A Hijacking. Not The Hijacking. This is not Hollywood and there is no pony-tailed Steven Seagal to save the day, no Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up as an unstable terrorist and not even an on-screen stunt-filled, action-packed hijacking. A Hijacking is so unlike a Hollywood style terrorists-take-a-boat action thriller, that it evens neglects to show the seemingly pretty damn crucial scene where pirates actually capture a ship.
This could be one of a thousand contemporary true stories. This is not the story of a hijacking. Rather it is an understated story of just another hijacked Danish ship, taken by Somali pirates in order to secure a large ransom.
The ships’ cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is the focal point from the very first frame. But he is not a hero, or not in the typical Hollywood sense anyway. When Somali pirates board the ship, he is forced to continue his role as the ship's cook while being locked in a room with two crew mates, pissing in the corner and living in constant fear under the watchful eyes of the scrawny but well-armed pirates.
Meanwhile, back in Denmark the CEO of the shipping company is forced into tense and increasingly serious negotiations with the pirates and their head negotiator and translator Omar. Mikkel is occasionally dragged out of his hole to help with the negotiations, hoping simply for the chance to speak with his wife and young daughter and to eventually return to them.
Mikkel and his crewmates are not the action men of Under Siege. The CEO is no upstanding President desperate to do anything to get his boys back. A Hijacking feels frighteningly real throughout but not always because of the threats of the pirates. It is a modern tale of men in an impossible situation, negotiating for lives with vast sums of money but with little trust between each party. Even the Somali pirates are not cardboard cut-out bad guys, with odd moments of humanity in amongst the hard exteriors.
On board the boat, Mikkel and others are trapped and terrified. The stand off and negotiations take over 120 days allowing for plenty of time for their fears to fester and their hope of rescue to fade. There are rare glimpses of hope and even a potential bond forming between captors and captives. However these pirates are all business, as ruthless in their negotiations as any corporate big wig, just with the added bargaining chips of bloody great guns.
Whereas 120 days must seem an eternity to the men on board with pirates and the ship's crew alike all feeling cabin fever and wishing to go home, it flies by in the film. With regular on screen up dates announcing how many days the events have continued, the tension mounts as the negotiations continue and emotions escalate.
Families of the men left back home are rarely brought in to the story. Writer and director Tobias Lindholm's script rarely deals with straight forward, out in the open emotions. Crying wives and children feature far less than the cold and calculating men in the boardroom, negotiating the release. Søren Malling is magnificent as the under siege CEO, Peter who puts himself in the position of most power but also most pressure. An efficient and determined businessman, he ignores advice to bring in a negotiator and handles the communication with the pirates and Omar all himself.
Lindholm's script is sparse in terms of character motivation, back-story and depth. It is like a documentary that only captures fleeting moments over the 120 day stand off. Mikkel has a wife and child who he wants to get back to. The Somali pirates want money. They are thin, scruffy, armed and dangerous and presumably desperate. Why CEO Peter wishes to take on these toughest and most critical negotiations of his life is unclear.
That said, all the characters are completely believable. Their emotional ups and downs are convincingly realised by an excellent cast, including Gary Skjoldmose whose real life experience of dealing with pirates bled into his role as negotiating consultant Connor Julian. It is a testament to the reality of the script, shooting style and performances that the boardroom scenes are as thrilling and tense as the scenes on board the boat where guns are actually being put to heads.
The negotiations can be frustrating and the back and forth phone calls and faxes are both full of drama and down played. The skill of the negotiators and the seemingly cold efficiency that they deal with the hijackers makes way for a more personal and increasingly emotional tone as the film continues. It is fascinating to see the toll that the events are taking on all involved, from those on board to those in the safety of the boardroom.
The morality of all these players is never really dealt with. What is behind the motivation to negotiate? Is it simply to make both sides sweat on the way to a resolution? Is it greed, distrust or common sense? Risks have to be taken and the men with the money have to hold off paying up as long as possible. It really is an impossible situation but Lindholm's film captures it with all its moral complexities intact.
A Hijacking might not have the explosive action its title might suggest in a Hollywood film but it has high tension, high drama and high stakes. Though it skips the actual moment of hijacking, it never flinches from the psychological repercussions on the main players. For the 120 plus days depicted, it is completely captivating.