“A renaissance for international terrorism” is among the archival newscast quotes used to set the scene in the opening credits of “6 Days” — a true-life hostage thriller methodically tracking the 1980 siege of London’s Iranian Embassy by Iranian Arab militants. The unhappy irony, of course, is that few viewers would be able to identity any particular era from that soundbite, and Toa Fraser’s lean, cleanly assembled dramatization is in its own way resistant to historical specifics: Shot and styled in contemporary, ticking-clock action fashion, it compresses the complex Theatcher-era politics of its fractious standoff into a simplified West-versus-Middle-East conflict that registers as broadly topical.
Technically smart but dramatically a bit flat — with a triangulated multi-view structure that gives stars Mark Strong, Jamie Bell and Abbie Cornish minimal room to flex — “6 Days” establishes Fraser’s credentials as a viable handler of mainstream genre fare, but comes as something of a disappointment after the livelier exploits of his rollicking Maori adventure “The Dead Lands.” Following limited theatrical exposure, it is likeliest to find an audience through home-viewing channels: Generations who watched firsthand the landmark BBC reporting on the crisis, here honored by way of Cornish’s casting as gutsy newswoman Kate Adie, will be most interested in the film’s mildly pumped-up interpretation.
Younger or less informed viewers, however, won’t take long to figure out the essentials of the situation, as detailed subtitles in the film’s opening beats introduce key names, responsibilities and locations — lending the film a veneer of docu-style thoroughness without calling on Glenn Standring’s pared-back script to do much in the way of ground-laying or character introduction. Indeed, “6 Days” gets down to business with swift, cool-headed economy: Its opening minutes depict the violent takeover of the Iranian Embassy in London’s upscale Kensington district by six gunmen from Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan, with 26 hostages taken in the process. Scored by Lachlan Anderson and David Long to low, surging synths and stabs of percussion, this nervy, unfussy sequence remains the film’s most impressive.
The terrorists, however, barely come into focus after this agitated introduction, their individual identities skimmed over while their nuanced cause — a campaign for Arab sovereignty in Iran’s Khuzestan Province — is outlined in shorthand. Instead, Standring’s script rotates the perspectives of three unconnected British participants in the fracas: Max Vernon (Strong), the police inspector charged with leading the hostage negotiations; Rusty Firmin (Bell), a lance corporal in the SAS military team waiting in the wings should more peaceful negotiating tactics fail; and Adie, the brave public face of the story for viewers at home, but not a figure for which the film ever finds a clear narrative purpose — though the petty squabbling between rival reporters on the sidelines provides the film’s few moments of levity.
Strong’s anxious, one-on-one telephone exchanges with chief terrorist Salim (a fine Ben Turner) providing the dramatic meat of the film, though they’re hardly kinetic. Perhaps with this in mind, Fraser and Standring attempt to spike the film’s action quotient by sporadically cutting to Firmin and his fellow soldiers as they perform a series of warehouse practice-run ambushes, though it’s a questionable tactic. Without the human stakes of the live situation, there’s a whiff of padding to these scenes; moreover, they risk undercutting the urgency of the military’s climactic real-life invasion at (in case you hadn’t guessed) the six-day mark.
Nevertheless, this heart-in-mouth finale is executed with tight, focused clarity of movement by Fraser and editors Dan Kircher and John Gilbert: Many a bigger-budget blockbuster would reduce such a climax to a murky muddle of grunts, gunfire and fast cuts. Aaron Morton’s handsome lensing, meanwhile, resists the standard grainy-beige aesthetic of such period pieces, instead bathing much of the action in sleek, counterintuitive shades of aquamarine — correctly gauging the slightly clinical sangfroid of the entire enterprise.