7500 is the emergency code for a plane hijacking. Fasten your seatbelts, passengers. This is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride.
Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the American copilot on a flight from Berlin to Paris. He and Michael, the captain (Carlo Kitzlinger) are going through the usual piloty pre-flight rituals: ordering their sandwiches, deciding whether they’ll wait for tardy passengers, saying the word “check” a lot, or, to changed things up, occasionally “checked.” Extremely banal shit is what I’m getting at. The fun in being a pilot is apparently in the strut through the airport. Inside the cockpit it’s mostly just paperwork and hitting the right button for autopilot.
But unluckily for Tobias and Michael, no one titles their movie 7500 and then fails to follow through with hijackers. We know it’s coming, but the waiting is agony. Right up until the improvised glass shiv comes out, Tobias and Michael are having an uneventful day at the office which just happens to be 35000 feet above ground, zipping through the clouds at approximately 900 km/hr. I’m having a worse flight than they are, but that’s because I know the title and they think it’s something like “gawd I can’t wait for the weekend.” I feel a tightness in my chest, anxiety in my breathing. And soon enough, so do they.
Emergencies are why we even bother to have pilots at all. Sort of. The autopilot can fly and land and even handle things like engine blow-outs. And arguably it would do better in situations like this. The cockpit must never be breached. The pilot knows that. He or she knows that her #1 priority in a hijacking/hostage situation is to keep the bad guys out. But there’s a difference between knowing that, training for that, and actually doing it when the hijacker has a knife to a passenger’s throat. Or, let’s say, to the flight attendant’s throat who is secretly your girlfriend/baby mama. The autopilot would have no problem obeying this rule, but human pilots are vulnerable – to fear, to compassion, basically to emotion. Which is both a feature and a bug.
So Tobias is in a pickle. A big fat pickle.
This is not Die Hard. We’re not here to have fun. This entire movie takes place in a cockpit, and very nearly in real time. You can’t actually smell the fear pooling in Tobias’s armpits, but you might think you can, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. This film is intense. So intense I hit pause about 45 minutes in just so I could catch my breath. We are marinating in Tobias’ stress sweat and it is brutally unpleasant. But this is how Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 distinguishes itself from virtually all others in the genre. This is not about action, or heroics. We spend 90 minutes living in a terrified copilot’s shoes. It is neither glamourous nor dignified.
Such is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talent that he’s able to convey concern for his unseen passengers and crew – the way he blinks, the way he breathes, the way he hesitates or doesn’t. We can’t see past the cockpit door, but we think of them, and even of the people in the city down below, asleep in their beds, unaware that a terrorist plans for them to die before they wake. Beyond the opposing forces of the highjacker and the pilot, there is little else. We are meant to feel this event viscerally, painfully. It is unlikely to gain traction as a mindfulness exercise but boy oh boy does it force you to live in the moment.
I like 7500 about as much as I like flying, which is to say, not at all. This is not a movie to be “enjoyed.” But airplanes take you to a new and perhaps exotic location. They take you to places that are exciting and interesting to explore. A vacation allows you to try on a different sort of life for a while. Maybe you enjoy it, maybe you don’t, but either way, travel makes you learn things, about the world and about yourself. And sometimes you don’t have to travel any further than your couch to get there.