Few names ring with such moral authority in the history of diplomacy as Dag Hammarskjöld. As the second Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1950s, he cut a dashing figure with his dapper suits and unflappable resolve. Hammarskjöld was committed to lofty ideals of world peace and anti-colonialism, but he also had a skill for backroom negotiations.
Director Per Fly’s biopic Hammarskjöld captures the Swedish diplomat’s fateful last days, when he attempted to intervene in the Congo Crisis of 1960-61. With the mineral-rich Katanga province splintering into civil war, Hammarskjöld tried to chart a middle course between Western interests and Congolese nationalism. He sought to prevent a proxy conflict between superpowers by deploying UN peacekeepers, hoping to uphold the young nation’s sovereignty.
It was a delicate balancing act, with sinister forces gathering in the shadows. Hammarskjöld met a violent end when his plane mysteriously crashed en route to ceasefire negotiations, fueling conspiracy theories to this day. Mikael Persbrandt stars as the upstanding statesman caught in this web of political intrigue, desperately trying to reconcile his lofty purpose with the bloody realities on the ground.
Navigating a Minefield of Competing Interests
Hammarskjöld opens by establishing the Secretary-General’s considerable sway on the 1950s world stage, with newsreels hailing his key role in high-stakes negotiations like the Korean prisoner exchange. Yet his polished public image masks profound isolation. When a long-lost friend Peter Levin (Thure Lindhardt) reinitiates contact, Hammarskjöld must reconcile this renewed personal connection with his stoic, solitary existence.
Still, Hammarskjöld has little time for soul-searching. In 1960, civil war erupts in the newly independent Congo, with the mineral-rich Katanga province splintering under the puppet regime of Moïse Tshombe (Hakeem Kae-Kazim). When President Lumumba seeks Soviet aid, he is soon assassinated, leaving the country in turmoil. Hammarskjöld backs a UN peacekeeping mission to stabilize Congo, but treads cautiously, hoping to balance Western economic interests and African self-determination.
It’s a precarious tightrope act, however, with sinister agendas taking shape in the shadows. As a cessation of hostilities proves elusive, Tshombe ratchets up attacks on UN positions despite Hammarskjöld’s personal appeals. Meanwhile, hints of CIA and Belgian plots swirl in smoke-filled rooms. Realizing he has woefully misjudged the ruthlessness of his adversaries, Hammarskjöld makes plans to travel to Northern Rhodesia for do-or-die negotiations. But his DC6 plane never reaches its destination, crashing under mysterious circumstances and ending Hammarskjöld’s mission once and for all.
While avoiding overt spoilers, director Per Fly’s polished biopic strongly implies its protagonist was the victim of an elaborate assassination. But it also suggests Hammarskjöld was partly complicit through his misplaced faith in institutional power over the unconscionable brutality of self-interested men. Persbrandt gives a riveting turn as a profoundly principled man trapped in an ethical quagmire, struggling to reconcile his duty with the deadly realities closing around him.
Persbrandt Portrays Principled Stoicism
As Dag Hammarskjöld, Mikael Persbrandt has perhaps his most commanding big screen role since breakthrough turn in 2000’s Faithless. The Swedish star neatly balances outward disciplined composure with glimpses of lonely yearning as a man wedded to higher purpose. Maintaining a stiff upper lip even as crises mount, Persbrandt’s subtle performance hints at both tightly-coiled strength and fraying of certainty.
In early scenes opposite Lindhardt, Persbrandt deftly pivots from flustered discomfort to wistful nostalgia, giving a sense of opportunities passed by. Later when appealing to the ruthless Tshombe, flashes of desperation poke through the assured veneer. And in the shadow of encroaching doom, his darting eyes seem to acknowledge the grave miscalculations that have led to this peril.
While Persbrandt’s Hammarskjöld anchors proceedings, Hakeem Kae-Kazim also impresses as the wily and brutal secessionist Tshombe, aptly capturing the blasé menace of a petty tyrant drunk on sudden power. In smaller roles, familiar US faces like Colin Salmon and the ubiquitous Casper Phillipson lend an air of authenticity to scenes at UN Headquarters. Well cast throughout, the ensemble brings both gravitas and nuance to this sweeping historical drama.
Crisp Visuals Reflect Central Dichotomy
In realizing Dag Hammarskjöld’s story for the screen, director Per Fly brings his signature sleek polish to recreating a pivotal historical tipping point. Clean visuals effectively mirror the bifurcation between Hammarskjöld’s orderly existence and the chaos enveloping the Congo.
Early scenes alternate between the posh mid-century modern interiors of DC power centers and the Secretary-General’s own understated luxury apartment. Stark black and white archival footage accentuates the era’s uneasy geopolitics. As the action shifts to Africa, the film adopts a gloomier palette: mud-caked and shadowy jungle terrain pockmarked by flashes of sudden violence. The contrast visually encapsulates Hammarskjöld’s jarring realization that he has severely misjudged the severity of the situation.
Fly’s crisp storytelling matches his protagonist’s meticulous persona, though he also takes artistic license in teasing hidden depths in Hammarskjöld’s private journals. If some supporting performances have stiltedness that betrays the international co-production, Persbrandt maintains plausibility anchoring proceedings with world-weary gravitas. Realized with sleek assurance, Hammarskjöld’s handsome craftsmanship parallels the seldom-ruffled veneer of its central figure – right up to abruptly shattering denouement.
