Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Hijacking and the cost of doing business

Posted By on 07.03.13 at 12:36 PM

A Hijacking
  • A Hijacking
A Hijacking, which opens Friday at Music Box, deals with Somali pirates seizing a Danish shipping vessel in the Indian Ocean, and the ensuing ransom negotiation between the pirates and the shipping company. If that sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the documentary Stolen Seas, which screened at Facets Cinematheque in April and chronicles the 2008 hijacking of the CEC Future in the Gulf of Aden, which separates Somalia and Yemen. I must confess that I shied away from writing at length about A Hijacking because I thought one long review about Somali pirates was enough. But even if you happened to catch Stolen Seas, you should make a beeline for A Hijacking, because it's the best thriller I've seen all year, and its spin on the subject matter is distinctive. In any case, Somali piracy isn't going anywhere, so there's more than enough opportunity for two screen treatments of it.

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Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed A Hijacking, can't provide as thorough an assessment of the problem as Stolen Seas does, because he's trying to tell a story. (In fact the only thing in A Hijacking that doesn't ring entirely true is the occasional explanatory dialogue provided for the viewer's benefit; Somali piracy is so chronic that no one involved in the crisis would need this stuff spelled out.) By limiting his narrative to two main characters, however, Lindholm arrives at a more biting perspective than a documentary might. Aside from the pirates' negotiator—who insists he's not really one of them—the Somalis are barely characterized or even glimpsed onscreen. The story here is divided between two Danes at opposite ends of the power equation: the ship's frightened cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), who wonders if he'll ever see his wife and child again, and the shipping company's neatly pressed CEO, Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), who insists on handling the negotiations himself but will answer to his board of directors for the ransom amount.

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The ultimate question of A Hijacking is how much human lives are worth, and like everything else in the world of commerce, this is open to calculation. The pirates open the negotiation asking for $15 million, and Ludvigsen counters with $250,000. As a crisis manager advises the CEO, meeting the pirates' demand will simply embolden them to demand even more, which makes sense. But as the haggling continues over four months, you begin to suspect that the company's bottom line is also a factor, and perhaps a more important one than the seven crewmen trapped on board.

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While all this is going on, Mikkel waits and worries. For weeks he sits in a fetid, stinking room with some of his fellow crew members, urinating into a plastic bottle and defecating into a bucket. Every act of kindness from the pirates comes with a hook in it: when Mikkel reveals that it's his daughter's birthday, the negotiator allows him to telephone his wife and child, but in the middle of the call, a pirate jams a gun barrel into his neck and the negotiator orders him to tell his wife he'll be executed if the company doesn't meet the pirates' demands. The psychological torture only continues when the pirates, having brought some goats on board, force Mikkel to slaughter them in a possible preview of his own fate. This last ordeal pushes him over the edge, and in the next scene he lies on his back, palpitating from a panic attack.

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I probably appreciated the movie more given the fact that I'd seen Stolen Seas, which explains some of the international forces at play in modern-day piracy—for instance, the fact that shippers generally prefer to pay off pirates rather than bring them to justice and have their ship and crew members sidelined for months as the case drags on in court. But by narrowing the focus to the powerful Ludvigsen and the powerless Mikkel, Lindholm shows how the economic violence here extends to the company's management and workers. Ludvigsen is a good man, acutely aware that he holds people's lives in his hand; what he won't reveal to them or their families is the other hand, weighing a stack of coins.


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