Film Review: A Hijacking

Piracy enters the boardroom in Tobias Lindholm's taut, ripped-from-the-Danish-headlines thriller.

Those who label profit-minded corporations and the nattily attired men and women that inhabit them as pirates may have their suspicions indirectly confirmed by A Hijacking, a crackerjack dramatic thriller from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm. That's not to say that the suit-and-tie wearing captain of industry at the center of this film is a swashbuckler on par with Captain Blood or Captain Jack Sparrow. No, CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) is far less flamboyant in his piracy, acquiring his riches in the boardroom via handshake deals and intense negotiations. As the film opens, we watch him masterfully engineer yet another lucrative deal, marching into a meeting with a number in his head and not leaving until his opponents meet it. Any ordinary explorer entering the corporate offices that Peter commands with a firm hand would be wise to know that, despite his benign physical appearance, he's got a pirate's eye for monetary gain.

What's so inspired about Lindholm's movie, then, is that it puts this business pirate in direct conflict with actual high-seas pirates. While sailing through the Indian Ocean, one of the cargo ships that Peter's company owns and operates is boarded by a crew of Somali seamen, who quickly subdue the crew and take control of the vessel. They're not killers; it's only money they're after…lots of money. To guide him through these uncharted waters, Peter hires a hostage situation expert (Gary Porter, a real-life hostage negotiator), who recommends that he bring in someone from the outside to communicate with the pirates over the radio. But driven by a deep-seated sense of responsibility for the men on that boat—as well as no small amount of implied bristling over the idea that someone else could possibly be better at handling this negotiation than him—the CEO ignores that advice and appoints himself the point person. How hard could it be, right? After all, he haggles over dollar amounts every day at his other job.

As he quickly discovers, of course, negotiating with pirates is very hard. For one thing, the deal can't be wrapped up in a single afternoon over a lavish lunch, followed by a round of golf. Instead, it's a long, slow, tedious process where both sides frequently go for days at a stretch without talking to each other. Furthermore, the expert expressly instructs Peter to keep lowballing his offer—try and meet the pirates' initial sky-high demands (upwards of $10 million) and they'll just keep asking for more. And then there's the human factor involved; if talks with the pirates go south, Peter will have the blood of his own employees on his hands and the fury of their families to contend with. The Somalis are keenly aware of this, with their own appointed negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), repeatedly forcing the captured crew members to plead directly with their boss to just make a deal already.

The prisoner Omar singles out the most often for this thankless assignment is the ship's gregarious cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), both because he can speak English—the shared language the negotiations are being conducted in—and due to the fact that he has a wife and daughter at home, thus giving him added incentive to beg Peter for their swift release. But a swift release sadly isn't in the offing; instead, the negotiation drags on for almost half a year, during which time Mikkel starts to doubt whether he'll ever see home again, while Peter—and his co-workers—start to wonder if there are some deals he's simply not equipped to close.

Although A Hijacking takes place both on the ship and in the boardroom, in a striking stylistic choice Lindstrom never cuts back and forth between the two environments in the space of a single scene. Instead, they are always treated as distinct worlds, even during the negotiation sequences where they are linked by satellite phone. That means we're only visually shown one side of the conversation, whether it's Peter trying to remain emotionless while hearing Mikkel plead for his life over the phone or it's Omar’s increasing agitation as Peter's disembodied voice stubbornly refuses to up his counteroffer. It's an approach that heightens both the pressure and the realism of the situation (which isn't based on any one specific incident, but is inspired by a wave of hijackings of Danish ships from a few years ago), complementing the vérité aesthetic that Lindstrom is pursuing. The cast is compelling throughout as well, finding relatable human moments amidst the propulsive thrust of the plot.

Later this year, Hollywood will take a crack at a story of modern-day piracy with Captain Phillips, the Paul Greengrass-directed dramatization of an actual 2009 hijacking, in which a ship captained by the title character (played by Tom Hanks) is captured by Somali pirates. Based on the early trailers, though, that film appears to be selling the action-movie aspect of this scenario. A Hijacking accomplishes a trickier task, generating tension through talk rather than action.