Danish cargo freighter MV Rozen is on its way to Mumbai, where its cook Mikkel Hartmann will disembark and take a flight home, to see his wife and little daughter. He makes a call to his wife, telling her that he’s going to be two days late. Mikkel is a jolly guy, full of laughs, he cooks food and brews coffee and joke around with the ship crew and promises to deliver a letter and a present for his fellow Danish crew, Jan. Back in Copenhagen, Peter Ludvigsen, the stoic CEO of the company that owns the freighter is closing a deal which his right-hand man, Lars, is failing at. The scene goes back to the ship, which has just been hijacked by Somali pirates. The helpless crew members are being hit and shouted at, and Mikkel is called out, ordered to make some food for the pirates. Word of the hijacking reaches Peter in Copenhagen, and for the remaining 80 minutes the negotiation between the pirates and the company slowly progresses.
An expert in the field is called over to guide the company through the negotiation process and he advices Peter to hire a professional, trained communicator to negotiate with the pirates. Yet Peter disagrees, believing that he can handle this himself, and that this is his crew, his responsibility. And sure enough, Peter seems to be disengaged and cold-hearted enough to treat this as a business negotiation and nothing more than that. With an uncompromising permanent poker face, Peter deals with Omar, an English-speaking negotiator who insists to not be taken for one of the pirates but as a professional.
On the ship, things are getting ugly fast. Food is running out and hygiene is long abandoned. The crew members are sweaty, exhausted, desperate, crammed in closed compartments. Omar often uses Mikkel who is made to speak with Peter on the phone, in the hope of provoking Peter and hasten the negotiation. “Why don’t you want to help us?” Mikkel asks in frustration. And like him, we also wonder why. Why isn’t the company paying the ransom? Don’t they care about their crew? Don’t the lives of these people matter?
Writer-director Tobias Lindholm is not afraid to put us through the lengthy process of negotiation, showing us the deteriorating condition of the ship crew members intersected with men in dark suits talking to the phone in a small room, with papers, crew data and maps pinned all over the walls. And it works. The smart editing of back and forth cuts and the handheld camera is effective in giving us the feel of docudrama, and when the Somalis orders Mikkel around, swinging machine guns ever so carelessly, no subtitles are provided, making us as frustrated and scared as Mikkel.
Lindholm is great at keeping things real, spending six weeks shooting on the real freighter itself—which was actually hijacked by Somali pirates back in 2007—off the Kenyan shore. Some of the crew are actually sailors themselves and the negotiation expert is played by real life professional negotiator. Lindholm is not actually new in the business, he wrote the TV series Borgen which was a hit back in Denmark and also in the UK, and apart from that he also co-wrote The Hunt, which won Mads Mikkelsen his best actor award at Cannes. Definitely a talent to watch for.
A Hijacking doesn’t offer big action scenes accompanied by dramatic music score. Nor does it dwell on melodrama, only showing some family members of the ship crew briefly. It is a careful, smartly-crafted thriller that not only works well, but also excels. Watching the interaction between the pirates and the ship crew, how the rapport builds and shatters unexpectedly between them, is an utterly intense emotional rollercoaster. The characters are fleshed out brilliantly, especially Peter with his cold calmness, seemingly in control of everything and when a crack appears in his façade, we are just as surprised as Peter himself.
Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips has a similar premise, telling the true story of the hijacking of MV Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship, by Somali pirates in 2009. That movie will probably reach more audience than this one, but I’m sure A Hijacking will in no way be inferior. It’s definitely one of the best thrillers I’ve seen this year.