Like most films about contending with Islamic terrorists, there’s an ickiness to entertainment value derived from pitting white Westerners against big bad Muslims. Should you be willing to overlook certain intrinsic difficulties, “Held for Ransom” is a surprisingly thoughtful hostage drama given the blunt meatheadedness of its title.
Based on the 2013 kidnapping of the Danish photographer Daniel Rye, who was held hostage by the Islamic State for 398 days, the film takes a holistic approach, drawing its beats from “The ISIS Hostage,” the book by Puk Damsgaard Andersen that first mapped out the journey to Rye’s release.
A zippy opening shows the twist of fate that turned Daniel (Esben Smed), a gymnast, onto photojournalism, prompting a trip to Syria that soon goes awry. Rye’s is an inherently remarkable story involving a brief escape, brutalization at the hands of unbending torturers, and even bittersweet friendships with his fellow detainees — one of whom was James Foley (Toby Kebbell), an American whose beheading was captured on video in 2014.
The filmmakers Niels Arden Oplev (Sweden’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and Anders W. Berthelsen unfold these events with tense ambiguity. Back home in Denmark, Daniel’s family wrestles with a very different kind of beast when they are forced to crowdfund 2 million euros on his behalf despite no real assurance that the people holding him hostage will hold up their end of the bargain. At the same time, a rugged hostage negotiator (Berthelsen) shuffles between the two countries, providing Daniel’s family with slivers of hope.
Most intriguing is the film’s take on the prickly subject of “negotiating with terrorists” when Daniel’s family is denied assistance from the Danish government, which maintains a zero-tolerance policy. The tension of human toll versus ideological principle is conveyed with pathos and acuity. When Daniel finally crosses the border to his freedom, however, the camera jitters with the weight of his trauma — communicating this experience is ultimately the film’s greatest concern.
Held for Ransom
Not rated. In Danish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Vudu and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.