I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It’s almost 20 years since 9/11. Are we ready for a realistic movie about a plane hijacking? Because there hasn’t been one like 7500 since probably 2006’s United 93, which I have not been able to bring myself to watch again since. On the other hand, two decades on from 9/11, there is an entire generation of adults who have no significant memories of that terrible day or the immediate aftermath. I had to steel myself to watch 7500 — air-traffic-control code for a hijacking — and I was right to do so: I found this an enormously unnerving experience. But perhaps not everyone will feel the same trepidation I did.
As with United 93, mundanity here builds with almost unbearable tension, an ordinariness that becomes increasingly suspenseful because we know something terrible is about to happen. Apart from a brief opening sequence of airport security footage, 7500 is set entirely within the cockpit of a Berlin-to-Paris flight on an imaginary European airline. It’s there the story begins. In real-time, in a real Airbus cockpit (though one that never left a soundstage) and often in long documentary-style takes, we see the captain and first officer running through preflight checklists, chatting with ground crew and flight attendants, warming up the plane… or whatever they call the starting-up process.
I know nothing about flying commercial airliners (or flying anything at all), but this all feels deeply authentic. Writer (with Senad Halilbasic) and director Patrick Vollrath — Oscar-nominated in 2016 for his short “Everything Will Be Okay” and making his feature debut — cast a former Lufthansa pilot turned actor, Carlo Kitzlinger, as the captain, and put him and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the first officer, into a real Airbus flight simulator for weeks of preparation, with Kitzlinger coaching Gordon-Levitt not only on the technical aspects of what their characters are doing, but the attitudes and behavior of commercial airline pilots. Much of their dialogue is improvised. (If you’ve ever hoped for a chance to peek into the cockpit of a plane you were a passenger on, this seems like a close second.) There is something very reassuring about their calm confidence as Vollrath lets us watch, uncut, the entire takeoff sequence, a trust in their professionalism that steels us for what we know is about to happen.
So: It’s not long into the flight when a small group of men with improvised weapons, subverting the door-lock system that became standard after 9/11, attempt to storm the cockpit, and the evening’s dull routine is shattered. What transpires over the rest of the short flight — the film is a scant 90 minutes, and horrifically gripping the whole time — is grounded in emotional realism, thanks in huge part to Gordon-Levitt’s (Knives Out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) extraordinary performance. The intense empathy and profound grounding in vulnerable humanity that Gordon-Levitt always seems to effortlessly bring to a role has perhaps never served him better than here, as an ordinary man facing terrible life-or-death decisions and not able to brush off the impacts of the awful choices he is forced to make.
This is not an action movie. This is not Liam Neeson subduing bad guys at 30,000 feet with an aggressive growl and a particular set of skills. This is a movie that eschews movie-movie toxic masculinity, the manly crap movies too often celebrate, in order to draw a compelling portrait of its polar opposite: male strength that is drawn from competence and compassion, from intelligence and insight. Vollrath plays with one or two tropes of action movies — you will see a big one start to unfurl in the film’s opening minutes — but he does so in ways that undermine clichés rather than embracing them. The technical challenge that Vollrath set for himself here in a tremendous one, but the human one was even bigger, and he succeeds with it, beautifully.
Still, anyone who flies these days has run through terrible scenarios in their mind, starting with the obvious holes in the intrusive yet laughable security-theater gamut we have to navigate in order to get on a plane in the first place. The loopholes the hijackers find here are easily exploitable ones, and surely nothing that hasn’t occurred to plenty of people already. So there is a sense of grim fantasy to 7500, offering that miserable catharsis that comes with catastrophizing, and not easily dismissable in the way that a dumb action movie might allow. Whether you want this nightmare in your head is something only you can decide.
‘7500’ is streaming on Amazon Prime in the US and the UK.