The first forty minutes or so of Patrick Vollrath’s debut feature 7500 are about as tense as I’ve been in a cinema of late. In one of his strongest performances to date, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias, the co-pilot of a routine passenger flight from Berlin to Paris, a literal hop. The flight crew prepare for take off – Tobias’ girlfriend Gökçe (Aylin Tezel) is a flight attendant so we have some domestic problems to resolve – but we’ve already seen in the title sequence some suspicious characters courtesy of the security footage in the airport. This tinges the affable chit chat and the calm routine with an increasing sense of foreboding that will only increase once we’re in the air.
The attack of the three fanatical terrorists when it comes is shocking and violent and the attackers employ a technique which will probably have airport security rethinking some of their measures. I don’t want to give too much away but soon Tobais has to face some impossible moral dilemmas as well as try to keep control of the aircraft and seek to bring it to the ground safely. There’s a feel of the original Airport film, itself a great piece of tense filmmaking before it disappeared in a wave of sequels and the annihilating parody of Airplane.
Undoubtedly the film bears the traces of Paul Greengrass’s influence, not only the obvious United 93, but also the later Captain Phillips. This doesn’t (thankfully) extend to the notorious shaky-cam handheld style of pseudo-documentary. Here, cinematographer Sebastian Thaler keeps things steadier while always keeping the viewer of balance. During take off the camera pans from the Captain – played by real life pilot Carlo Kitzlinger – to Tobias and in doing so gives the queasy optical illusion that the plane is veering from one part of the runway to the other. It’s not, so far things are going relatively smoothly. The rest of the plane – and indeed the rest of the world – is contained in a small black and white monitor that gives a fish eye view of just outside the door of the cockpit. The soundtrack is almost entirely without music – reminiscent of HItchcock’s Lifeboat – but is full of noise, the constant sound of the engines and especially the life and death percussion of the Jihadists beating at the door of the cockpit with whatever comes to hand.
The only weak point is the thankfully brief assay into deeper political debate. The film starts rather hamfistedly with a quote from Gandhi – the one you get first when you google Gandhi quotes – and when Tobias and the youngest terrorist Vedat (Omid Memar) start dialoging the film loses altitude in more ways than one. This isn’t really the point. The film is a procedural thriller with high stakes and an inventive way of going from danger to danger. The political context is more McGuffin than anything else. In fact, it might be the first post-post-9/11 film, in that although relevant the film isn’t really ‘about’ the events of September the 11th.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a revelation in the role. With his boyscout good looks and smirk of the recently satisfied, he is ripe to be tested, but this is no raging American action hero going hellbent against the terrorists. Tobias is a young man given huge responsibilities who must live up to them in an impossible situation. There is sobriety and restraint to the performance and a seriousness that never blows up into melodrama even though the situation would seem to warrant it. In situation that in lesser hands would have veered into vain macho posturing, Gordon-Levitt maintains the grounded reality of his character. So, 7500 is a great debut; an intelligent action movie with some inventive twists and a genuinely stand out performance by its star.