Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Olympus Has Fallen has us thinking about better films about terrorism.
The Battle Of Algiers (1965)
How true to life is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers? For one, it required a disclaimer at the beginning of the film alerting the audience that it was watching a work of fiction, not actual newsreel footage of the Algerian struggle for independence against the French. Two, it’s been used as a textbook on insurgent tactics, both for organizations like the Black Panthers and for Pentagon officials looking to better understand how terrorist networks like al-Qaeda function. Not surprisingly, the history of the film has been a tumultuous one, setting off such a crisis in France that the authorities banned it for several years and other countries trimmed scenes depicting the systemic torture of National Liberation Front (FLN). Much like similar scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, the torture in The Battle Of Algiers rattled a nation that didn’t care to grapple with the atrocities committed in its name.
Though Pontecorvo aligns himself strongly with the Algerian cause, the virtue of The Battle Of Algiers lies in the remarkable diligence with which it follows the tactics of both sides and its absence of judgment. In Pontecorvo’s eyes, there are no moral distinctions to be made between terrorism and torture: The FLN must plant bombs and stir unrest to foment an uprising against the French occupation; the French military, led by a brilliant colonel (Jean Martin), must use torture to break up cells and weaken the FLN. The real injustice in The Battle Of Algiers is the occupation itself, and all atrocities committed by both sides are just the horrible nature of conflict. What’s ultimately telling about The Battle Of Algiers’ achievement—and it’s truly the standard by which all movies about terrorism will forever be judged—is that as controversial as it was and remains, there’s been little dispute over the verity of Pontocorvo’s vision. It’s a film of radical truth.
Availability: Criterion released a features-packed DVD edition in 2004 that proves the film’s post-9/11 relevance, and it’s included among the titles in Criterion’s Hulu subscription package.