Review: “A Hijacking”

Søren Malling stars in Tobias Lindholm's "A Hijacking," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.The title “A Hijacking” is rather misleading. The titular event is not depicted in the film; writer/director Tobias Lindholm only shows us the lead-up to and aftermath of Somali pirates taking a Danish freighter hostage, rejecting every opportunity to turn the film into the kind of basic action-thriller that the title suggests. Lindholm works toward something much richer instead: an examination of the ways that men respond to extraordinary circumstances from different positions of power (or lack thereof).

While much of “A Hijacking” takes place aboard the freighter, the main character is arguably Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), the Danish shipping corporation’s CEO, who against the advise of piracy expert Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter, a real-life version of his character) decides to negotiate with the pirates directly rather than hiring an intermediary. Peter is initially ready to give into the pirates’ $15 million ransom, but Connor counsels him that buckling to their demands right away would be seen as a sign of weakness and they’d only ask for more. And so begins a grueling back-and-forth — one that puts Peter, a master at conventional business negotiations, in a position of powerlessness he cannot take. But being the quintessential CEO, a man who is defined by his ability to control and accomplish, he refuses to give up, working exclusively on the negotiations for months. Actor Malling gives Peter’s simultaneous inner-torment and determination substantial emotional dimension, often entirely through facial expression, as he listens to the pirates’ demands over the telephone and mentally sizes up the situation in his office. Malling also doesn’t shy from conveying Peter’s sense of responsibility toward his company and the men aboard the freighter; this is the most favorable post-2008-economic-meltdown depiction of a corporate bigwig yet.

The other two prominent characters are on the vessel. The first is Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the ship’s cook and the relatable everyman of the story who just wants to survive to get home to his wife and young daughter. Thanks to actor Asbæk, Mikkel is not just a conduit for cheap sympathy, but a fully realized human being whose emotional state becomes progressively more distraught as the pirates force him to beg and plead to Peter over the phone, repeatedly causing Peter to coldly hang up. Mikkel receives his orders from the pirates’ negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the final prominent character. While there are reasons to doubt the veracity of what he says, Omar claims to merely be a translator/facilitator for the pirates, not a pirate himself. While he consented to participate in the hostage situation, Omar is like Peter and Mikkel in that he is but a man responding to outside forces, attempting to tug the dynamic in his personal favor.

Filmmaker Lindholm based much of “A Hijacking” on two actual instances of Somali piracy against Danish freighters, the Danica White and CEC Future in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He even cast the real hostages in supporting roles. But never do the words “Based on a true story” grace the screen, nor should they, as Lindholm deviates from the record in a few key instances, most notably an act of violence that punctuates the film’s finale. Such embellishments keep “A Hijacking” from serving as an historical document, which is somewhat unfortunate, although they add to its effectiveness as a character piece. Current events function as the setting, rather than the subject, allowing Lindholm to delve deep into the psyches of compromised men.