Prime Time has a taut (if familiar) hostage-situation setup, but its dogged refusal to flesh out any of its characters or make a larger point leave it feeling like much ado about nothing.
Prime Time, now streaming on Netflix, is a copy of a copy, a hostage thriller emulating everything from Dog Day Afternoon to Money Monster but forgetting one essential ingredient. The Polish film, from director and co-writer Jakub Piatek, is about an aggrieved young man who takes over a Krakow TV studio on the turn of the new millennium to deliver a live statement to the world – but the contents of that statement, and indeed anything about the young man, are details that are left unexplored throughout. Without them, Prime Time is a nifty exercise in suspense, but not much of a movie.
We know the man’s name, at least – Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia). We know it’s New Year’s Eve, 1999, and that Y2K paranoia is gripping a nation terrified by the prospect of some impending calamity. We know that his hostages are security guard Grzegorz (Andrzej Klak) and long-time on-air personality Mira (Magdalena Poplawska). Oh, and we know he’s got a gun. These are all things we learn in the first 20-or-so minutes, and they’re the only things we know by the end.
It’s annoying to have everything about a film and its characters be explained to the audience in insultingly obvious detail, but it turns out it’s quite frustrating to have nothing at all explained either. We can infer that Mira is an old hand at the station and is on the cusp of being replaced. We can guess, mostly thanks to an ill-advised appearance from Sebastien’s father (Juliusz Chrzastrowski), that he comes from an impulsive, not particularly pleasant, and obviously dysfunctional family. He may or may not lead a “sick lifestyle”, which could mean just about anything.
Without a concrete understanding of what Sebastien is up to, what has driven him to this point, and what he hopes to achieve by such drastic actions, it’s impossible to empathize with him. It’s impossible to draw parallels between him and any other characters or the Polish people depicted in a frenzy on the news. We care what he has to say – he has his speech written down on several pages of notepaper – and then never get to hear him say it. This is, inarguably, the point. But simply making a point doesn’t mean you have a good one.
At least Prime Time excels in crafting a taut setup, even if it never pays any of it off. There aren’t too many characters to juggle, and the few who’re present on the disused old TV soundstage where the film is shot are serviced by capable performances. Bielenia is the twitchy standout, and the fact that veteran producer Laura (Malgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik) and various police negotiators and officials (Monika Frajczyk, Cezary Kosinski, Dobromir Dymecki) can’t pull the wool over his eyes gives him a slightly threatening intelligence, despite how flustered he is. But it all amounts to very little in the end.