The self-consciously twisty new conspiracy doc Cold Case Hammarskjöld is the latest work of Danish director Mads Brügger, a journalist-comedian-provocateur kinda sorta in the Michael Moore vein. Brügger is drier, more Scandinavian, and better dressed than Moore typically is, but there’s a common undercurrent of prankishness to his approach of uncovering information that powerful people would rather keep hidden. (I haven’t seen Brügger’s earlier releases, The Red Chapel and The Ambassador, so I can’t comment on how this new film fits into his typical style.)
Cold Case Hammarskjöld manages to have its cake and eat it too: it attempts to mildly satirize the recent spate of true crime documentaries and podcasts which depend on twists to sell their stories (last year’s Three Identical Strangers, even though it’s not a crime story exactly, fits this mold pretty well), while also crafting a solid example of the same kind of film.
In 1961, Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, is killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He was on his way to broker peace with a rebel leader under the thumb of a Belgian mining company. Although pilot error is deemed the cause of the crash, there were plenty of big-money interests who would have been happy to see the idealistic Hammarskjöld out of the picture.
Years later, Swedish aid worker Göran Björkdahl is given a piece of metal that his father tells him is a piece of Hammarskjöld’s crashed plane. It is riddled with holes that look like some sort of ammunition has been fired through it. This puzzle piece is enough to inspire Björkdahl to start an investigation into the truth of the plane crash. Brügger teams up with the amateur detective on his search, because who doesn’t like a good murder mystery?
Brügger narrates and appears in the film dressed all in white linen, like a tropical Bond villain; it’s partly in reference to a real-life character who will crop up later in the story and partly because Brügger just seems to like to dress up. He also spends a good deal of the film relaying his narration to two different African secretaries in two different hotel rooms. As the film progresses, it’s hard not to suspect the secretaries are merely a filmmaking device; partway through, Brügger admits this is the case.
It’s hard to take Brügger or his film at face value, which largely seems to be the point. When he admits to his audience late in the game that his investigation has hit a dead-end, after years of interviewing and filming, it feels like another narrative ploy or maybe a reference to other docs that seem to implode rather than stick the landing (ahem, the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, ahem hem…).
But, in the end, Brügger pivots and seems to genuinely uncover a shocking and disturbing political conspiracy that is only tangentially related to the original Hammarskjöld case. (Other articles have already elaborated on these findings, but for the sake of spoilers, I will be vague.) As with anything else in the film, the audience is forced to take these findings with a grain of salt. Is the final eyewitness trustworthy or is he being coached or is he a pathological liar? Brügger lets us linger in this ambiguity without feeling like he is offering another cop out. This demonstrates his talent as a showman, which — much more than journalistic rigor — is Cold Case Hammarskjöld‘s greatest asset. We may never know the truth, but at least now we know that it was worth knowing.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens in select cities on Friday, August 16.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.