Since everyone has been completely preoccupied with the pandemic, someone at Amazon Studios felt like this was the perfect time to sidetrack audiences with a tried-and-true diversion: a thriller about terrorists hijacking an airplane. “7500” is a tense, cerebral Hitchcockian potboiler that struggles to maintain its intensity in the final act.
In all fairness, I am probably the last person to rely upon for an objective take on a movie involving the hijacking of a plane. No matter how hard I try to maintain a healthy detachment from the events depicted on screen, my personal experiences with flying will not allow me to do so. So, for the sake of integrity, let me make one thing clear before we begin: I don’t fly.
Not anymore, anyway. I have avoided flying for the last 15 years and, with any luck, will continue to keep my feet on the ground for the rest of my life. No need to tell me about the dependability of commercial airlines. Don’t bother explaining that I am statistically safer on an airplane than in a car speeding along the highway. I understand the fear isn’t rational, but my experiences in the air have always been traumatic. That trauma includes everything from significant turbulence to a real-life “Final Destination” scenario that played out on a business trip in 1994. Had I made a different call on that trip, I would have been aboard a DC-9 that crashed when it encountered a microburst while landing. In fact, I was aboard that same aircraft one day prior to its demise.
More than 25 years after that incident, I still get rattled thinking about it.
In “7500,” Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), the pilot; and Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the co-pilot, prepare for a flight from Berlin to Paris. Passengers board as they run through a preflight checklist, and as Tobias takes a moment to reassure flight attendant Gökce, Tobias’ girlfriend, that their son will get into a good school. One thing becomes evident from the beginning: The film depends mostly upon a single set. The dialogue and the action are mainly confined to the cramped space that is the plane’s cockpit. It is intentionally oppressive and confining. The enclosed space conveys a palpable sense of claustrophobia, easily as disturbing as some of the most intense scenes in the 2005 horror film “The Descent.”
Then again, maybe that’s just my fear of flying kicking in.
A few minutes into the flight, terrorists brandishing crude knives constructed from broken glass storm the cockpit. Both Michael and Tobias are wounded, but the co-pilot manages to overpower the attackers and secure the space. That leaves two hijackers in the cabin with the passengers, desperately trying to regain access to the cockpit.
Michael eventually succumbs to his wounds, leaving Tobias on his own to deal with the terrorists and land the plane safely. Air traffic control arranges an emergency landing in Hanover. When the terrorists realize Tobias intends to land, they threaten to kill a passenger unless the co-pilot lets them back into the cockpit.
Unlike Hollywood’s high-energy, big budget treatment of terrorist hijackings, director Patrick Vollrath charted a different course for “7500.” While his film still manages to generate plenty of suspense, he focuses on the emotional strain of an ordinary man faced with an extraordinary challenge. There are no protracted gun battles and no well-choreographed fight scenes in “7500.” The weapons are unsophisticated, almost primitive. The physical confrontations are chaotic and clumsy because the play out in a poorly lit, confined space. The hero is bloody, sweaty and anxious. The antagonists are disorganized and inconsistent in their objectives.
According to Vollrath, the last thing he wanted was to cast a typical action hero to play Tobias.
“I was very much looking for not a-Bruce Willis-kind of guy,” he said in his production notes. “Not a Special Forces-trained guy who can use all his abilities to solve the situation. Tobias is an everyman who never expects to be in a situation like this and hopes he never will be — and then it happens. So he’s as overwhelmed as you or I would be.”
Gordon-Levitt fits the bill. Viewers empathize with him as he successfully communicates his response to the unfolding situation, from panic and trauma to quiet determination. Despite all the violence and tragedy, Tobias knows he has to maintain control. He knows the lives of every passenger are in his hands.
Instead of the typical Hollywood vendetta approach, Tobias makes mostly rational decisions — even though doing so may not guarantee success. Fortitude, patience and resolution are his weapons.
While the first two-thirds of “7500” offers a harrowing ride, the narrative ventures into questionable territory in the final act. Vollrath attempts to introduce a connection between Tobias and one of the hijackers. He senses reluctance in Vedat (Omid Memar), an 18-year-old radicalized recruit, and tries to sway him to rebel against his comrades. Whether or not Tobias needs the young man’s help is unclear. His compassion for him, while moving, seems improbable given the circumstances.
I also found it surprising that Vollrath missed an opportunity to make Tobias more of a 21st century man of the world. Western ethnocentricity may not be a root cause of terrorism, but it certainly suggests a level of conceit that ruffles feathers. Tobias lives in Germany and is in a relationship with a woman who is part German and part Turkish. He has apparently made no effort to learn even basic phrases in either language.
Still, as a taut thriller, “7500” is extremely effective. Gordon-Levitt’s emotional performance is raw and affecting. From the beginning, Vollrath gives the order to buckle the seatbelts and viewers are trapped in that dark, confined cockpit, witnessing the violence and tragedy in real time. More than once, my gut wanted Tobias to plot a different course — do something that Bruce Willis’ John McClane might do. But that’s not the point of the film — and would not be appropriate for this character.
“Revenge is often the first urge when an unprovoked act of violence costs innocent lives,” Vollrath said. “To counter violence with violence is a very human reaction that cannot only be felt by individuals but by society as a whole. ‘7500’ explores the dynamics of this vicious cycle and asks one of the toughest questions today: How can we break the circle of violence?”
Honestly, I can’t say that the movie answers that question. But it’s good to see someone asking it.
Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines.