up as five vs. an entire army squad but Gerval’s crew are that damn good they can hold their own, with additional help from Jane and a dead terrorist’s gun. This probably sounds far-fetched but shortly after this incident, the squad was officially named the GIGN, and are international renowned for their skills, having rescued over 600 hostages over the past four decades, with just 11 fatalities of their own.

Despite how it sounds, the wait for the gunfire to happen isn’t that bad, though whether it is worth it, opinion will vary. The film is well shot and tightly edited, and when it does kick off, the view of people being hit shown through gun’s sight is a nice effective touch. The rapid cuts between the two squads heighten the excitement and tension, and enough confusion arises by the dust storms the cascading bullets create.

For non-Francophiles, Olga Kurylenko will be the most recognisable face here, doing as good a job as possible with the limited character development, also applying to the male French cast. It would be interesting to know if they ever questioned the jingoistic heavy bent of the script usually reserved for Hollywood war films, though not as overt with the flag waving and smug sense of superiority once the job is over.

15 Minutes Of War is a 94-minute distraction at best that could have been so much more if it bothered to delve deeper into the politics behind the conflict and flesh out the characters on both sides of the dispute. Genre fans should be satiated while others will notice the paucity of substance.