Penny Woolcock's film is based on modern composer John Adams' 1991 opera, which in turn was inspired by the Achille Lauro affair, which took place over three tense days in October 1985. (In an odd resonance, the San Francisco screening took place the day after the real hijacking's ringleader, Abu Abbas, was captured in Baghdad.) As a movie, it's not fully successful: Dramatic opera staging and dramatic filmmaking aren't the same thing, and Klinghoffer often drags. It can only move as fast as the music, and Adams is a composer focused on slow, swimming paces. Yet Woolcock mostly makes the film work visually - she's excellent at the pointed close-up and frenzied camera movements, especially as we follow the terrorists' lives in flashbacks. In the poverty-stricken camps in which they grew up, we see the turmoil and anger that drives their lives into violent fundamentalism. Mamoud (Kamel Boutros) carries the key of his childhood home, from which he was evicted when it became part of the state of Israel.
It's almost - almost - enough to make you sympathize with the band of killers, and that's made Klinghoffer a controversial opera from the start. Many critics found it to be pro-Palestinian, and it's true that it shows a certain empathy from the hijacked travelers; one young British dancer on board sings of the free cigarettes they offered, their general kindness, and the song itself has a blithe, pop-like feel to it. But Klinghoffer is balanced: Every shot of destroyed refugee camps is paired with shots of concentration camps. Woolcock renders the conflict in terms of dead Palestinian and Jewish bodies, brutal accounting in a ghastly ledger.
But all that means that the film becomes less interested in the story of a hijacked cruise ship, so Klinghoffer relies on scenes of frightened passengers, which can be repetitive. The ship's captain, played and sung beautifully by Christopher Maltman, is wonderful to watch as the sturdy and pleading voice of reason, telling the hijackers that "I would say you did not fail until you killed." Leon Klinghoffer's wife Marilyn (Yvonne Howard) has no sympathy for the captain, who by the end tells him, "You embraced them!"
Leon himself is a cipher, a handicapped man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. "I'm a person who'd just as soon avoid trouble," he sings, sweetly. But it doesn't matter. Woolcock shows him and the wheelchair sinking, slowly, into the sea. She gives it to us over and over, and all we get to do is wonder why.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th January 2003
Production compaines: Channel 4 Television
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 4 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Penny Woolcock
Producer: Madonna Baptiste
Screenwriter: Penny Woolcock
Starring: Sanford Sylvan as Leon Klinghoffer, Christopher Maltman as The Captain of the "Achille Lauro", Yvonne Howard as Marylin Klinghoffer, Tom Randle as Molqui, Kamel Boutros as Mamoud, Houda Echouafni as Fatima, Leigh Melrose as Rambo