Captivating, But Not Arresting

In the days before Watergate, kidnappings and hostage-takings used to be the kinds of sensations that were the bread and butter of daily newspapers. Even now, while there are thousands of scandalous skeletons for the dailies to pick out of political closets, the bang-bang cops-and-robbers stuff is still given screaming banner-headline play. The Patricia Hearst affair and the "siege" of Washington's U.S. District Courthouse--where two convicts took eight people hostage in an escape attempt last Thursday--are just the sort of thing publishers like to have around for their front pages.

The reason kidnappings get so much media space obviously has nothing to do with their relative public importance--although there are some exceptions, like George Jackson's attempted escape from San Rafael four years ago. Hostage-taking does possess an element of human drama though, and, as the ancient adage has it, human drama sells newspapers. So for the past few days the dailies have been full of photos of hostages' wives, crying and cringing while waiting for their husbands to be set free from the basement of a Washington courthouse, and reporters have been filling up their dispatches with juicy quotes from the mother of Frank Gorham, one of the convicts. "All my men are gone and nobody seemed to care until this event on Thursday," The Times quoted Mrs. Gorham as saying. "Nobody cares whether I live or die, and I have got a daughter to school. I am human and I am innocent, but I am suffering the consequences."

Of course, the poor woman is perfectly right. Newspapers, chronicles of great leaders and great events, don't pay much attention to innocent people like Mrs. Gorham, at least not until hostages are taken. Chances are good that the press won't care very much about either Gorham a week from now. And that may be part of the problem. In a month people won't remember much of what happened in Washington last week, and they won't understand anything except that some convicts took a few hostages. They won't understand that there were real people with real troubles down in that courthouse basement. The press just won't let them.

As long as newspapers construe their social roles as conduits of sensation, the levels of human sympathy and understanding to be found in them won't be very high. That's too bad, but the situation isn't hopeless. Other media, particularly film, can take the same sort of events newspapers sensationalize and gloss over, and convey some genuine feeling for what goes on in people's minds and hearts. It is a significant and difficult task--especially in a movie industry that is used to milking "real-life human drama" for all the dough it's worth--and it's a task Edouard Molinaro has some success with in his new movie, The Hostages.

The Hostages, which has its American premier tomorrow, recounts an episode that took place in Paris a few years ago, much like the one that began in Washington last Thursday. Though the movie's writers and director have not completely resisted the temptation to fictionalize some of the action, Molinaro's film is true enough to its source material that it has been taken off the French market until the original case goes through its final adjudication.


The basic plot concerns two thieves and an accomplice-wife who take a judge hostage during their trial and use him to make good their bid for freedom. The core of narrative does an adequate job of building suspense (if you don't think too hard about it), and on that score alone the movie will hold your attention--at least for its duration. And although this is a better-than-average thriller, it is not on that level that the movie makes its real impact. Unlike the newspapers, Molinaro gives his characters a past and a future, bringing them alive in all their multi-faceted dimensions, and offering some comprehension of the way things work on the shady side of the street.

Although Molinaro uses actors that are too beautiful to be believed--particularly Bulle Ogier and the amazing-faced Daniel Cauchy--he has not fallen into the trap of romanticizing his criminals. This is no Bonnie and Clyde, and in its sophistication The Hostages is way beyond romantics. Sympathy is not beyond the point, though, and that is exactly the feeling the movie handles so well. Be they crooks or be they cops, people are people, and this is the essential truth that the movie doesn't ignore.

There are two scenes in The Hostages that are especially good and that point up the movie's strong points. One comes when the criminals first leave the courthouse with their hostage and confront the press. The newsmen, seemingly oblivious to the high-strung tension of the moment, point their lights and microphones at the kidnappers, only adding to the tension of the escape and the danger of the whole incident.

The film's second great moment occurs at its end, when the three thieves have made their successful escape and try to learn to live as fugitives. This is no easy life, and Molinaro's actors have caught the desperation and frustration of this un-existence perfectly.

The Hostages is hardly a cinemagraphic masterpiece, even in its portrayals of the human condition. Too many times it descends into pseudo-psychology, and too many pieces of the plot don't fit together. But these shortcomings can and should be overlooked, because as a unit the movie is a wonderful journalistic portrait of three people who are caught up in crime, but who are also much more than criminals.