The New Zealand premiere screening of Toa Fraser’s newest thriller 6 Days was fortunate enough to have been attended by legendary journalist (and key figure in the events the film covers) Kate Adie, who prefaced the screening by describing how Britons tend to consider late 20th Century incidents of terrorism. According to Adie, everyone, everyone, remembers the hostage-taking and siege of the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980, mostly because of the fact that it forced interruptions of a highly anticipated snooker competition final occurring at the same time. The events of April 30 through May 5 of that year, that saw a handful of insurgent gunmen demanding release of political prisoners in Iran, captured the national attention and became an era-defining centrepiece of modern Middle-East diplomacy and crisis-management, whose impact can still be felt in the way issues of terrorism and foreign policy are managed and reacted to by Western governments and their people.
Adie’s words coloured in the story of the film with great detail. While the attempt to capture the events of those six days in precise and micromanaged detail is certainly commendable, the fact that the film ultimately feels somewhat lacklustre and dawdling in its early stretches is undeniably a testament to this fact. The result is a perfectly well-made, workmanlike hostage drama nonetheless oddly devoid of tension, the main culprit of which is in a focus on the nitty gritty of the details but not on the people at its centre. Taking a multi-pronged approach to the messy and at times counterproductive means by which British services attempted to defuse the situation, the film focuses almost entirely on the actions taking place outside of the embassy itself, leaving the motivations of the hostage-takers and the experiences of the hostages themselves largely uninvestigated (with a few notable exceptions).
Instead, the action centres around a crack-team of SAS servicemen led by Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell, playing a surprisingly convincing grizzled army serviceman), alongside an unseasoned negotiator (Mark Strong, a constantly underrated performer who can make even the paper-thin characterization he receives here seem soulful and conflicted), and, occasionally, the reporters of the BBC and other journalistic networks. This last storyline feels especially truncated, taking place almost entirely outside of the action and providing a mostly superfluous element to the story that suggests a certain amount left on the cutting room floor. Case and point – Abbie Cornish, saddled with one of the strangest accents this film year has given us, is almost entirely wasted as Kate Adie, left literally behind a barrier attempting to describe the events she sees but playing no real part in the story (which, according to Adie’s own accounts, seems to not really get to the heart of the story regarding how involved in negotiations she and her outlet actually were). This is one of the film’s most significant issues – for a situation that captured the national feeling in a way few others since have done, the connect between the events shown here and the people of Britain who watched, glued to their television sets, is mostly left untouched.
The film is director Toa Fraser’s first film since the success of The Deadlands, which represented something along the lines of a Māori martial arts film – one that bore its fair share of ire locally in terms of the cultural representation of Māori in the film, but one that nevertheless established Fraser as an adept teller of muscular, high-octane action cinema. Unfortunately for Fraser, who bites into the accumulative action of 6 Days’ climactic final siege with relish, the film struggles with the preceding five days, much of which is essentially waiting, arguing, and narrative strands that go nowhere. This includes an ill-advised ‘what if’ sequence of a stealth operation that is revealed to be something the characters are emphatically not going to do, in a fake-out played for laughs that ultimately captures the frustratingly extensive slowness of the first and second acts. Rather than heighten the tension and climatic bloodiness of the eventual siege, this feels strangely sluggish and uninvolving, regularly slowing the film down to a crawl but not using this time to really colour in the characters or their motivations. Rather, the filmmakers focus on delving into the details of how every individual strand of siege-building is achieved. It is an ‘it-takes-a-village’ approach that regrettably strands a talented multi-national cast in stock-standard characters begging for a little more thread to work with.
There are flourishes of greatness in the film – a stretch of deafening silence that reverberates off the screen following the execution of a hostage late in the story, or a quiet moment of connection between Strong’s negotiator and the one fleshed-out terrorist, in a vividly humane performance by Ben Turner. And it must be said, once the action finally, blessedly, begins, Fraser’s work turns up another dial, capturing chaos and intensity with a measured, unsentimental grace befitting the gravity of such an event. Fraser frames his shots with a workmanlike simplicity, following the centre of the action in any one scene with single-minded precision that keeps the audience focused. The film’s colour palette is largely serviceable, if unremarkable – a series of sickly greens, dull grays and vicious, halogen yellows that cloak the proceedings with a ‘take-this-seriously’ vibe that ultimately contributes to the draining slowness of its early stretches, but works well in heightening the drama of the final act.
Throughout, I was reminded strongly of Peter Berg’s ‘American Heroism’ trilogy – comprised of Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day – in its precise storytelling, thin characterization and occasional feints toward homeland jingoism (the focus being Britain here, rather than the United States). Like those films, 6 Days pays the requisite lip-service to the humanity of its Middle-Eastern hostage takers’ plight in the days of Thatcher and Khomeini, but remains largely on the side of its Western characters both in narrative focus and in ideology – an approach that feels frustratingly surface-level. It is not necessarily vital to attempt to empathise or even understand the motivations of those who commit terrorist acts on film, it must be said – but regardless of political position, it has become a tired and damaging trope in a period of immense xenophobia to telegraph frightening images of screaming Middle Eastern terrorists shoving guns in the faces of civilians, one that 6 Days generally doesn’t do enough to counteract. As an exploration of the ideological clashes that lead to situations such as the embassy hostage situation, it is about as nuanced as a SAS bullet. As a hostage procedural, 6 Days presents a methodical, unremarkable but solidly watchable thriller aimed at capturing detail in way both appreciable and somewhat detrimental to its own storytelling.