“Just business.” Those are the words that the leader of a band of Somali pirates speaks to reassure Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) in the fact-based film of that title in wide release this Friday (see my review in last week’s paper). The attacker means that he and his men aren’t terrorists — pay them off and they’ll be on their way.
Easier said than done. The hostage situation in Captain Phillips quickly evolves from “just business” into armed conflict. In the Danish drama A Hijacking, however, which plays twice next week at the Vermont International Film Festival, we get to find out exactly what happens when a maritime hijacking is handled as a business transaction.
It’s not pretty. The film from director Tobias Lindholm has far less action than Captain Phillips, but it’s frequently just as tense. And it raises plenty of thorny questions about the proper response to such attacks on the high seas.
In A Hijacking, our protagonist isn’t the captain of the hijacked Danish cargo ship but its cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a likable schlub of a guy whose main priority is getting home for his daughter’s birthday. The Somali pirates who have taken the MV Rozen — an incident we don’t see — choose Mikkel to relay their demands to the shipping company.
After that, the hijacking becomes a prolonged negotiation between Peter, the company’s CEO (Søren Malling); and Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who claims to be merely the pirates’ translator but acts more like their leader. The pirates’ initial demand is $15 million for the crew’s release; the CEO’s counteroffer, a quarter million. Is it any wonder that this “transaction” stretches for months, with the company doing its best to hide the situation from the media? Or that the frustrated sailors begin to bond in small ways with their captors? From their point of view, this is the Waiting for Godot of hijackings.
The film’s action alternates between the increasingly grubby ship and the clean, white boardroom, where the impeccably dressed Peter follows the instructions of his hired expert (played by real-life hostage negotiator Gary Skjoldmose Porter). The movie is full of vérité touches — the Rozen was really hijacked, for instance, and some of its crew members appear — and Lindholm uses a pseudo-documentary style to keep us from knowing more than the characters do. During each high-stakes negotiation phone call, he shows just one side, often leaving us to wonder with Peter about the consequences of his words on shipboard.
Lindholm could easily have made Peter the movie’s villain, cold-bloodedly deciding the value of his employees’ lives. But the writer-director — known for his work on the procedural TV series “Borgen” — chose a more interesting path. We watch distress penetrate Peter’s Scandinavian reserve as he communicates with the increasingly frightened Mikkel and realizes his tactics could endanger the young man’s life.
Yet the hired expert insists those tactics are the ones most likely to resolve such a situation without bloodshed. Is he right? We can’t know for sure, because, like Peter, we can only watch this particular crisis slowly unfold. Lindholm’s script doesn’t make any sweeping statements about the perils of globalization; he simply presents the hijacking as a problem with no obvious solutions and harrowing human consequences. “Just” business? Not likely.