Every once in awhile a film comes out that one misses. In some cases, they get a theatrical opening in one part of the world, while not such in another part of the world. This is the case with 6 Days, a 2017 action-biography that is a British/ New Zealand co-production. I don’t recall a theatrical release here, but came across the movie in the express DVD section at a library here some days ago. The film concerns itself with the 1980 hostage taking incident in Britain at the Iranian embassy, and follows the points of view of several people involved. It is directed by Toa Fraser, a New Zealand director with some British roots.
The film starts out with a small group of armed men seizing the Iranian embassy in London on the 30th of April, 1980. Their leader, Salim (Ben Turner), issues demands for the release of Arab prisoners in Iran. The police set up a perimeter to handle the crisis, with one of their best negotiators, Chief Inspector Max Vernon (Mark Strong) taking the lead. The SAS regiment is called to be on standby; among their ranks is a tenacious lance corporal, Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell). And of course the press descends on the scene; by chance, BBC reporter Kate Adie (Abbie Cornish) and her cameraman are on scene just as the crisis starts to unfold. Over the next six days, the tension slowly builds as the terrorists make demands, the powers that be debate the crisis, the SAS devise scenarios to storm the embassy, and Vernon and his colleagues struggle to bring the crisis to a close.
Despite the film’s poster, this is not particularly an action film. Instead it is a methodical film, efficiently run, building the tension slowly but continually as events unfold. The screenplay, by New Zealander Glenn Standring, follows the events of those six days closely, weaving in and out of perspectives as the movie moves briskly along. What humour might be found tends to lean towards both the dry British type and the gallows kind of humour- the SAS soldiers biding their time waiting, or the friendly rivalries between reporters. Much of the story is serious, and rightfully so. We see the security chiefs meeting from time to time to discuss options, including what’s not on the table. We look in on the terrorists themselves as they hold their hostages and debate what to do. And we see Vernon and his officers work to keep the crisis contained, even while the eyes of the country and the world are on it, all the while knowing that sooner or later the army might well end up taking over.
Fraser takes the screenplay and handles it in that efficient, methodical way, giving time to each of the perspectives, ratcheting up the tension and suspense, but done in a way that’s never forced (I can just imagine someone like Michael Bay handling this and going way over the top with explosions). The whole tone of the film plays more to the resolute keep calm and carry on attitude of Britain. There’s a good deal of attention to detail that grounds it in its time- the unseen Prime Minister Thatcher is new to power, and has her own agenda, which does not include giving terrorists what they want. Iran, meanwhile, is a pariah state at this point whose leader doesn’t mind making martyrs of those inside the embassy, and won’t be moved to intervene. And Arab ambassadors in Britain refuse to get involved.
The SAS look rather rough and tumble and not particularly like soldiers. This makes perfect sense when you remember that they’re not supposed to look like soldiers in real life, so there are no crew cuts among them, but the actors carry themselves with the precise energy and movement of the regiment, reminding you that the British SAS are about the last people on the planet you want to pick a fight with. Their practice drills, planning for contingencies, and tactics and techniques occupy part of their time leading up to the climax of the film, and it’s interesting to watch them at work. And the London police, both in terms of those outside the embassy (and one lone officer who’s among the hostages, wondering if he should take more direct action) come across as steadfast throughout.
Turner, it turns out, is a British actor with an Iranian background, and his take as Salim is a good one. The actor has done work mostly in Britain, including stage and television. The leader of the terrorist group, Salim speaks English, and soon finds himself speaking directly with Vernon. Their interactions, almost entirely by phone, are back and forth, the two sparring, with demands on Salim’s side and countermeasures on Vernon’s side. And yet there’s more to Salim than your typical terrorist as the film unfolds. His cause is at least understandable: the freedom of Arab prisoners from the harsh treatment of Iranian captors, and even in the present day, who’s going to root for Iran? His dispute is with Iran, not Britain, something explicit in the group’s statements. And there are times we see doubt and uncertainty in the man, even in how he’s dealing with his comrades. He’s not sure he’s done the right thing, and that makes him more than just the usual Middle Eastern villain that you’d see in an Americanized film.
Abbie Cornish has done a lot of film work all over the world, and this time out she plays Kate Adie, a young BBC journalist who first comes to the embassy for a completely different story with her cameraman, and then finds herself watching the first stages of the crisis unfold. The real Adie is one of British journalism’s leading voices, and Cornish plays her with competence and a professional air, calm as she reports back live during the crisis. She and her fellow journalists, others working for other media outlets, banter with each other while watching events unfold, becoming effectively a kind of Greek chorus for the film.
Jamie Bell has been around as an actor for a long time, rising to prominence first as his debut in Billy Elliot. He’s had roles since then in productions like King Kong, Fantastic Four, and The Adventures Of Tintin. He plays Rusty Firmin, the most prominent of the SAS soldiers on stand-by in the area as the crisis unfolds. When we first meet him, he’s in the midst of a training drill with the others. Bell plays the character as rough and tumble in personality, something of the working class in him. Yet Firmin is also a professional, always learning from errors, memorizing countless faces, looking for possible problem areas, just like those around him. The actor captures that in his performance, making the man believable.
It's Mark Strong who gives the finest performance of the film as Chief Inspector Max Vernon. The actor has often played the villain or the heavy in films like Stardust, The Young Victoria, or Sherlock Holmes. My favourite role for him is the scenery chewing, brother-murdering prince Septimus in the first of those films. His take as Max is much more sympathetic. A professional well trained in negotiation, Max is methodical and psychological in his techniques, working to establish a rapport with the terrorists. He says he wants to resolve the crisis without loss of life, and we believe him. Over the six days, he’s the lead negotiator in the crisis, taking leave only to go home and get some rest (and see his wife just for sheer emotional relief). The actor keeps that resolute, calm steadiness in the character throughout the film, until at last with the crisis behind him, he can come to grips with the sheer tension he’s been in. It’s a compelling performance to watch.
6 Days turned out to be a surprise. Taking an incident in history that I was not familiar with, weaving in between perspectives, the film turns out to be well worth watching. It lacks the overkill that we would see in a Michael Bay film ( this is a good thing) and instead goes for the measured, steady tone of a British character study, blended in with action just in the right dose.