Lost at sea - The limits of power and humanity are tested in a gut-wrenching film about a standoff with Somali pirates

A Hijacking

Directed by Tobias Lindholm

Opens at the Charles Theatre July 26

A machine-gun barrel

pressed to the back of his head, Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbaek) instructs his wife to call his boss and demand he pay up or Mikkel's dead. It's the first he's spoken to her in over 67 days; he and six other men on a cargo ship are hostages of rail-thin, heavily armed Somali pirates. His emotion provides leverage, his life a bargaining chip for the pirates, attempting to extort a Danish shipping company half a world away.


Immediately after Mikkel says "or they're going to kill us," the pirates' translator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), hangs up the phone, cutting him off, leaving his wife hysterical.

This sequence is one of many of what feel like breaking points in the Danish movie

A Hijacking

, filmed in a mix of still and handheld shots that rigorously convey the prolonged tension of this telephonic standoff. A

Die Hard

-esque hostage movie this is not: There are no explosions or snarling villains or criminal masterminds or ticking clocks. A documentary-style haggling process supplants the 30-minute countdown. Omar calls the company and says $15 million, they counter with $350,000 and move from there. The talks drag out for weeks and occur in clipped one-minute-or-less phone calls, or even via fax. Still, the film is gripping.

Writer/director Tobias Lindholm meticulously structures the film to capture the drama of the negotiations, never diverging from either the ship's cabin or the boardroom of the shipping company. Two characters hold up the framework: Mikkel, a jovial, bearded man with enormous watery eyes that express joy as poignantly as desperation; and Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), the stone-faced, ultra-dutiful CEO, consistently armored in power suits, who shoulders the grueling negotiating process. Mikkel wields a modicum of power with the pirates as the boat's cook. He petitions Omar for water and supplies and for fresh air for the pent-up crew. Early scenes in the film establish Peter as a shrewd businessman and a bargaining ace, beloved by the company's partners. He seems stern and super-competent but certainly not unfeeling.

The juxtaposition of the cook and the corporate exec is drastic and played up effectively. Mikkel, the ship's captain, and a tattooed sailor named Jan (Roland Moller) are confined in a small room next to the galley, pissing on the floor, fending off flies, stripped down to filthy wifebeaters. Peter and his rookie number two, Lars (Dar Salim), spend hours in a drab fluorescent-lit office space papered with the captives' pictures and info, conferenced with a Somali hostage-situation expert.

We witness the deterioration of both men as the weeks wear on. The life begins to drain out of Mikkel's eyes. Peter's cool demeanor starts to crack. In one scene, Peter sits alone in his office in early morning, for once not dressed in a crisp button-down shirt and tie; he looks weak and tired, a powerless man in an undershirt just like Mikkel's-and with that small gesture, Lindholm draws a direct parallel between the two men. He's a master of structure, but it never distracts from the movie's action.

A Hijacking

is a fine example of the flourishing film industry in Denmark (see the recent

New Yorker

article on Danish television and its sweeping popularity in Europe; Lindholm wrote 20 episodes of Danish TV hit



), which also produced the successful 2012 import

A Royal Affair

. Directorially and in its acting,


grinds down a viewer with realism: By the end of its hour and 40 minutes, one feels battered, shuddering at an excellent, if rough-to-watch film. It can feel slow-going at times, but the length reinforces the inconceivably protracted negotiating between the Somalis and the Danish.

More impressive, however, than the movie's execution is its capacity to subtly question and prod the power and humanity (or inhumanity) of the corporate structure. While it's explained that the Somalis cannot simply be given their first or second demand figure-because they will view an immediate payment as a deposit rather than a full ransom-one cannot help but chafe at the lowball offers that the Danish company makes. The lives of seven men, surely, must be worth more than a few hundred thousand dollars. Peter's concern for the firm and his own standing in it is pitted against his compassion for the crew and the families of the men aboard the freighter. We're unsure what motivates him more.

A Hijacking

ends on a note of sharp contrast, showing Mikkel and Peter after the denouement. Mikkel is silent, visibly shattered; Peter is once again strong in his tailored suit. Both men have been transformed from the experience. After seeing this film, viewers may be as well.