A hostage-negotiation drama that wields its verité style for maximum tension, A Hijacking takes as its basis two real-life incidents in which Somali pirates seized control of Danish ships and held them and their crew for ransom. In this case, little context is necessary, as the basics suffice: A cargo ship headed for Mumbai is overtaken by Somali gunmen, who through a translator named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) demand from the parent shipping company $15 million.
The on-board proceedings focus on the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), a friendly sort first introduced telling his wife over the phone that he’ll be two days late to see her and their young daughter—familial relations that Omar will later use as a means of compelling Mikkel to put pressure on his company’s CEO, Peter (Søren Malling), to pay the pirates whatever they demand. But that solution isn’t as easy as it sounds, as Peter, who, as a negotiating pro, refuses to let a less emotionally involved outside party handle talks with Omar, finds that attempting to get the pirates to agree to a more manageable ransom sum requires enduring sudden hang-ups and murderous threats to the crew.
Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s long takes and handheld cinematography provide a docudrama sheen that never feels intrusive, and his plotting has a taut and methodical inner logic in which every development has a clear cause-effect relationship to that which has come before. Despite the obvious melodramatic pitfalls that such material invites, A Hijacking is sober in addressing its various players’ plights, be it the increasingly numbing trauma suffered by Mikkel, the immense stress and responsibility shouldered by Peter, or the emotional misery of the hijacked seamen’s families, whose anguish is suitably addressed without ever being milked for excessively manipulative bathos.
The cast’s natural performances are defined by minimal histrionics and urgent internalized agony, and though the story never quite develops a true moral quandary to further amplify anxiety (for all of Peter’s clever and clumsy negotiating tactics, it’s always clear that he has only one true course of action), Lindholm maintains a lucid and riveting handle on the scenario’s ups and downs. Thanks to a strict adherence to the Danes’ POV, which results in much language miscommunication with the Somalis, the tale has a consistent edge, be it in scenes of war-room strategizing or random moments of camaraderie shared by captives and captors that, regardless of outward joy, are like the rest of the film laced with volatile, lethal danger.