'Cold Case Hammarskjöld' film review: Chilling, gripping & oddly charming trip down a conspiracy rabbit hole
An all-but-forgotten plane crash that killed a United Nations secretary quickly unfolds a vast conspiracy to control the future of Africa in the mystery-documentary "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" (opening in additional cities Aug. 23).
Right from the outset, "Hammarskjöld" sets the expectation that this is not merely a cut-and-dry investigation into a international incident - but rather, the documentary is quite forthright with its basic conspiratorial direction. Strap on that tin foil hat folks, because the initially straightforward question of "what really happened" pretty rapidly escalates in scope and scale. "Hammarskjöld" starts with a simple question - "did someone assassinate a UN General Secretary?" - but gets sucked down a rabbit hole of parallel and equally unbelievable conspiracies.
The conventional take on this type of mystery would be a straightforward investigation of the incident that would use some talking head interviews, some archival images and just lay out the facts. But "Hammarskjöld" has a meta-awareness to it, effectively splitting the film along two tracks: the investigation, and writer-director Mads Brügger explaining how the investigation unfolded. Usually having someone just explain what is happening is a just a cardinal sin of storytelling - but honestly, this investigation itself takes on such a crazy life of its own so quickly, involving so many shady characters and moving parts that Brügger's narration helps keep the sprawling conspiracy relatively easy to track and manageable.
But perhaps the oddest aspect of "Hammarskjöld" is its very subtle sense of humor. While the conspiratorial tone pervades the entire film that hints at murder and medical experiments, Brügger injects moments of odd, surprising levity. Watching a pair of older men - wearing pith helmets to protect their Scandanavian skin - just start hopelessly start digging in a field with cartoonishly small shovels is ridiculous.
At some point, the investigation does seem to lose focus of its initial goal: cracking the Hammarskjöld plane crash. As Brügger and his partner descend further and further down the rabbit hole of the group or groups who may have wanted Hammarskjöld dead, the film becomes more focused on other entities and their agendas. And to the film's credit, even the filmmakers themselves notice this and get the film back on track.
Don't expect to find definitive, damning evidence either way. The filmmakers follow a lot of leads and make some shocking, creepy discoveries - but there's no smoking gun. And this kind of the point. You either take interviewees at their word or you don't. "Hammarskjöld" itself encapsulates conspiracy theory culture: wherein obsessed people discover a mountain of evidence ... chilling evidence comprised of hearsay or unverifiable conjecture.
Final verdict: Utterly engrossing and oddly, quietly funny and keenly edited, "Hammarskjöld" achieves all its goals: it spins a yarn about a wildly all-encompassing conspiracy, sucks the audience in with some crazy twists and maintains a peculiar sense of humor that hums quietly in the background.
"Cold Case Hammarskjöld" screened during the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival and opens in additional select cities Aug. 23. This documentary-mystery is unrated and has a running time of 128 minutes.