'A Hijacking' navigates high tension on high seas

The Danish drama is an intelligent thriller.

Magnolia Pictures
Ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) faces a Somali pirate incursion in ‘A Hijacking.’

“A Hijacking” is about the capture by Somali pirates of a Danish cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. The merchantmen include the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), whom we first see, before disaster strikes, talking by phone to his wife and daughter back home. He tells them he’ll be delayed a few days. His hostage ordeal ends up lasting more than four months.

The Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm lays out the entire hostage-negotiation crisis with superb straightforwardness. If Hollywood had produced this same story, we’d be dunned by the whole repertoire of bells and whistles, shock cuts, and thrumming music. Lindholm achieves his effects by appealing as much to our mind as to our senses. He wants us to know in our bones what it’s like to be caught up in such dire straits. 

Mikkel and a few of his shipmates are not the only featured players. At least half the film focuses on the cargo company’s chief executive, Peter (Søren Malling), a sleek, hands-on boss who suddenly finds himself in over his head – by choice. Rather than relinquish the negotiations with the pirates to an outside team, he takes charge only to discover that the Somalis, in their way, are far savvier about endgame maneuvers than he is.

Lindholm moves back and forth between Mikkel and Peter. Each, in his own way, suffers. Mikkel is a simple, homespun man who deeply loves his wife and young daughter, a fact that the Somalis, headed by Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), their lead onboard negotiator, immediately seize upon to their advantage.

Peter is sometimes visited in his office aerie by his wife, and their relationship, which seems like a good one, frays as the crisis lengthens. When she walks in on him one day and finds him sitting alone in his sleeveless undershirt instead of encased in his usual suit, he seems suddenly vulnerable in a way that sends shock waves across the screen. He believes he is responsible for the death of a crew member, and he can’t abide that. His wife’s offered solace is received by him as an affront. Peter wants to do right by his trapped men, and their desperation is mirrored in his own.

Because the film is seen through the eyes of the Danes, the Somalis are, by design, shadowy, inchoate figures. Omar is nevertheless, in some ways, the most interesting character because from moment to moment, from friendly to hostile, we never know what he stands for. He takes great offense when Peter, negotiating with him over the phone, lumps him in with the pirates. And he has disdain for the Danes, for their weakness in allowing themselves to be caught. 

The only time the Danes and the Somalis drop their guard is when one of the crewmen is allowed on deck and hooks a large fish, which everyone, including the Somalis, merrily eats together while singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” But even this camaraderie is laced with fear: We know this happiness can’t last long. 

I’ve read that “A Hijacking” is being shown widely to corporations as a training film about how to handle such situations. If this is so, the lesson to be learned can only be a grim one: There is no surefire way to negotiate freedom. Lindholm doesn’t present the film as a procedural for hostage negotiations because he knows too well that there are too many movable parts, too many things that can go wrong.

His steadfast, unvarying gaze has its own authenticity. He’s made a thriller that thrills while also respecting our intelligence. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)

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