Review: ‘Black Box’ (2021), starring Pierre Niney, Lou de Laâge and André Dussollier

April 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pierre Niney in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US)

“Black Box” (2022)

Directed by Yann Gozlan

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Paris in 2020, the dramatic film “Black Box” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few people of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An employee for the BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) does not agree that a plane crash that killed 300 people was caused by a terrorist, so he goes rogue with his own investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted thrillers about the aviation industry.

Pierre Niney and Lou de Laâge in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US/IcarusFilms)

“Black Box” is a taut and stylish thriller about the investigation into a plane crash that killed 300 people. The end of the movie has some improbable dramatics, but the movie’s acting and suspense make this story worth watching. “Black Box” also has excellent sound design, which is crucial to how people can be immersed in this particular film. Even though some of the plot’s twists and turns look like they could only be in a movie, “Black Box” does have an overall realistic narrative about about what can go on behind the scenes in finding out what happened in a such a tragic plane crash.

Directed by Yann Gozlan, “Black Box” takes place in Paris in 2020. Gozlan co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard and Simon Moutairou. This fictional movie shows what happened before and after the plane crash of an Atrian 800 European 24 plane traveling from Dubai to Paris on October 8, 2020. The plane, which weighed 251 tons, was considered one of the top commercial aircrafts in the world, with no previous history of malfunctioning. The BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) is in charge of finding out what caused this plane crash.

BEA employee Mathieu Vasseur (played by Pierre Niney) is an audio analyst specialist, who often has to do analyses of cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), which are usually the best evidence of what the pilots experienced and said in the moments before the crash. A CVR has the nickname “black box,” because it was originally manufactured as a black box. Nowadays, a CVR is almost always orange, but the nickname “black box” continues to be used to describe it.

Mathieu, who is in his 30s, is very meticulous and has the reputation of being an audio nerd. His immediate supervisor is named Victor Pollack (played by Olivier Rabourdin), who knows Mathieu has nitpicky tendencies, which often get on Victor’s nerves. An early scene in the movie shows Mathieu and Victor doing an analysis of a helicopter crash, which was caught on video. The helicopter did not have a black box, but Victor determines that the cause of the crash was the helicopter had a faulty tail rotor.

Mathieu disagrees, and he tells Victor that they should do more investigating to be absolutely sure. However, Victor shuts down Mathieu questioning Victor’s decision. Victor asking Mathieu if he wants Balsan to take over the assignment. Viewers can easily figure out, even before Balsan (played by Guillaume Marquet) appears in the movie, that Balsan is a rival co-worker of Mathieu. Victor knows it, and he is using this rivalry to make Mathieu feel insecure.

And sure enough, when the news arrives about the Atrian 800 European 24 plane crash, Victor chooses Balsan, not Mathieu, to be a part of the investigation team. There’s not much Mathieu can do about it except complain to his understanding wife Noémie Vasseur (played by Lou de Laâge) in a phone conversation that he has with her in the BEA parking lot. While in the parking lot, Mathieu is walking and talking on the phone, when his hard plastic briefcase accidentally scratches the side of a parked car and causes minor but noticeable damage to the car.

Mathieu looks in the car and sees from the photo parking ID that it belongs to Victor. He also notices that the car has a surveillance camera next to the interior mirror. And the camera recorded Mathieu looking into the car. Mathieu doesn’t have time to worry about if his boss Victor will figure out that Mathieu was the one who scratched his car. However, this car surveillance camera becomes a crucial part of the story later.

Noémie is also in the aviation industry. She currently works at the Aeronautic and Space Safety Agency (ASSA), where she is on a committee that decides if France-based airplanes and other aircraft pass inspection and safety regulations. However, Noémie has already given ASSA notice that she is leaving ASSA to start a high-ranking executive job in the following month with Atrian, the airline company that owned the plane that crashed. Atrian’s CEO Claude Varins (played by Aurélien Recoing) personally recruited Noémie for the job.

