(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Rarely, if ever, has an awful day at the office made for a better movie than A Hijacking, a Danish export now in limited theatrical release in the U.S. The film follows the travails of the MV Rozen and its seven-man crew as they’re overtaken by Somali pirates out on the Indian Ocean. The principals are the Rozen’s cook, Mikkel; Peter, the executive in Denmark who’s in charge of the vessel; and Omar, the translator and negotiator for the pirates. In the hands of writer-director Tobias Lindholm, who was a writer on the BBC hit Borgen, the tedium of being held for months on a ship becomes unbearably tense. And Peter (Søren Malling) and his associates, thousands of miles from the action, become hostages in their own right, after he insists, against the advice of a crisis specialist, to negotiate for his captive employees himself.
Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is the first to win our sympathy. A devoted husband and dad, he’s a lichen-bearded Everyman, eager to get home for his daughter’s birthday. In a Hollywood version, Mikkel could be counted on to cultivate some heartening or eccentric Birdman of Alcatraz-type coping mechanism; and there is a scene when he brings the pirates and crew together over a freshly caught fish. But Mikkel remains a simpleton and a victim. We suffer along with him as he cracks under the pressure of being a pawn in Peter’s and Omar’s months-long haggling.
Less sympathetic, perhaps, is Peter. Taciturn in a typically Scandinavian way, he’s proud, fastidious, and in control. He didn’t reach the chief executive level by asking for help: He gets results. His insistence on personally handling the crisis is hubristic, but when he says, “This is my company, it’s my ship, it’s my crew, it’s my job to bring back my men,” his sense of duty and moral obligation are hard to deny.
Abdihakin Asgar makes an indelible impression as Omar. Adamant that he’s neither a pirate nor a villain, he is, like Peter, a resolute professional. From the moment he sizes up Mikkel to the moment he arranges for Mikkel to call his wife—before using their emotional reconnection to his advantage—Omar comes across as a humanist in a desperate, nasty business. Omar professes that he’s trapped, too, and wants the whole affair over quickly—but, of course, only if the terms are right. It’s hard not to share his impatience with Peter’s need to drive down the ransom, which is why close observers of real-world Somali piracy have applauded the film.
Some of A Hijacking is in Danish, with English subtitles, although much of the critical dialogue is in English. Some parts in Somali are subtitled, too, although mostly not. As such, we appreciate the special torment of having an incomprehensible stranger wave a gun in one’s face: What if I’m being asked to do something I don’t understand? Will they kill me for not doing it? Where is the line between clowning to ingratiate oneself and forfeiting the last of one’s dignity?
It will spoil nothing to say the film doesn’t have a high body count. Yet the psychological violence is worse than the mass murder of Man of Steel or White House Down. It’s an intensely male picture—the only notable women are Peter’s concerned wife and Mikkel’s hysterical one. This doesn’t seem sexist or false: There just aren’t many women manning cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden. Lindholm, meanwhile, mercilessly exposes the men’s masked vulnerability. A Hijacking has the power to bring even a self-styled hard man to tears.