At the risk of misrepresenting what is, in the long view, a resolutely sober, clinical Somali hijacking tale in docudrama clothing, just as you-are-there, in its own way, as Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, one surprise worth reporting about Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is its whisper-quiet sense of absurdist humor. We’re talking about trace elements of the surreal, as if the blunt-edge gags in fellow Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All were rendered subliminal, but it’s there, and it’s one thing among many that points to a director of great attentiveness, tact, and wily intelligence. If, in the eyes of discriminating cinephiles who see both movies, A Hijacking karate-chops the comparatively brobdingnagian Captain Phillips, it won’t be because one movie is more “real-ish” than the other, but because, in a lot of ways, Lindholm requires more of the viewer than the terminally self-satisfied Greengrass could ever imagine.
Lindholm, who also wrote the script, frequently cuts away from the shipboard crisis, spending almost as much time a few thousand kilometers away at the vessel’s Copenhagen headquarters, where CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) keeps cool under crushing demands both near and far. The parallel editing between the two locations applies a kind of indirect, almost soft-sell pressure, quietly subtracting uncounted hours, days, and eventually weeks between cuts, notably eschewing a sensational set piece he might have used to show the pirates boarding the vessel. Instead, it’s an event depicted by a demure “There’s an urgent phone call for you” in Copenhagen, followed by a cut to an idle pirate, already on the ship, slightly bored as he stands watch, automatic weapon in hand. Tentatively, the film begins to track—and select as its protagonist—the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), who quickly conceals the wedding band he wears on a chain around his neck, to keep it out of pirate hands. In a film that’s about looking, watching, studying, and staring, almost as much as it’s about satellite-phone negotiations and the brutal conditions of incarceration, the twinned roles of the laborer Mikkel and the crisp, cold executive Peter are acted by men with massive, emotive eyes, as the lion’s share of the narrative takes place behind them.
Doubtlessly employing by-the-book forensic detail for a fictional story that may happen anytime, A Hijacking frames shipboard tensions with the kind of petty office politics that somehow withstands tragedies of any scope and scale. Early in the film, pre-crisis, Peter uses coded language to upbraid an ambitious underling, whose executive inferiority is just as prominent a contour as anything going on at sea. Breadcrumbs of personal and painterly detail are scattered throughout. As a crisis of moments becomes a grueling detention of weeks and months, A Hijacking takes a deliberately patient stroll around the two contrasting environments, drinking in the lithely shifting dynamics of prisoners and wardens. As with most hostage-crisis films, tensions tighten unbearably, then relax, then tighten, on a sort of parabolic curve. In a long sequence that recalls similar doldrums scenes in Dog Day Afternoon, where Sidney Lumet’s bank robbers and their hostages have a laugh or two to relieve the tension, the hostility between what are essentially two kinds of capitalist pawns dissipates, and it becomes apparent, at least when the theater of violence can enjoy an intermission, that no one aboard the freighter has any personal, legitimate animosity toward anyone else. As the hostages are granted a brief respite on the main deck, fishing poles come out, and when one of the crew lands a whopper, everyone’s spirits soar, a kind of Stanford Prison Experiment in reverse. It’s only a sliver of relief, but it gives an otherwise bleak story just the right measure of ballast.
It’s here, as well, that the metaphorical layer of A Hijacking begins to glow; back in Copenhagen, unmussed in perfectly coiffed hair and meticulous professional comportment, Peter emerges as the real warden of an increasingly untenable bondage, coached by a subcontracted hostage negotiator to heat-seek the most fiscally appropriate answer to the pirates’ demands, regardless of the physical and psychological toll on the ship’s crew. No sooner does this perspective come to light, however, than Lindholm trains his microscope, at full strength, on the CEO, putting on display the cracks and fissures now developing, which threaten to obliterate at any second what’s taken decades of exemplary service to global capitalism to erect. After an unthinkable scare, Peter and Mikkel, circumstantial twins at opposing goalposts, threaten to withdraw into complete catatonia—from which they don’t wholly emerge by the film’s end.
If A Hijacking resists exonerating or vilifying Peter, it’s because Lindholm is far more interested in concealing human greed behind all manner of performance, appearance, and strategy. The yoke of expectations worn by Peter comes from his unwavering fealty to the firm’s scarcely seen partners, while the pirate’s English-speaking negotiator, who vehemently denies direct involvement with their demands, is revealed, with little ambiguity, to be a string-puller on the other side of the table. Resisting the comforts of moral certainty, Lindholm’s film posits a world whose brute, mindless psychosis is only concealed by a thin veil of keeping up appearances, striking the right tone, and getting a little break every once in a while.
Tobias Lindholm’s sure hand as a director is the kind that keeps itself out of sight, eschewing flashy camerawork, and A Hijacking is tainted not by a single iota of apparent post-production wankery. At the same time, it’s some kind of achievement that Lindholm probes two very, very different environments (an antiseptic, anonymously lavish Euro office building and an increasingly disgusting, arrested freighter) for all their pictorial worth, without a single cut across thousands of kilometers seeming like anything short of inevitable. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa and the image on this Magnolia Blu-ray is unsurprisingly flawless, as is the 5.1 Danish DTS track; my favorite effect in the mix is the relentless echo-back on every satellite call, apparently experienced only on the Copenhagen side of negotiations.
A tight little kit, this Blu-ray includes a half dozen featurettes and a trailer. No revelations, but competent enough—and, just maybe, it’s nice to see a different relationship dynamic between prisoners and guards when the cameras are off.
Regardless of how you rate Captain Phillips (perhaps, per Duke Phillips’s instructions, it’s somewhere on a scale from "good" to "excellent"), Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is the Greengrassian antidote, plumbing enormous tension by resisting precisely the kind of sensationalism that seems to be the siren’s call for this kind of story.