Many reviews of The Battle of Algiers explain its lasting relevance and and quality as a product of its even-handedness, its deft ability to show the light and dark sides of both the French troops and the Algerian revolutionaries without overly demonizing or praising either party. I fear, however, that such a description belies the intense politics of the film. The Battle of Algiers, like the contemporary war film The Hurt Locker, is not apolitical simply because the characters do not pound away with speeches that break flow just to air the writer's opinions; even when characters discuss their beliefs, the movie displays its politics through actions.
An account of Algeria's capital city during the Algerian War of Independence, The Battle of Algiers grabs us from the first frames, of French soldiers ending a torture session that yields valuable information from an FLN insurgent. Now that they have what they've wanted, the men, who did God knows what to the prisoner before the film faded in, are now friendly and giving, handing clothes to the involuntarily shaking man as if he was one of them. That opening shot contains more unspoken commentary about the insanity of war, imperialism and torture than almost any other war film could cram into its entire running length.
And that's only the start. Director Gillo Pontecorvo brings a neorealist touch to the film, further emphasizing the brutality of both sides. FLN insurgents shoot, stab and beat French policemen, and they incite so much fervor that, in one scene, a group of Algerian children accost a French civilian and drag him down the stone steps of a city street face-down. Pontecorvo used thousands of Algerian extras for his street shots, and the way he can corral them all into composed shots even as they must re-enact the pandemonium many of them no doubt actually lived through in the actual conflict is nothing less than masterful.
Despite the massive cast, Pontecorvo focuses on a handful of protagonists, with one clear lead per side. Ali la Pointe represents the Algerians: once a petty criminal, he became a radical in prison after watching FLN operatives executed by the colonists for wanting freedom. Upon hitting the streets again, he volunteers his services for the revolutionaries, and shows absolutely no hesitation in attempting to kill French police, even though his first engagement is marred by an empty revolver. Street urchins pass him messages on the street, then he tails and kills the next target, usually in broad daylight in front of witnesses. What does it matter? The Algerians won't rat him out, and the French residents couldn't possibly identify him from the sea of natives.
An hour into the film, we meet the French protagonist, Lt. Col. Philippe Mathieu. A veteran of Indochina, Mathieu arrives in Algiers in the wake of a series of bombings and immediately identifies the problem with the police checkpoints in weeding out the terrorists: FLN has structured its network as a pyramid, with each operative knowing only the people he recruited and the person who recruited him. So, he advises that the French must interrogate suspects, using methods that "always obtain an answer." Mathieu shows a striking foresight into the terrorist mind, especially in contrast to the bewildered and beleaguered French he comes to aid. Soon, his troops round up young men in groups of four and torture confessions out of them.
In both characters you have a stunning capacity for evil, but both also have their sympathetic sides. Ali is not some mindless thug or heartless monster: he has simply seen how his people are being suppressed, tortured and killed by foreign invaders, and he wants to do his part to expel them. Mathieu, for his part, is a good soldier, even if he does put his considerable skill toward atrocity. He understands that the FLN represents only a minority of natives, and torturing suspects for information leading up the network ladder to the leaders of each FLN section is his way of preventing the wholesale slaughter of Algerians; in the same briefing he uses to authorize torture, Mathieu reminds his troops that they must do police work, not brutish soldiering.
As tensions build between the two forces, French journalists act as a sort of intermediary between the two, allowing both sides to declare their political intents, only for them to betray moments of actual truth amidst the saber-rattling. When a reporter asks the captured Ben M'Hidi about the cowardice of terrorism, the FLN political leader rightly notes that having women place bombs in their baskets is considerably less cowardly than dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages. Mathieu defends his actions to the press and notes FLN's willingness to sacrifice Algerians in the name of the Algerian cause, but he also expresses an admiration of M'Hidi's commitment to his beliefs.
The last half hour is a grisly descent into hell. A montage of torture sessions turns the stomach, and violence reaches a fever pitch. At one point in the film, Mathieu reassures his men that, though some will call them fascists and Nazis for what they're doing, they don't understand that the soldiers fought in the Resistance, and some of them survived concentration camps. He tries to conduct himself with some measure of restraint, but the FLN understands his hypocrisy and they respond to his condescending willingness to take prisoners with more terrorism, which in turn unleashes his wrath. This back-and-forth drives the film to its climax, in which Mathieu finds Ali's hideout and gives him 30 seconds to come out before blowing the place.
The guerrilla war in Algiers ended in a French military victory, but ultimately it made Algerian independence inevitable. Word of torture spread through the press and turned public opinion against the conflict. Naturally, it galvanized Algerians in the rest of the country, and eventually the monetary and human cost was simply too high for the French to stay. The Battle of Algiers ends with violent protests, as journalists capture marchers overwhelming French troops who fire into the crowd, no longer out of racist hatred but fear and desperation. These demonstrations win Algerians their freedom, but I can't imagine anyone taking a sense of victory from the ending, even Algerians. What came before it is simply too horrifying to lend itself to some fist-pumping Hollywood victory.
In the years since its release, The Battle of Algiers has become a textbook example not only of master filmmaking but political clarity: the Pentagon even held a screening of it in 2003 to compare and contrast the actions of the French and Algerians with Coalition Forces and Iraqi insurgents. Indeed, I'd recommend showing this film to anyone who holds the simple-minded view that the Iraq War was justified and believes we're doing a service to the people by destroying their infrastructure as well as those who can't understand what's gone wrong in Afghanistan. Few documentaries contain as much truth and as many warnings as The Battle of Algiers, much less fictional films. Why can't people like Paul Haggis study films like this more closely instead of beating us over the head with themes every eight seconds?