film companion of 7500

Director: Patrick Vollrath

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

I’m one of those perverse nervous flyers who ends every night by watching reconstructed airplane disaster videos on The Flight Channel. My last waking moments of a day are practically spent in a (simulated) cockpit. I’m not sure what the psychology behind this is. But I think it has something to do with wanting to know everything about flying a plane, and wanting to know what can go wrong and how bad things can get for the pilots, so that I feel…a little more secure as a passenger. It sounds strange, yes, but this makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings in a plane. I’ve even begun to understand engine sounds, ATC controller lingo and technical terms. 7500, a terrorist thriller shot entirely in the cockpit of a hijacked flight, feeds all my sensory obsessions. It plays out like an unsimulated version of every commercial pilot’s worst nightmare: It’s man who is misbehaving, not the machine. The title is pilot code for an hijacked aircraft.

Once a Berlin-Paris flight reaches cruising altitude, four terrorists displace an attendant to storm the cockpit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor we don’t see enough on our screens lately, is the American co-pilot. His German captain gets injured, and he has some tough decisions to make over the next hour. The dramatic premise comes across as Liam-Neeson-like, but the film squarely belongs to the auto-realistic Paul Greengrass universe – somewhat like the pilots’ perspective of United 93 instead of the heightened passenger pulse of Non-Stop. That it’s a night-time flight not only informs the film’s aesthetic, but also evokes the deep-rooted theatricality of “flying blind”. The build-up (silent security cam footage of the suspects at Berlin airport) is brief and eerie, and the banter during the pushback – there’s an in-joke about Levitt’s babyface when the captain quips that he looks younger than 32 (the actor is actually 38) – is a pleasant mix of professional awkwardness and personal informality.

The filmmaker creates the kind of claustrophobic environment that merges both man and machine

I like that the take-off sequence is displayed in real-time procedure: the taxing, announcements, speed, joystick pull, dark skies, turbulence, autopilot, breaking through the clouds to reach cruising altitude. What this does is lull the viewer into a familiar sense of visual routine. As a result, when all hell breaks loose, it genuinely feels like a violent disruption of the ordinary. In fact, closet aviation nerds such as myself get tenser about the voice alerts, the unanswered ATC messages and the shaky controls than the terrorists attacking the crew. The disorientation is natural: We become passengers forced to think like pilots. The filmmaker creates the kind of claustrophobic environment that merges both man and machine. The effective use of the TV monitor – where the pilot can see precisely what is happening outside the cockpit door – evokes the device of grainy handycam footage in horror films. It informs his head, and in turn, the suspense of separation.

Levitt transitions into spatial survival-thriller mode, combining the mental chaos of Tom Hardy in Locke and the physical performance of Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. It’s easy to dismiss “genre” turns, but there’s rarely a greater test for an actor than having nobody but themselves to reckon with. Levitt’s understanding of courage, trauma, rage and experience is further exaggerated by his contrast in surroundings: the shiny buttons and switches are offset by the endless night beyond the windshield. By resisting the tempting urge of external imagery – like airport shots of a wayward plane landing in a storm, or the panic of the passengers in brace position – the film rightfully suggests that the pilot, both literally and cinematically, is the driver of the viewer’s imagination. We see the desperation of a pilot, and in him we sense the fast-fading history of the 200 lives he is responsible for. 

7500 plays out like an unsimulated version of every commercial pilot’s worst nightmare: It’s man who is misbehaving, not the machine

But for all its finely calibrated pressure, 7500 falls short on the ideological front. I’m not sure the world needs another flimsy Islamist-jihadi narrative. The stereotypes of terrorism – starring the half-brainwashed youngster (Omid Memar) – reek of a hardlined European gaze, where a white writer is just happy to throw in a few catchphrases (“Allahu Akbar”, “Western monsters,” “revenge”) along with a weak kid who is designed to humanize our perception of religious extremism. It’s a lazy device, and one that undermines what might have otherwise stood alone as a definitive mid-air thriller. By framing most of the film as a sympathetic relationship between a wounded pilot and his conflicted enemy, 7500 ends up locating the emotional complexities of Stockholm Syndrome within German airspace. The combination is almost naive. Investing thirty quiet minutes of an action-packed narrative into this dimension feels anti-climactic.

But then again, our primal reaction to a film like this relies on how loudly we choose to hear the ominous “pull up” and “terrain ahead” warnings. It’s an unnerving noise, and no amount of Islamophobic subtext can alter the immediacy of automated danger. The concept of a metal tube piercing the air is scarier than that of a glass knife piercing the heart. After all, it’s not just a person, but a spirit at stake.

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