If you’re apprehensive about flying in the age of COVID-19, the tense airborne terrorism thriller “7500” will not make it any easier to return to the skies.
Set in pre-coronavirus times, director Patrick Vollrath’s feature debut is a lean, hyper-realistic experience and a grim reminder of yet another of the world’s anxiety-inducing realities. Terror lurks on the periphery of everyday life.
But it’s also an impressive technical feat that will rip your lungs out for long stretches. The largely improvised tale of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances places you squarely in the gut-wrenching position of its protagonist.
Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, First Officer Tobias Ellis is a calm, serious young American aviator based in Germany working an evening Berlin-to-Paris flight with 85 passengers aboard. The crew includes Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger), the flight’s captain, and Gökce (Aylin Tezel), a flight attendant and the mother of Tobias’ 2-year-old son.
Vollrath, an Oscar nominee for the live-action short “Everything Will Be Okay,” opens with a prophetic quote from M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the world blind.” That’s followed by surveillance video from the passenger terminal at the Berlin airport capturing seemingly routine activity, accompanied by a foreboding hum that feels like cabin pressure building. (There is no traditional score, just the internal sounds of an aircraft.)
Virtually everything from that point on takes place in the cockpit or from its perspective. The small details of preparing for flight follow. The flipping of switches, the twirling of knobs and the rattling off of coordinates and flight plans by Michael and Tobias lull us into a false sense of the mundane.
Tobias soothes Gökce over their son not getting into a particular preschool, the passengers board and the captain and the ground crew deal with a pair of late arrivals. Shortly after takeoff, once the “fasten your seat belts” sign has been turned off, two men, Kinan (Murathan Muslu) and Vedat (Omid Memar), storm the cockpit with improvised knives and both pilots are wounded, setting in motion a harrowing battle for control of the plane.
Shot on a decommissioned Airbus A320, the film is steeped in verisimilitude with parts that feel like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Kitzlinger flew for Lufthansa for more than 20 years and helped train Gordon-Levitt in the logistics of pretending to fly the aircraft.
In the script by Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic, the technical jargon is reportedly the only dialogue, with the actors improvising the rest in long takes. Unlike many improvised films, the dialogue here is largely credible as the actors have clear actions and motivation for speaking.
The confines of the cockpit create a setting that is both uncomfortably intimate yet detached from the action in the cabin — largely seen via closed-circuit video — where several more hijackers menace the hostages. The images captured by cinematographer Sebastian Thaler, combined with visual and practical effects, evoke the claustrophobic environment. Editor Hansjörg Weissbrich wrestled hour-long takes into a taut, compelling narrative that only occasionally drags.
The cast, especially Gordon-Levitt and Memar as Vedat, the youngest of the hijackers, excel at combining drama and physicality. Rather than the over-choreographed fight scenes of most Hollywood movies, the violence here is clumsy, painful and visceral.
Although “7500” — the air traffic control code for hijacking — lacks the real-life stakes of Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” or the bigger-budget action of movies such as “Executive Decision” and “Non-Stop,” it manages to make the story land emotionally. For both Tobias and Vedat, the futility expressed by Gandhi’s quote is heartbreakingly personal.
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