In 2013, Daniel Rye, a Danish photographer in his mid-twenties, went to Syria to document the plight of civilian refugees and was kidnapped by ISIS. Ransomed and held captive for 13 months, Rye was psychologically and physically tortured, starved and beaten by his captors, first on his own and then alongside several other international hostages, among them U.S. journalist James Foley.
This is the inherently dramatic true story told in Puk Damsgaard Andersen’s book “The ISIS Hostage,” but it takes intelligence and paradoxical restraint from directors Niels Arden Oplev (Sweden’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Anders W. Berthelsen, as well as a superb, exceptionally physical lead performance from Esben Smed, to adapt it into “Daniel,” a polished, moving, muscular thriller that never exploits or simplistically reduces its real-life horrors for entertainment value. Partly, the balance between gritty, true-life fidelity and pacy, exciting storytelling is achieved because in Rye, to whom Eric Kress’ warm, compassionate camera clings so doggedly, we have such a sympathetic, human protagonist.
A promising gymnast whose hazy future plans are dashed by a career-ending injury, Daniel (Smed) is introduced drifting in that relatably twentysomething way. In elegant, clipped scenes of domestic life in small-town Denmark, the film shows him quietly indulged by his parents (Jens Jørn Spottag and Christiane Gjellerup Koch), snarked at by his brusque elder sister Anita (Sofie Torp) and supported by his steadfast girlfriend Signe (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). But it’s not until he takes a job as a photographer’s assistant and goes to Somalia on assignment that he starts to find direction.
“This is what I want to do with my life,” he declares on the phone to Signe, looking dreamily out over the Mogadishu coastline as a gang of kids play football silhouetted against the setting sun. Immediately after he gets back to Denmark, he is planning a trip to Syria.
Daniel clearly feels some sort of vocational pull toward this war-ravaged region, but Smed plays his idealism as both noble and foolhardy, as if puppyish enthusiasm and good-natured intentions could ever be reason enough for a lanky blonde millennial Dane to assume he’s invulnerable to the dangers of an intractable conflict in a place he’s never visited before, with what seems like exactly one word of Arabic — “Shukran” (“Thank you”) — in his repertoire. And once he and his local guide Aya (Sofia Asir) stumble unknowingly into an area now under the control of extremists and are taken at gunpoint, Smed is particularly impressive embodying Daniel’s dawning understanding at just how little he understands, and just how little his peaceable, white, Western European upbringing has prepared him for this.
There are some similarities with Tobias Lindholm’s excellent “A Hijacking,” particularly in the decision to split the narrative between the hellish hostage experience and the ongoing discussions at home over how to bring him back. But in Anders Thomas Jensen’s finely calibrated script, the back-in-Denmark sections are given added emotive heft by focusing on Rye’s family, caught so helplessly between the unaffordable, escalating ransom demanded by Daniel’s captors, and the Danish government’s refusal to assist with fundraising in any way. It’s rare to see the human cost of a government’s policy of “not negotiating with terrorists” — however much one might agree with that principle — portrayed so acutely.
These two strands are woven together in the character of Arthur (played by co-director Berthelsen), a kind of crusading middleman between the terrorists and the families and governments of the kidnapped prisoners. He is negotiating with the ISIS leadership for the release of both Daniel and James Foley (Toby Kebbell), without knowing that the two are being held in the same facility, and have become friends. The intense cruelty of the terrorist cell led by the infamous “Jihadi John” (Amir El-Masry) is unsparingly (yet not overly graphically) depicted. But it does serve to amplify the solidarity and mutual supportiveness that grows between the imprisoned men, in particular the sickly, broken Daniel, the spirited, unflagging James and French gallows humorist Jeremy (Samuel Brafman-Moutier).
Without their moments of levity, accompanied by Johan Söderqvist’s glimmering, hopeful score, “Daniel” could be a relentlessly harrowing experience, especially for those aware of how at least some of these stories must end. But with Oplev and Berthelsen’s engrossing yet sensitive and respectful direction, it instead has the pummeled body of a bruising incarceration thriller but the heart of a moving family drama, one that even earns its final transformation into a graceful tribute to a life-saving friendship and a fallen friend.