Somewhere in The Siege of Jadotville, Netflix’s latest original film, is a poignant musing on the nature of war and the hearts of men. Marred as it is by generic conventions, however, the film never quite manages to overcome the bar it sets for itself and instead of becoming the great film that it could’ve been, succeeds only in being a good film. One full of competence and potential, to be sure, but one that could’ve been so much better.
The Siege of Jadotville tells a story as old as war. A small battalion of soldiers—outmanned, outgunned, and abandoned by the brass—must contend with a hostile force with zero chance of winning. Based on actual events surrounding a U.N. peacekeeping mission in 1961, the film is at its best when it when it threatens to muse upon the realities of war on the ground vs. the intent of the men in charge. Unfortunately, it never quite makes good on its threats, instead using the real life tale of courage and heroism to present a cookie cutter depiction of battle.
Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays Commandant Pat Quinlan of the Irish army. Quinlan and his men are dispatched to an embattled region of Congo as the Cold War begins to heat up. Moise Tshombe (Danny Spani) has successfully deposed the leader of the Congo, who had begun the process of nationalizing the mines where the bulk of the nation’s resources are located. While the nation stands on the brink of Civil War, which the U.N. fears could jumpstart a new World War, Quinlan and his men find themselves caught between their peacekeeping mission and a group of Tshombe loyalists, backed by a crew of elite mercenaries, in a struggle for power that spans an international stage.
That’s an ambitious undertaking for a first time director such as Richie Smyth, and he handles it well enough. The titular siege is an engaging sight full of drama, action, and intrigue that should be pleasing enough to fans of war films, even though it never quite stands on the same level as the greats of the genre. Despite the technical acuity displayed by Smyth, the script never quite hits the real heart of the story.
What’s fascinating about the real life siege of Jadotville is the breakdown between command and the boots on the ground. Quinlan and his men were never meant to be anything besides a visible force, with no engagement anticipated for the battalion. That all changed when the U.N. accidentally bombed a radio station full of civilians. In the wake of that horror, U.N. peacekeeping forces are suddenly seen as hostile invaders, bent on destabilizing a country and delegitimizing its government.
They were, in every sense of the word, merely pawns. Dornan, unrestricted in his accent, portrays this aspect well enough, becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of backup offered by the U.N. forces at large. Their plight wasn’t even a blip on the U.N.’s radar; there were bigger plans at play. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is somewhat disregarded, traded out for the hero worship of the men in the Irish army forced to contend with an opposing force much better prepared for a siege than they were.
Which is fine, in and of itself. The men of Company A were all but forgotten in the annals of history, swept under the rug to avoid tarnishing the image and overall mission of the U.N. That’s the real story here, one that the script from Kevin Brodbin (Constantine) never touches on enough. While the men of Company A do deserve to be seen as heroes, it’s difficult not to wonder if their story wouldn’t be better told from a different framework.
The framework here is one of any number of war movies, often becoming too over reliant on conventions and tropes to be truly meaningful. Meanwhile, the real heart of the story—the one that contains powerful meditations on the ravages of war and its effects on our humanity—takes place mostly off screen. We’re given only the barest of details about the U.N.’s overall plans, just enough to know they’re screwing up and placing too much reliance on the theories of war, rather than the realities. Fleshed out a bit more, The Siege of Jadotville could’ve shown an interesting juxtaposition between war as a concept and war as a reality, and how those two things aren’t always fully aligned.
Instead, we’ve just got a war movie. It’s a perfectly fine war movie, if not a very memorable one. It’s definitely worth a watch, but watching it is not without its disappointments. The story of The Siege of Jadotville is far more engaging than the film itself, and serves as a reminder that the fate of soldiers too often rests on the whims of command and the rolls of a dice. Though the film very nearly breaks through to look at this reality more closely, in the end it’s far too entrenched to be the movie it almost is.
The Siege of Jadotville is now streaming on Netflix.