‘A Hijacking’: Danish Drama Takes on Somali Piracy

Tobias Lindholm’s ripped-from-the-headlines new thriller, “A Hijacking”, portrays the seizure of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates in gripping procedural detail. But aside from being an impressive exercise in realism, does it have a point?

Chilling tales of Somali pirates attacking foreigners at sea have regularly made front page news over the past few years.

Now some of those stories are being brought to the big screen.

This coming autumn will see the release of Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Keener, about the first US cargo ship to be hijacked in more than 200 years.

But before that, moviegoers can catch the lower-profile “A Hijacking”, a stark, effective thriller from Denmark’s Tobias Lindholm about a Danish commercial vessel seized by Somali gunmen in the Indian Ocean.

The film, which was warmly received at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, will hit selected US cities on Friday, June 21, and can be seen in France as of July 10.

A portrait of men under duress

Based on two recent incidents in which Somali pirates took control of Danish ships and held their crews for ransom, “A Hijacking” features the kind of skillful handheld camerawork that tends to be the default stylistic approach to this kind of ripped-from-the-headlines material.

But working from his own screenplay, Lindholm shrewdly gives his film a compelling human and narrative hook by centering the drama around two figures: Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), the ship’s cook, a scruffy, good-natured thirty-something forced to play middleman in the financial wrangling between the pirates and the Danish company that owns the ship and employs its personnel; and Peter (Soren Malling), the company’s stern-looking, bespectacled CEO, who insists on interacting directly with the people onboard rather than calling in an outside negotiator.

These two characters, and the fine actors who play them, make “A Hijacking” a bit more than a meticulously detailed, convincing re-staging of a crisis; the film is also the portrait of two men doing their best amid dire circumstances.

Lindholm wisely avoids pumping the naturally nail-biting story with Hollywood-style adrenaline: there’s no pounding music, overly jumpy editing, breakneck pacing, or tear-jerking subplots dealing with panic-stricken families waiting for news (glimpses of the crew members’ loved ones are kept to a minimum). We don’t even see what, in a more sensationalistic piece of work, might have been the show-stopping set piece: the moment when the pirates take over the ship.

A portrait of men under duress

The tone of “A Hijacking” is hushed and desperate, as the filmmaker’s focus alternates between the grim conditions endured by the hostages over the course of the several-month ordeal and the tricky mechanics of the ransom negotiations being hashed out onshore. Lindholm creates a palpable sense of claustrophobia through his use of enclosed spaces, whether it’s the ship cabins where the hostages spend their days in increasing stupor and filth or the sterile meeting room where Peter, accompanied by his team, anxiously makes and awaits phone calls to and from the pirates.

Along the way, the filmmaker also makes room for some nicely shaded characterisations that gently push back against preconceived notions and prototypes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing onscreen. Peter, for example, is not the slick corporate type he may initially appear to be, but rather a grave, soft-spoken man with such an urgent sense of responsibility that he is ready to shell out whatever he has to in order to get his employees back alive. The expert brought in to counsel Peter on how to negotiate the ransom tells him to only incrementally raise his offering price — trusting that the pirates will keep the crew alive — and we feel Peter’s anguish every step of the way as he grudgingly heeds the advice.

Meanwhile, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ English-speaking spokesman, is more affable than menacing, and he repeatedly insists that he is not like the other, gun-toting Somalis onboard. But even those Somalis are never really portrayed as pure villains. Perhaps the film’s most striking scene shows a handful of pirates sitting around a table with their hostages singing rowdy sailor songs and then, in a rare light-hearted moment, “Happy Birthday” (the one tune everyone seems to know).

Gripping, but to what end?

As absorbing and well-made as it is, though, “A Hijacking” nevertheless begs a rather bothersome question: What’s the point? With its painstakingly credible, vérité-style re-creation of an agonising real-life situation, the film can’t really be taken as pure entertainment. Nor is it a documentary. Nor does it have the ambition to probe or tangle with bigger questions of violence, values, and moral sacrifice, as Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful “Zero Dark Thirty” did last year.

In press notes for the film, Lindholm is quoted as saying: “I don’t think any Somalis think this is a good idea, but huge refrigerators are sailing around out there and I can understand why hungry [Somali] kids would want to go get them. And why is no one in the international community doing anything? It’s an insanely complex issue.”

But there’s little in “A Hijacking” — which is told from the Danes’ point of view — that suggests the director is interested in grappling with the larger geopolitical or human matters at hand. The film is gripping and intelligent, without digging very deep or feeling particularly necessary.

Paul Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” were similarly lean, visceral, fact-based exercises in realism (the former about a 1972 demonstration in Northern Ireland at which the British army shot and killed 13 civilians, the latter about the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001) that, for all their numerous merits, had the same faint whiff of futility.

Perhaps the English director’s upcoming “Captain Phillips” will take a page from Bigelow’s book, reaching beyond authentic reconstitution of a recent event to ponder the unsettling world in which such an event could take place.

– France24