Principled Crusader or Tragic Dupe?
In dramatizing Dag Hammarskjöld’s fatal Congo mission, director Per Fly probes timeless questions about the relationship between lofty ideals and on-the-ground political realities. His protagonist’s high-minded intentions tragically collide with amoral power plays and ruthless violence, fueling debate around Hammarskjöld’s ultimate legacy.
On one hand, the film celebrates the Secretary-General’s courageous vision – an almost quaint throwback statesman placing his body on the line for democratic principles. As chaos mounts, he refuses calls to abandon the Congo, adamant to see his mediation through at any cost. Hammarskjöld hoped to chart a progressive course respecting African self-determination, refusing to allow a UN member state to become a Cold War proxy battleground.
Yet the film also asks whether Hammarskjöld was a victim of his own noble delusions, fatally overestimating the efficacy of institutional authority against shameless brigands like Tshombe. Did his cautious diplomacy in fact enable malevolent forces lying in wait? An invented romantic reconnection raises tantalizing questions about chances for happiness surrendered for duty’s sake.
While not deviating wildly from the historical record, fictionalized elements like Hammarskjöld’s hinted-at sexuality serve to humanize the steely statesman. Audiences are left wrestling with his profound integrity and willingness to sacrifice self against the unsettling notion that for all his vaunting principles, he remained helpless against unrelenting injustice. Was he an inspiring but tragically naive figure, or a steadfast hero betrayed by lesser men?
Mood Shifts Mirror Protagonist’s Reckoning
Hammarskjöld unfolds at a purposeful clip, fluidly navigating tonal shifts that reflect its central figure’s sobering realizations about the intractability of the conflict he faces.
Early scenes have crispness befitting their mid-century boardroom settings: terse exchanges between sharp-dressed statesmen debating diplomatic minutiae. Flashbacks to a Swedish summer have a dreamlike quality hinting at roads not taken. But as violent chaos in the Congo threatens to spiral out of control, the action grows increasing tense and ominous.
Director Per Fly stages set pieces like Hammarskjöld’s late-night appeal to Tshombe with crackling intensity, even as uneasy quiet hangs in the interim. While avoiding overt spoilers, a sinister mood permeates the film’s second half, with mounting hints that shadow forces are encroaching. Audiences attuned to political thrillers will note tropes – whispered conspiracies in smoke-filled rooms, fateful phone calls overheard – that bode growing peril.
Mirroring Hammarskjöld’s own dawning awareness that he has disastrously miscalculated, the film sheds its initial polished elegance for a nightmarish ambience where our protagonist grasps at diplomatic straws, only to have violent chaos erupt yet again. The climax unfolds with an inevitability only heightened by taut storytelling generating slow-boil suspense.
Flawed Idealist or Principled Martyr?
In the end, Hammarskjöld paints a nuanced portrait of an enigmatic statesman who sacrificed himself for lofty principles, even as cynical realpolitik chewed him up. Viewers are left to wrestle with thorny questions.
Was Dag Hammarskjöld an inspiring but tragically quixotic figure, clinging to high-minded notions of institutional diplomatic power even as unscrupulous warlords brutally seized the day? Or was he a heroic protector of democratic ideals in the face of forces bent on domination?
Director Per Fly doesn’t definitively tilt in either direction, but his polished drama offers evidence for both perspectives. While avoiding overt preachiness, he salutes Hammarskjöld’s profound integrity while also raising discomfiting notions that his faith in orderly cooperation blinded him to the bloodthirsty chaos at hand.
Boosted by Persbrandt’s turn showcasing both flinty resolve and flickers of doubt, the film succeeds in bringing to life a pivotal Cold War showdown. It also captures a human story of public boldness and private vulnerability in a man married to higher service. Hammarskjöld ultimately furnishes tragic fable of violent lawlessness overwhelming principled resistance – but also seeds of ongoing inspiration.
With polished direction and a commanding central performance, Hammarskjöld proved largely effective in dramatizing its complex protagonist's fateful end. If supporting characters sometimes veer into cliché, the film still succeeds admirably in bringing to life a pivotal historical tipping point. Persbrandt plausibly channels both steely resolve and gnawing self-doubt in capturing a conflicted statesman trapped in an ethical and geopolitical quagmire. While avoiding overt preaching, director Per Fly salutes his subject's profound integrity while questioning if moral self-assurance rendered him tragically complacent. Capturing both sweeping drama and inner turmoil, Hammarskjöld furnishes an engrossing character study for this under-appreciated idealist caught in the wings of encroaching Cold War tensions.
- Strong central performance by Mikael Persbrandt
- Slick direction and cinematography
- Effectively captures historical context and politics
- Balances sweeping drama with introspective moments
- Generates palpable sense of encroaching danger
- Explores thought-provoking themes of idealism vs. harsh realities
- Some supporting characters lean into clichés
- Invented romantic interest feels unnecessary
- Accents in UN HQ scenes are occasionally shaky
- Final act implied assassination is speculative