Film Review: 6 Days

This historical hostage docudrama aspires to rigorous objectivity but ultimately tips its hand as an endorsement of hardline conservatism.
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Director Toa Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring take a seemingly objective approach to their telling of events surrounding the April 1980 seizure of the Iranian embassy in London by members of an obscure Arab separatist group. Briskly directed and bolstered by reliably sturdy central performances, 6 Days aspires to be the kind of rigorous docudrama that scrupulously identifies its key players and locations with title cards while maintaining a critical distance from the events it portrays. But, by the time the film’s far-from-neutrally-phrased postscripts come up, it’s pretty clear that the filmmakers fully endorse then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hardline “take no prisoners” handling of the situation.

6 Days opens with one of those handy news-footage montages that succinctly set the sociopolitical stage before introducing viewers to their trio of point-of-view characters. BBC reporter Kate Adie (Abbie Cornish) broadcasts from behind the barricades outside the embassy. Hostage negotiator Max Vernon (Mark Strong) plays the voice of reason, all the while stalling on meeting the hostage takers’ demands. And gung ho Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell) is a SAS special forces team leader gearing up to storm the embassy on cue. There are also frequent cutaways to Whitehall, where Home Secretary William Whitelaw (Tim Pigott-Smith) keeps a crisis response committee apprised of Thatcher’s latest hardnosed fiat. These typically consist of lines like: “We will not present a soft target for terrorists.”

The cinematic gold standard when it comes to depicting hostage situations remains Dog Day Afternoon, primarily because Sidney Lumet’s film exhibits as much empathy for the criminals inside the bank as it does for the forces of law and order gathered outside. 6 Days, on the other hand, evinces little interest in its Muslim characters other than in using them to advance the plotline, even managing to recycle along the way the well-worn cliché of dissension among their ranks. Tolerant Salim (Ben Turner) keeps assenting to Max’s requests to free one of the hostages, while the more militant Faisal (Aymen Hamdouchi) wants nothing more than to kill them all. The film makes no further effort to explore these characters’ psychology or motivations, or even to contextualize them within the larger political scene, apart from tossing off the alphabet soup of their group’s acronym in a decidedly offhand manner.

And yet there’s a thread running through 6 Days that allows for a more jaundiced view of the Thatcher regime’s actions. The film’s awareness of an unresolvable tension between accuracy and deception first crops up when Kate Adie defends the BBC’s reputation for what Stephen Colbert would call “truthiness” against a world-weary stringer who quite literally espouses an “if it bleeds, it leads” doctrine. Later, Max finds himself somewhat conflicted when he’s ordered by a higher-up to make whatever false promises he deems necessary so as to distract Salim from the SAS’s assault on the embassy. Salim sees through the ruse, however, and implores Max not to feed him any more lies.

But the most telling instance of this underlying conflict occurs near the finale, when Whitelaw informs the committee that Thatcher doesn’t want any smokescreen put up for the TV cameras. She wants the whole world to witness how England deals with terrorism. The implication, of course, is that if the Prime Minister didn’t want these events made quite so public, the matter would be handled very differently. Transparency is considered acceptable, 6 Days seems to tacitly suggest, only so long as it’s deemed politically expedient. 

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