We haven’t seen a whole lot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movies over the last half-decade, but in the claustrophobic thriller “7500” he reminds us he’s one of the best actors of his generation, as he’s on camera and often in close-up throughout the film, and virtually everything that transpires is filtered through his point of view. He carries the story.
Unfortunately, not even Gordon-Levitt’s stellar work can sustain a well-made but ultimately underwhelming docudrama from first-time German writer-director Patrick Vollrath. This film should be holding us in its grips from start to finish but becomes so fixated on nearly real-time details it becomes more draining than suspenseful.
“7500” (the title comes from the code assigned by air traffic control for a hijacking) opens with Berlin airport security-cam footage showing several passengers who look suspicious, if only because we know we’re watching a thriller. Cut to Gordon-Levitt’s co-pilot Tobias joining the veteran German captain Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger, a former real-life pilot for Lufthansa) in the cockpit of a flight to Paris. As the two go through the pre-flight checklist and exchange friendly banter, it feels as if we’re eavesdropping on a real-life scenario. This includes the appearance of the German-Turkish flight attendant Gokce (Aylin Tezel), who we learn is Tobias’ girlfriend and the mother of their young son. She asks if they want coffee; Michael says just water will be fine. Then she’s off to greet the passengers as the begin to board.
For the remainder of the film, we remain inside the cockpit, through a minor delay when the passenger count is two short (there’s a debate about whether to wait for them or remove their luggage) through the captain’s greeting to the passengers through the smooth takeoff and the pilots continuing to monitor the aircraft’s controls before switching to autopilot. It’s all very authentic, and more than a little tedious.
Ever since 9/11, it’s been standard practice for flight attendants to wheel out the heavy food and drink cart and use that as a barricade before they enter the cockpit. That doesn’t happen here — so when a flight attendant opens the door, three terrorists armed with makeshift glass knives storm the cockpit — and the leader, Kenan (Muruthan Muslu), gains access before Tobias can secure the door. Kenan repeatedly stabs Michael, leaving him critically injured, and stabs Tobias in the arm before Tobias knocks out Kenan, ties him up and straps him into the jump seat. Tobias has to regain control of the airplane, get on the radio and report the hijacking and change course for an emergency landing at Germany’s Hannover Airport, all the while tending to his gravely wounded colleague as the two terrorists just outside the cockpit repeatedly try to bust down the door while screaming threats.
Everything that happens outside the cockpit — and there are some horrific developments — is seen on the murky security monitor in the cockpit. At times Tobias picks up the phone and has a frantic exchange with a terrorist who is threatening to murder one hostage after another unless Tobias allows him to enter the cockpit. Gordon-Levitt does a superb job of conveying the hurricane of emotions Tobias is feeling (remember, his girlfriend is one of the flight attendants), but with the camera staying inside the cockpit, it lessens the dramatic impact of everything else happening on the plane. (That’s in marked contrast to Paul Greengrass’ far superior “United 93,” which told the hijacking story from the point of view of the passengers, and thus “opened up’ the dramatic possibilities.)
Eventually the youngest of the hijackers, an 18-year-old named Vedat (Omid Memar), gains entry to the cockpit, and Tobias senses Vedat is conflicted about the suicide mission and can be talked into surrendering or at least allowing Tobias to land the plane safely. “7500” nearly grinds to a halt as Tobias keeps talking to Vedat, trying to establish a connection with him, as the camera keeps cutting to the glass knife Tobias has taken from Kenan, and Tobias waits for the right moment to attack Vedat. The standoff between these two men, like many of the previous scenes in “7500,” drags on for far too long and thus loses electricity when it should be amping up the tension level.
Director Vollrath and the cinematographer Sebastian Thaler have crafted a strikingly authentic depiction of chaos within the tight confines of a cockpit, and Gordon-Levitt turns in one of the finest performances of his career as a quiet, friendly, low-key man who finds himself in a war at 30,000 feet. But the methodical pacing and the decision to keep the action confined to that one tight space continually take the wind out of the story’s momentum.