There have been two films this year featuring a ship being hijacked by Somali pirates. This is, of course, a very topical subject. Although both films are good, it’s interesting how different their approaches are.
A Hijacking, a film by Danish director Tobias Lindholm, played here briefly earlier this year and is now on DVD. The story concerns a Danish cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, suddenly captured by pirates, who demand millions of dollars from the company based in Copenhagen. Peter Ludvigsen, the crisply efficient CEO of the company, played by Soren Malling, insists on personally conducting the negotiations by phone with the pirates. The strategy outlined by the firm’s hired expert is not to give them all that they want, because then they’ll ask for more, but to continuously low-ball the offers until the outlaws can finally be cajoled into a settlement. The similarity to tactics used in big corporate deals is quite explicit in the film; the trouble is that the negotiations drag on for months, and meanwhile the crew of the ship suffers terrible physical and emotional abuse from the hijackers. We focus particularly on the ship’s genial cook Mikkel, well played by Pilou Asbaek, who sinks ever deeper into paralyzing depression during the ordeal, during which the canny chief hijacker uses him as a bargaining pawn in the talks. The theme, never stated but clearly felt, is the cruelty of wealth, both in the pirates who are willing to terrorize innocent men for money, and the corporate negotiators, safe in their distant offices, playing their calculated game. It’s a tribute to the film’s humanism that we come to understand and sympathize even with the CEO Peter, who himself begins to crack under the pressure.
The other film, currently in theaters, is called Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks in the title role. It’s based on an actual 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship that made headlines. Unlike the Danish film, this is a fast-paced drama taking place over only a few days—there’s lots of adrenaline here, but Greengrass is good at depicting extreme situations through realistic technique rather than through exaggerated action film style. The picture carefully details the everyday routines of Phillips and his crew, and the hijacking ordeal is more suspenseful in that we really get the sense of ordinary people trapped in an extraordinary situation. The depiction of the pirates is excellent—we are shown the backstory of fishermen pressured by local warlords to make a big score. It’s not that these are good men, but desperate, poor and ignorant rather than just villains. This aspect is helped out by a striking performance by newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the chief pirate. Tom Hanks excels precisely by playing as ordinary a man as you could imagine in his position—you get the feeling that Phillips is courageous by necessity rather than by nature. And at the end Hanks does something you don’t normally see from a big star—it’s an unexpected and brilliantly realistic culmination of a performance that is at the same time a model of restraint.
A Hijacking showcases the subtlety and craft of European cinema. The big-budget Hollywood Captain Phillips aims more at thriller status, but to its credit, chooses not to sacrifice believability along the way. They’re both well worth your time.