Sunday, February 02, 2014

A Hijacking

A Hijacking (4/5)

It’s an odd coincidence that two films about Somali pirates were released last year.  While all the public attention and critical praise has flowed towards the Tom Hanks vehicle, Captain Phillips, the Danish film, A Hijacking, is arguably much more of an artistic triumph.   If you were to watch these films back to back, it would be easy to see why Phillips has garnered so much attention: it is flashier, has bigger stars, and celebrates the triumph of American military force.  By contrast, A Hijacking is a much more subdued, but no less suspenseful, affair.  Where Captain Phillips is about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, A Hijacking is about extraordinary circumstances fitted into ordinary business practices.

The narrative of A Hijacking is split between the men on the boat and the men from the boardroom. On the boat we mostly follow the ship’s cook who we are introduced to in the first scene as he tells his wife that he will be out to sea longer than expected and will miss his daughter’s birthday.  Although his name is listed as Mikkel, most people, even those trying to negotiate his release, mostly just refer to him as the cook.  While the cook and the crew strategize about how they might survive this ordeal, there aren’t any last minute heroics.  At best, the cook and a colleague attempt to befriend a particularly unstable pirate with the hopes that this will make it less likely he will execute them; at worst, the cook’s desperation to get home to his family is used as a bargaining tool by the Somali negotiator, Omar. 

But the film is just as interested in how the Danish company who owns the boat handles the hijacking.  While the hijacking isn’t an everyday occurrence, events like this are apparently common enough for the company to call in an expert in negotiating with Somali pirates.  The negotiation expert recommends that the company brings in one of his men to engage directly with the pirates, but the suit in charge, Peter, decides that he wants to handle the negotiations himself.  Early on we see Peter play hardball with several Japanese businessmen, so we know he is competent, and he is coached through the process by the negotiation expert, but the audience knows that Peter’s decision is part hubris.  In a sense, he’s like a much more competent, much less coked up version of Ellis from Die Hard.

As explained early on, these negotiations can stretch on nearly interminably.  And the film does a good job of illustrating how time wears down all of those involved.  In this instance, the hostage negotiation lasts for months. And while early on Peter expertly deals with the pirates in the manner he has been coached, eventually the day in, day out pressure of the situation begins to erode his cool, Danish exterior.  It was also interesting to see the negotiation expert explain certain tactics.  For instance, Peter cannot immediately give in to the Somali’s initial demands, not necessarily because it will be too costly, but because once the pirates know the company is willing to shell out some big bucks, they will find a way to draw out the negotiation longer and ask for more. 

As the article “A” in the title suggests, this particular hijacking is often treated as the cost of doing business.  It’s unusual, but not unexpected.  One of the more interesting characters in the film is Omar, who speaks English and negotiates on behalf of the Somali pirates, although he takes umbrage when Peter suggests that Omar is himself a pirate.  Throughout the negotiating process, both Omar and Peter attempt to maintain a cordial relationship, although it naturally breaks down over time.  It’s easy to view this film as the clashing of two cultures within a global marketplace.  They’re making a business deal, but it just so happens that one party has brought weapons to the negotiating table. 

A Hijacking makes a fascinating comparison to the style of Paul Greengrass, the director of Captain Phillips.  Both films take on a cinema verite, documentary aesthetic.  But where Greengrass prefers to haphazardly throw his cameras about to mimic the intensity of the situation, A Hijacking director, Tobias Lindholm, uses his cameras in a manner similar to an actual documentary.  In other words, he uses handhelds, but he does not purposefully engage in frenetic jostling.  Greengrass uses the veneer of a documentary in order to reveal the subjective state of the characters in the film, but Lindholm seems interested in maintaining a calm distance from the procedures.  Arguably, this less frantic take provides the film with a more grounded feeling.

Beyond the individual narrative of Captain Philips, stories of Somali pirates are fascinating because they’re examples of desperate people from a failed state using what seems like anachronistic tactics to force their way into streams of global capital.  Perhaps better than the Hollywood blockbuster version of this story, A Hijacking illustrates ways in which men are trapped within a world and economy they have no real control over.  It’s eerie to hear Peter negotiate over numbers when men’s lives are on the line.  It’s an unsettling reminder that within this system the value of our lives can be reduced to a number written on a marker board in a conference room. 

No comments: