It took the French police just five days to track down the men responsible for the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks on Paris. In the meantime, the country was put on high alert: President François Hollande declared war on Daesh (ISIS), and police were given carte blanche to bring the terrorists to justice. For those five days in November — the same period dramatized in French director Cedric Jimenez’s ticking-clock thriller “November” — the terrorists seemed to have achieved their purpose.
On Nov. 13, the terrorists attacked the Stade de France, where Hollande was attending a match; they opened fire on innocent Parisians eating at street cafés in the 10th arrondissement; and they turned a concert at the Bataclan theater into a death trap, killing 90 in that venue alone. France was traumatized. I know because I was there, ordered to stay indoors, afraid that this might be just the beginning. Like nearly everyone I spoke to, I was desperate to get out, if only to show the terrorists that they hadn’t won, that we would not live in fear. And yet, the incident had touched a nerve. We were all deeply, irreparably scared.
The director of “The French Connection” reverse-shot crime saga “The French,” Jimenez seems to remember things differently. With “November,” he has made a patriotic tribute to the French police, casting some of the local industry’s top stars — Jean Dujardin, Anaïs Demoustier, Sandrine Kiberlain, Jérémie Renier — as key players in the operation mobilized to track and capture the terrorists. Things did not go perfectly. There was no shortage of false leads, dead ends and lives lost, some of which Jimenez and screenwriter Olivier Demangel acknowledge. Others they invent. But in the end, the cops find their guys, there’s a huge shootout, the terrorists are neutralized, and Dujardin’s character, Fred, stands up and gives a hollow speech: “For us, it is only the beginning.”
Perhaps “November” will make some people feel better about what happened. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever get over that time, and I don’t buy the way Jimenez depicts the aftermath. He fails to capture how Paris felt immediately following that tragedy. And he seems to think that blowing up the bad guys — and dropping bombs on ISIS abroad — balances out the 130 souls lost in that shocking triple strike. I don’t want to know how they caught the culprits; I want to know how they’ll stop it from happening again.
Recognizing how sensitive the French public would be to see the atrocities themselves re-created, Jimenez keeps them off-screen. This gesture of good taste will surely be appreciated by locals, but it renders “November” unusually tricky to distribute abroad, where audiences aren’t as familiar with what happened. In the film, when things erupt, the film’s POV is trapped back at police HQ, where Marco (Renier, nearly unrecognizable) is manning the switchboards alone. First one phone rings, then they all go off. It’s a textbook example of cinematic understatement, like featuring a clip of George W. Bush reading “The Pet Goat” on Sept. 11 rather than showing planes crashing into the World Trade Center. The French get it; foreigners won’t.
Of the nine terrorists directly responsible for the attacks, seven die on-site. Two disappear into the night. Identifying and arresting them, as well as anyone who may have aided and abetted their mission, immediately becomes priority No. 1 of every cop in the city. But how do you find two fugitive jihadists in a city of 11 million people? And what about threats that follow-up attacks could be imminent? Time is of the essence.
If Nov. 13 triggered Hollande’s war on terror, where exactly does one draw the front lines? “November” remains largely behind the scenes, stuck with officers at their desks, staring at computer monitors and listening to the hundreds of leads left on police hotlines. Héloïse (Kiberlain) runs the show, while Fred gives the go-ahead on where to send heavily armed DGSI teams in riot gear — like a Brussels raid that turns up mid-level drug dealers rather than accomplices. He takes the heat when one of his underlings, Inès (Demoustier), oversteps her duties. And he personally interrogates the arms dealer who sold the attackers their Kalashnikov machine guns, depicted here as a white nationalist unconcerned with how the weapons would be used. In fact, this person’s identity has never been made public.
Ultimately, the case was cracked by an unlikely lead: A woman named Samia (Lyna Khoudri) called in to say she knew where the killers were hiding, describing a detail — a pair of bright orange sneakers — that had not been made public. Jimenez includes an upsetting scene in which Marco and Inès grill this woman as if she had planned the attacks herself, and when it’s all done, the helmer makes a point of scolding the police for the way she was treated. (The movie largely overlooks Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the woman killed in the climactic scene, and whom the media mistakenly portrayed as Europe’s first suicide bomber. Director Dina Amer’s “You Resemble Me” deals with her complex — and controversial — story.)
“November” seems to say: The police made mistakes, but you can’t stop terrorism without inconveniencing a few civilians. Except in this case, the police didn’t stop terrorism; they merely avenged it. The Nov. 13 attacks still happened, and France is forever changed. Every minute I have since spent in Paris is marked by the awareness that it could happen again. After all, it had happened already, 10 months earlier, when terrorists raided the Charlie Hebdo offices.
Gritty and suspenseful at times, banal and bureaucratic at others, “November” isn’t France’s answer to “Zero Dark Thirty” so much as a one-dimensional salute to French efficiency, a procedural designed to restore faith in the system. The country hasn’t seen an attack of that magnitude since, though there have undoubtedly been attempts. The trouble with terrorism is that it works, leaving millions terrified, and no splashy French studio movie can make us feel otherwise.