By: Trevor Chartrand
Based on a true story, 398 Days: Hostage is the harrowing account of a Danish photographer captured, tortured and held hostage in Syria for over a year. Young and ambitious, our protagonist Daniel Rye Ottosen (Esben Smed) is an Olympic contender with the Danish gymnastics team, until a knee injury shatters his dreams of pursuing the gold medal. Short on prospects and in need of work, Daniel starts his career over with a photography apprenticeship. The job takes him to war-torn countries to photograph civilian life in a tumultuous world. When Daniel is kidnapped by terrorists, his family in Denmark work tirelessly to raise enough ransom money to ensure his safe return.
This film is a gut-wrenching exploration of humanity at its most evil, with a very welcome and thankfully optimistic approach. Not all stories like this one end positively, and the events of the film can be brutal and may be hard to stomach, especially knowing the truth behind much of the events depicted in the movie.
Leading man Esben Smed embodies Daniel as a soft-spoken, gentle soul thrust into a very violent and unexpected world. Smed’s incredibly versatile work playing the passive victim is the beating heart of this film. Many scenes feature Daniel’s inner turmoil between beatings, and Smed’s performance truly shines in these moments. Without speaking a word, the characters pain is exemplified in every labored breath the performer takes. His character’s desperate hopelessness is absolutely heartbreaking.
Among the hostages with Daniel throughout the film is the American journalist James Foley (The Hurricane Heist’s Tony Kebbell), who also turns in an outstanding supporting performance as a level-headed, almost cocky abductee whose confidence encourages himself as well as those trapped with him. He’s very much the suave, charismatic American guy who’s cheerleader efforts benefit the hostages he’s with. While most of the cast is quite strong, supporting actor Anders W. Berthelsen (who also co-directed the film with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Niels Arden Oplev) also deserves accolades as Arthur, a former military investigator hired by Daniel’s family to track him down and assist with ransom negotiations.
The weakest element of the film is likely the story arc featuring Daniel’s family members, especially in regards to a starkly different approach in tone and style from the rest of the film. Despite the high stakes, their family fundraisers to earn Daniel’s ransom money just aren’t as compelling on screen as the horrifying torture sequences. It’s difficult material to get right, and the contrast is necessary, but the cast of characters Daniel leaves behind in Denmark feel like they are too detached – as if they are in a completely different movie. With a heightened, almost melodramatic brand of acting, their performances don’t feel quite as grounded as the rest of the film either. This is not to say the material is not handled respectfully; after all, these are people grieving for their lost son. They are understandably perturbed, however the tonal shift between their story and Daniel’s tends to be slightly jarring as we cut back and forth between two very different worlds.
Overall though, this is a very minor point. 398 Days: Hostage is an incredibly compelling thriller with a haunting and devastating truth to tell. Posed by the film is the unanswerable ethical and moral question – how much is a human life worth? A question that is answered in more ways than just one in this material.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor