Set in Athens, Greece in 2015, a raid is carried out on an apartment building looking to apprehend a dangerous terrorist leader. Chief commander of the French anti-terrorism police, Fred (Jean Dujardin) is along for the ride as an interrogator. Much to everyone’s dismay, the raid is fruitless and their target escapes. Ten months later, the unthinkable happens.
On the night of November 13th in Paris, France, a series of coordinated attacks ravage the city. Mass-shootings and bombings from several assailants target innocent men, women and children going about their lives. In the aftermath, 130 people are dead, over 400 more are injured and countless families are left shattered. The police have no idea who is responsible, where they are and what they plan to do next. Over the next 5 days the SDAT (Anti-Terrorism Sub-Directorate) will not stop until those behind the attacks are brought to justice.
On Friday the 13th 2015, I remember that I was on layover during a return flight from Canada when news of the Paris attacks spread. The world was still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo massacre and I recall the panic people had, even though we were thousands of kilometres away and unsure of what was going on. The task of adapting such a dark event to film is a daunting one but director Cédric Jimenez and writer Olivier Demangel tackle it with the utmost respect.
A fascinating angle, November takes is to not recreate the attacks themselves whatsoever. It was important to Jimenez and Demangel to avoid that obscenity and the film focusing more on the investigation over the next 5 days. This is best shown when the character of Captain Inès Moreau (Anaïs Demoustier) in the immediate aftermath is driving to SDAT’s base as ambulances race in the opposite direction.
Perhaps a little of the gravity of the situation is lost as a result. With names, places and body counts revealed somewhat clinically through dialogue, November describes the horror rather than showing it. As respectable as it is to not want to appear exploitative, a certain amount is maybe needed in a film of this type. The story instead focuses on the investigation and the stresses of those following days. Much care is taken to show the unwavering determination of SDAT officers in their efforts in catching the perpetrators.
I could list various Hollywood movies which have retold similar tragic events and they often have the same issue of rewriting history to have a singular protagonist central to the entire plot. With Oscar Award winning actor Jean Dujardin on board, it would have been very easy for November to fall into the same trap. Thankfully, this is avoided and the film is all the better for it.
With November taking a more ensemble cast approach, it allows for smaller characters to shine so much brighter with whistle-blower character Samia (Lyna Khoudri) and her story being a highlight of the entire film, emphasising just how important in the whole operation a single person wanting to do the right thing is.
This is also a police procedural with an underline under ‘procedure’. One officer’s attempts to work to bypass regular channels and to work outside the law doesn’t bear fruit like we’re used to seeing in cop movies. In fact, it is almost painful just how hopeless the investigation can seem at times and the frustration is palpable whenever a promising lead turns up a dead end. But Jimenez’s vision draws us in more and more as the film builds towards a downright frighteningly explosive finale. A climactic firefight which left me with chills.
While not reaching the same level of overall suspense as ‘United 93’ or ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, November is not without its merits. It is a film which has as much esteem for French anti-terrorism services as it does respect for the dignity of those who were killed.