Meanwhile, BEA launches its investigation into the plane crash. Victor, Balsan and other members of the investigation team have taken the CVR for initial analysis. Only a day or two into the investigation, Victor suddenly disappears. BEA chief Philippe Rénier (played by André Dussollier) isn’t too concerned at first, because he says it’s not unusual for Victor to go missing for a few days and then come back.

And so, with Victor gone and with Balsan busy with other things in the investigation, Philippe gives Mathieu the responsibility to lead the audio analysis of the CVR. It’s a major responsibility that Mathieu takes with the utmost of seriousness. During the analysis of the moments before the crash, he hears a man yell in Arabic: “Allahu Akbar!,” which essentially translates to “God is great!” in English.

Through more analysis, Mathieu comes to the conclusion that a male passenger, probably a terrorist, entered the cockpit while a flight attendant left the cockpit door open to deliver a meal to the two pilots. It’s soon reported on the TV news that a 26-year-old Egyptian named Moqtada Sualazi was a passenger on the plane. The TV news anchor says that “reliable sources” claim that this passenger was a radical Islamist.

The investigation is closed, with the crash blamed on a passenger who is suspected of being a terrorist who acted alone. Mathieu is praised as the hero of the investigation. However, when Mathieu goes back and listens to the CVR again, he notices that certain sound levels and frequencies are very mismatched in the recording. Mathieu asks BEA colleague named Samir Jellab (played by Mehdi Djaadi), who’s an expert on Atrian planes, for some information to help in the investigation. Mathieu starts to wonder if the CVR could have been tampered with and if his first conclusion was wrong.

Even though Mathieu knows it could hurt his credibility to put doubt on his own initial conclusion, he takes his concerns to Philippe, who dismisses Mathieu’s doubts. Philippe is also thinking of the BEA’s reputation, which he doesn’t want to be compromised with an embarrassing admission of an investigation mistake for this deadly plane crash. The BEA would also have to answer to the French government and the loved ones of the plane crash victims if the BEA made this huge error in the investigation.

With all of these things at stake, Mathieu takes a big risk to secretly launch his own investigation. His boss Victor has disappeared for enough days that Victor is declared a missing person. Why did Victor goes missing during this extremely important BEA investigation? Was his disappearance a coincidence?

The rest of “Black Box” shows what happens in Mathieu’s investigation, which ends up putting a strain on his happy marriage to Noémie. His investigation includes some illegal acts and a possible target on his back because he’s showing all the signs of being a whistleblower. One of the people whom Mathieu inevitably encounters is aeronautics executive Xavier Renaud (played by Sébastien Pouderoux), a recently appointed CEO of Pegase Security, a company that does civil aviation security for Atrian.

“Black Box” has several aspects that are commentaries on what airplane security officials are willing to cover up in order avoid scandals and keep their jobs. It’s not far-fetched at all, considering what’s been revealed about safety issues in Boeing plane crashes. The movie generally has good acting from the cast members, led by Niney as Mathieu. Niney gives a convincing performance as an earnest employee who is willing to do what it takes to get to the truth—even if it costs him his career, reputation or more.

The movie falters a bit when it comes to showing Mathieu as a one-man investigative juggernaut with some “too good to be true” coincidences and scenarios that help him in his cause. For example, there’s a scene where he dives into a large body of water and looks for something that he ends up finding, as if he’s suddenly a James Bond “superspy” type of character. There’s also something that happens with leaked confidential information. It would be too easy to figure out that only two people had access to the computer where this leaked information was sent. But in the movie, only one person gets the blame for it.

Despite these minor flaws in the screenplay, “Black Box” offers plenty of intrigue for people who like mysteries. Some of the plot twists are very easy to predict, while others are not as obvious. The movie wraps up in a very contrived way that seems a little too rushed. But by then, most viewers will feel invested enough in the characters and in a certain outcome. And that’s why the movie’s ending should satisfy people with those expectations.

Distrib Films US and Icarus Films released “Black Box” in New York City on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release in the Los Angeles area on May 6, 2022, with more U.S. cities to follow. “Black Box” was released in Europe in 2021.

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