Interesting Politics, Cliché Combat in ‘The Siege of Jadotville’
Netflix’s Congo war film is a flawed look at a forgotten battle
by KEVIN KNODELL
“The thing is politicians, they don’t understand tactics. And soldiers? They don’t understand strategy. But Caesar understood both,” Irish army officer Pat Quinlan tells a group of his fellow soldiers as they drink at the pub.
It’s 1961, and Quinlan and his men will soon deploy as U.N. peacekeepers to the Republic of the Congo. It’s the Cold War and the major powers are vying for control of the recently independent Congo. The Irish troops will soon be caught in the middle.
Quinlan is a professional soldier who embraces the path of the warrior. He’s an ardent student of military history and is obsessed with tactics and strategy.
Frankly, he’s a war nerd.
A group of eavesdropping soldiers overhear him. One says that Quinlan has studied every battle ever fought. “Yeah, well he doesn’t know anything about the real thing,” one interjects.
“None of us do,” says another.
This is how me meet the main protagonists of The Siege of Jadotville, a new Netflix war film that portrays the forgotten Congo Crisis. Quinlan’s 150 men held their ground against 3,000 enemy troops and mercenaries for four days until they depleted their supplies and surrendered. Quinlan didn’t lose a single soldier in the intense battle.
The modern Irish army had never been to war. But the fact that neutral Ireland was not aligned with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact made its military ideally suited to international peacekeeping missions. To this day, Ireland plays a small but disproportionate role in peacekeeping given the country’s size.
The Siege of Jadotville tackles what is to many an obscure battle, and explores the complicated ways that political agendas can compete with the tactical realities of warfare. It’s rare for a story like this one to get a movie treatment, and Jadotville benefits from a strong cast and solid production values.
Unfortunately, the film is also deeply flawed. But there’s still a lot to like.
Jamie Dornan gives a solid performance as Quinlan. Mark Strong portrays Conor Cruise O’Brien, a cunning but arrogant diplomat whose overconfidence in his own abilities — as well as his unwillingness to listen to soldiers in the field — help set the conditions for the coming catastrophe.
The Irish troops’ position at Jadotville is heavily exposed, and the local mining companies aren’t happy with their presence. It doesn’t take long for Quinlan to take note of the much better equipped French and Belgian mercenaries in the area.
Quinlan’s main adversary is Rene Falques — a battle hardened French soldier turned legendary mercenary who fought in numerous wars in Africa and the Middle East after leaving the French military. In Congo, he’s aligned with the mining companies and Belgian-backed Katangan separatists.
The Irish are caught in the middle of what could become a flashpoint in the Cold War as the Soviets and the West vie for influence. A Belgian colonist tells Quinlan that the uranium used to make the first atomic bomb came from mines nearby.
Africa was important then as it is now, even if it doesn’t always make headlines. The Congo Crisis, in particular, is one of the most important chapters of the Cold War that we seldom talk about.
And here, the filmmakers make a good effort at driving home the setting’s complicated political situation without bogging down the narrative. What’s also admirable is the amount of research, reflected in props and costumes obviously chosen with considerable care.
In one scene, a U.N. official who speaks as a man with some knowledge of military matters sports a lapel pin that identifies him as an American veteran of the China-Burma-India theater of World War II. History buffs will appreciate the small nods.
But with all of The Siege of Jadotville’s attention to detail, it’s a shame the movie’s actual combat scenes are its greatest weakness. If, to quote the film, “politicians don’t understand tactics,” neither does the movie industry.
If there were only an example we could show you …
The battle scenes are the stuff of action movies. Early into the first shootout, an Irish sharpshooter kills Falques’ driver, and the French mercenary jumps from the careening vehicle, does a roll, pulls a pistol and keeps shooting — all without getting a scratch.
To be fair, the best thing I can say about the combat sequences is that they have a … Michael Bayesque quality. They’re competently shot and, in a way, sort of fun.
But that’s the problem. Stylized action scenes certainly have their place in the movies, but in the case of The Siege of Jadotville, they clash with the political intrigue and more nuanced moments between the combat.
The movie works best during its moments of tension. There are arguments over the radio between Quinlan and O’Brien. French mercenaries glare at Irish troops across a bar as they order drinks. Diplomats at the U.N. headquarters in New York try to figure out what’s gone wrong in the field.
It’s disappointing — and kind of ironic — that the action scenes don’t capture that same sense of tension and urgency. It’s a movie that manages to make politics interesting and combat boring.
Nevertheless, it’s good to see a movie attempt to wrestle with the complexities of peacekeeping, and bring to a life a little-known conflict.
And hopefully, if it does well, we’ll see more filmmakers mine other deserving — and largely forgotten — tales from military history.