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Negotiating Potential Hazards: The Art of Movie Negotiation…

I’m kinda looking forward to Man on a Ledge, if only because it looks like the sort of high-concept thriller that could be fascinating viewing – I’m hoping for something similar to Phone Booth or Buried or other movies that take a fairly simple situation and centre a thriller around it. I’m a sucker for a good negotiation thriller. There’s something about that sort of film that just intrigues me. Whether it’s a hostage situation, a botched bank robbery or something else entirely, I think that those kinds of movies that manages to combine large-scale epic drama with a more intimate personal conflict. I think that’s a dynamic that’s somewhat hard to mess up, there’s just something inherently compelling about such a small-scale interaction with such large-scale consequences that it’s very hard not to get sucked up in the drama of it all.

High stakes game...

Man on a Ledge is the latest in these types of films. With a wonderful “exactly what it says on the cover” title that ensures nobody will ever be confused about the subject matter, the film sees Sam Worthington playing a former cop. You can guess where he ends up. As he stands over the city of New York threatening to jump, Elizabeth Banks (who is continuing to extend her dramatic range) and Ed Burns (who I quite liked in 15 Minutes) play the NYPD negotiators tasked with talking Worthington back from the edge.

It’s interesting to look at the history of negotiation in popular cinema, if only because there’s a level of recursion to be found in it. The use of negotiators in law enforcement is a surprisingly recent development, apparently only inspired after a New York City bank robbery went horribly wrong, resulting in a fourteen-hour stand-off between the hostage takers and the authorities. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that robbery provided the basis of Dog Day Afternoon, the Sydney Lumet movie featuring Charles Durning as the police officer dealing with Al Pacino’s befuddled bank robber.

One hell of an afternoon...

Amazingly, it was this incident that led to the establishment of specific negotiating task forces, with trained personel working within them:

“Those incidents, and the Attica prison riots the year before, were a wake-up call,” says [FBI Agent Gary] Noesner. “Law enforcement across the county began programs based on the one in New York. Before that, crises were handled by whoever showed up first.”

That’s a daunting thought. However, this gets a bit more fascinating because Lumet’s much-lauded drama is actually used at Quantico to illustrate effective negotiation techniques, lending the whole thing a nice almost circular quality. The actual incident sparked the creation of these specialised taskforces, while the movie serves as a handy guide.

However, even if we branch into less realistic portrayals of that dynamic, there’s still something gripping about the interaction, where both parties are clearly at the brink. It’s the sort of high-tension drama that writes itself. It’s one of those core scenarios where both sides of the equation have a tremendous amount riding on their ability to communicate with one another. That’s a lot of dramatic heft to put on a conversation, and – in most case – you get even more weight because these are two people who have never met before. That’s a powerful hook, right there: two individuals who never met before, and now have absolutely everything depending on this one extended interaction.

Aggressive negotiation...

It’s easy to see why this sort of scenario has become something of a Hollywood favourite. In fact, if you ask anybody to list off their favourite movies or their favourite scenes, you’ll inevitably come down to something resembling a negotiation. Two characters, dancing around each other, every interaction laced with deeper subtext and meaning, trying to get a read on one another. The weight on each character is practically overwhelming – the subject has their own future in the balance, while the negotiator finds themselves often managing the lives of completely innocent people. (Often third parties.)

For extra dramatic oomph, you’ll often find the negotiator sharing intimately personal secrets with the hostage-taker or criminal in an attempt to foster trust. Nevermind that it’s the type of thing that most real-life negotiators would advise you strongly against, it makes for a nice dramatic moment, carrying over the rich idea that these two people on the opposite end of the line actually have much more in common than the situation would suggest. There’s powerful dramatic irony in the idea that two people can share more intimate secrets with an anonymous voice than with a friend or relative.

This needs a trained negotiator...

That’s why you’ll see Forrest Whitaker sharing his marital difficulties with Colin Farrell in Phone Booth, even though the conversation should be focused on the man with the gun at the payphone. Similarly, that’s why the remake The Taking of Pelham 123 features a former train operator rather than an experienced negotiator dealing with the hostage-takers on the subway. There’s a sense the two characters come an understanding with one another, despite the fact they’ve never met before.

The idea is to present these relationships as somewhat co-dependent. While real-life hostage scenarios feature law enforcement officers who are carefully trained to maintain the upper hand and to develop the relationship in a manner that suits the resolution of the crisis, movies will frequently avoid that sort of situation. After all, it’s hardly the most tense situation to watch an officer going through a familiar playbook – there’s never any real sense of danger if the negotiator is the one driving the situation completely. I think the best negotiating dramas add another layer on top of that, an attempt to destabilise that dynamic, to make it feel a bit uncertain and a bit uncomfortable.

Food for thought...

In Inside Man, it’s very clear that Clive Owen’s hostage-taker has a much better read on the situation than Denzel Washington’s police negotiator. The Negotiator features Samuel L. Jackson as an experienced negotiator who finds himself resorting to hostage-taking, so there’s an extra layer of complexity added there – Jackson’s character knows the rulebook, so both participants are at least on equal footing. Indeed, Die Hard brilliantly plays off that situation, with two negotiators who know how to handle a situation like this, and a terrorist who knows that they know (and uses it to his advantage).

Hell, I’d even consider the conversations between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector in the celebrated Silence of the Lambs to count as one of the best negotiations in cinema. Starling is looking for information to save the life of a young woman, but who has no real leverage to draw the information from Lector… because there’s nothing she can really offer him. As a result, the conversations between the two are immensely personal. “People will say we’re in love,” the cannibal observes. And, if you read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, maybe you’d agree with them.

A narrowing window of opportunity?

I think that the appeal of these sorts of drama is the wonderful contradiction at their core, the fact that the manage to offer that sort of one-on-one conversation that is the core of good character work, in a situation that invites spectacle and tension. Really, I think that’s the best of both worlds. It’s hard to think of another character set-up that accomplishes that same combination.

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