Saturday, September 04, 2021

Powder Keg: The 2015 Copenhagen Terror Attacks

During the immediate aftermath of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings, the entire world recoiled in horror, rightly believing the principles of civil society were under assault. All that outrage and resolve evaporated in a few weeks, so the similar February 14th and 15th shootings in Copenhagen went troublingly under-reported and under-analyzed. However, they still left a mark on Danish society, especially for director-screenwriter Ole Christian Madsen and co-screenwriter Lars Kristian Andersen, who had worked with one of the victims. They dramatize those hateful crimes and the days immediately preceding them in Powder Keg (a.k.a. The Day We Died), which is now available on VOD.

Rico is a Copenhagen SWAT officer, whose job-related injuries make his continued service uncertain. Dan Uzan is a Jewish-Tunisian immigrant, currently underemployed as a synagogue security guard, because his last name turns off prospective employers. Finn Nørgaard is a documentary producer, who has been motivated to embrace free speech activism by the Charlie Hebdo mass murders. Omar El-Hussein is a Danish-born street-gang thug, radicalized by Islamists in prison, who has been temporarily releases while his unlikely appeal is pending. (It should be obvious which one Madsen and Andersen knew).

It is also pretty clear how their lives will intersect, but the way Madsen and Andersen meticulously weave together the strands is surprisingly riveting. There is an inescapable inevitability to the narrative (in media res framing), but the vibe of high tragedy compensates for the lack of suspense. By far, the real-life characters of Uzan and Nørgaard, as well as the fictionalized composite Rico are much more compelling characters than El-Hussein. The terror-shooter is not portrayed as a cartoony cliché, but the film makes it clear he choses the path of violence and extremism.

We have seen burnt-out cops before, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau brings a lot of depth and flawed humanity to Rico. This really stands out as some of his best work. In contrast, Jakob Oftebro, who is also pretty recognizable from Scandinavian imports like
Kon-Tiki and 1864, is basically along for the ride as his partner Jan.

Lars Brygann portrays Nørgaard with admirable passion, delivering a defense of free speech that a lot of people need to hear (please people, listen to him). Albert Arthur Amiryan is adequately but not spectacularly sinister as El Hussein. However, it is Adam Buschard’s quietly dignified work as Uzan that will really move viewers (prepare to be gut-punched).

When a film about a major terrorist incident comes out with little critical attention, it is a good indication its take on Islamist extremism is pretty level-headed. Such is the case with
Powder Keg. Madsen (probably best known for helming Flame & Citron) humanizes the victims and stages the shooting scenes with bracing intensity. This is an excellent film that should be getting more buzz. It is also thematically appropriate to watch in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities. Very highly recommended, Powder Keg is now available on VOD platforms.