Days of Glory is another graphic demonstration of the underclass warrior’s fallacy: that risking your life in battle will make you an equal, at the very least, in the eyes of your countrymen. Vain hope, Monsieur Cannon Fodder! The central figures are members of a tight-knit platoon of Algerian Arabs who, in 1943, vow to “wash the French flag with their blood” in an effort to liberate France (which at the time ruled Algeria) from the Nazis. That the French, beginning in 1830, had liberated about a third of Algeria’s population from the face of the earth should have tipped off these Arabs that equality—let alone veneration—was a sucker’s bet. But then, heroes so often are suckers. They believe in a world in which what goes around comes around.
And they might be right—although in this case the coming-around took six decades and a big-budget movie that bagged a lot of prizes at Cannes (along with an Academy Award nomination). A French-Algerian-Moroccan-Belgian co-production, Days of Glory is better served by its less-generic original title, Indigènes—i.e., “natives,” a slur. The director, Rachid Bouchareb, was born in Paris to Algerian parents in 1959—the year that France, on the losing end of Algeria’s war of independence, cut off military benefits for indigène vets. His antennae must have told him that now, with France’s history of bad behavior bubbling up (or, in the case of the 2005 riots, detonating) in the national consciousness, and with Muslims better known for a more unruly brand of militancy, the time was right for a rousing memorial to the Muslims who fought against Germany—and fought because they wanted to be Frenchmen.
Different kinds of Frenchmen, of course. They’re a cross-section: a brain, a romantic, a ruffian, and a lovable naïf, along with a sergeant whose brusque demeanor masks a secret regarding his origins. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), the one who can read (uncommon), thinks he’ll rise in the French military (unprecedented). Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the marksman, longs for a cozy French life with a cozy French femme, and it doesn’t take long to find her—she’s the first one he meets in the first town he enters as a conquering hero. (Too bad their love letters never get past the military censors.) Yassir (Samy Naceri) is a brute, but the kind of brute a country wants on its side: Watch him mow down those Krauts! Little Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) is the movie’s heart: hangdog, dutiful, speaking French almost as clumsily as I do. The aloof Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan) treats him like a favored pet until Saïd stumbles on a photo of Martinez’s mother.
Days of Glory doesn’t go anywhere surprising, geographically or thematically: It moves in a northerly line, beginning in Algeria and ending in frosty Alsace—where the surviving characters learn, to put it starkly, that in their annals of war the frogs don’t have room for the wogs. Scene after scene makes its anti-racist point, and yet the film—unlike last year’s Oscar winner, Crash—isn’t a series of head butts. It’s a measured, classical piece of storytelling that gives you room to breathe. Each sequence opens with a cloud passing over a black-and-white aerial landscape, leaving behind color, like the dusty brown of the desert or the deep green of the Vosges. The music is spare. As the few soldiers wait—and wait—for the Germans to pour into the Alsatian town, there are only the sounds of birds, streams, and their own footsteps on the frozen ground.
The battles leave you sickened, but not because Bouchareb lays on the gore. It’s because he brings home the other soldiers’ grief—and incomprehension. It’s because these men are cannon fodder—sent out, in one case, to draw fire to expose the positions of the German guns. Days of Glory recalls Edward Zwick’s Glory, in which ex-slaves thought that by fighting the Confederacy they’d settle once and for all the matter of their American citizenship. But the celebratory Glory didn’t reflect the events of the late twentieth century, in which African-Americans often fought in lieu of America’s Richest and Whitest. Bouchareb gets the balance between glory and infamy dead right. That’s why Indigènes is a stupendous work—and why that new title stinks to heaven.
As Robert Hanssen, one of America’s most notorious traitors, Chris Cooper trudges down the corridors of FBI headquarters with a face that’s all pouches and scary hollows, with the look of a man trying not to scream while piranhas are nibbling at his butt. In a way, they are. After more than a decade of supplying the Soviets with, among other things, the names of their own turncoats, Hanssen seems to sense that this is the endgame. Breach is the terrifically tense—and bizarrely funny—story of his final days of (illusory) freedom, as seen through the eyes of his new assistant, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a callow aspiring agent whose unenviable job it is to spy on a larger-than-life paranoiac. The director and co-writer, Billy Ray, did a bang-up job with another pants-on-fire, Stephen Glass, but the approval-hungry fabricator of Shattered Glass is a Cub Scout next to Cooper’s Hanssen. An Opus Dei tub-thumper who distributes videos of himself having sex with his even more devout wife (Kathleen Quinlan), Hanssen finally defies explanation—Freudian, Jungian, or Martian.