This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all movies, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
One glance at this move’s Netflix page and you may think you have it figured out; a movie about a lone gunman invading a TV studio, holding people hostage until they allow him to go live on New Year’s Eve 1999. For better or worse, you’d be wrong. Prime Time is a time capsule, trying to give viewers a glimpse into how the millennium started for the Polish people in their homeland, through the lens of this entertaining, drama-thriller setup. This is not that Joker scene made into a full movie, this is not a modern-day Network or Kings of Comedy; this is closer to something like The Sunset Limited rather than anything else. It’s a conversation piece, a character and place study, which will make a lot of people bored, but that idea is infinitely more interesting to me so I had a good time with it. It’s not perfect and it has a lot of issues with pacing (despite its short 90-minute runtime), but it creates a conversation that is worth having and that is more than most movies can do.
Directed by Jakub Piatek and starring Bartosz Bielenia (of Corpus Christi fame), Prime Time follows Sebastian as he storms a live recording of a New Year’s Eve competition and takes the host Mira and security guard Grzegorz hostages, demanding the channel to go live to broadcast his message. While at first sight this might seem as a standard thriller where the antagonist starts becoming sympathetic and more dangerous as his demands are delayed, the movie clearly is more interested in its setting: Poland on the gasp of the new millennium. As the viewer, we watch both the hostage situation and the efforts of the police to stop it from the control room where they can speak with Sebastian; while in that control room, the movie will take purposeful brakes to show what the TV channels are broadcasting to the country. Sometimes it’s the grand concert for New Year’s Eve or the President’s address towards the people – talking about opportunities and embracing the hard-working people who shaped Poland – while on other screens there are interviews with youth talking about how they want to leave the country or miners going on strike. That contrast of TV showing a grand Poland alongside a desperate one is what is central to this story. Figuring out where Sebastian stands on this issue, his family dynamics, his backstory, and the reasons why he wants to be on TV, are more important to the movie than any set pieces of Police breaking in or a less stimulating showing of “good vs evil”.
These interests can only become interesting in one way: A good script portrayed excellently by the actors. Prime Time does that well enough. Bielenia’s leading performance is outstanding throughout; he starts off as sinister, a man who’s beyond his limits and there’s no telling what he’ll do. As the story progresses to more societal issues, so does his performance; he knows what he’s doing is wrong and he knows the consequences, but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone and he just wants to be seen on TV, before coming face to face with the barriers and obstacles that have stopped him for all his life once again. He has a lot to work with as well; the writing is natural and evocative of the situations and themes the movie wants to explore, so the actors are giving top-notch performances that blend well with the overall mood of the story.
This is where the movie starts to hit the major roadblocks though; while the subjects and social issues are very interesting, the in-story plot is not and does not escalate accordingly. There are ample opportunities for the Police to storm the studio and the stakes don’t really change throughout; that would be less of an issue if there was a deadline or one of the police officers was pushing for a violent resolution to the situation. Instead, it feels like the Police are dragging the story out, while Sebastian (as an antagonist) starts becoming an empty threat – a loud bark from a small dog. This is one of those situations where the movie wants you to feel like Sebastian is really smart and reacts to the threats accordingly, but it never felt like that; it repeats over and over that Sebastian is smart, because his actions don’t tell the same story.
Lastly, Prime Time makes some interesting decisions regarding how ambiguous it is. Grzegorz being too calm about the whole thing and the ending are perfect illustrations of this and where it succeeds and fails. Grzegorz has a reason to act like he does, but it does feel off-place to have that important detail (since it is something referred to throughout the first act) be open to interpretation; it also makes that character more interesting and allows the movie to showcase other traits in a more interesting way. For example, his bravery is something explored in this way with a lot of interesting choices and how it evolves as his relationship and sympathy for Sebastian rises. The ending is also an interesting choice that fails and succeeds at the same time; it is ambiguous for the most important detail, which worked for me, but it also left me feeling empty and devoid of an actual resolution. That may be intentional, but it is also something a proper ending avoids, even if that is the experience it wants to give to viewers; an ambiguous ending or a resolution that wants people to feel vanity for the situation, when done properly, never really lets audiences feeling empty. There’s also a really weird scene that felt out of place right in the middle of the movie whose purpose of showcasing the tiredness (both physically and mentally) of the characters was achieved, but in the weirdest, ‘out-of-left-field’ way possible.
Overall, Prime Time is a GOOD movie; Piatek’s (director and co-writer) feature-length debut shows promise of a talented director who understands the medium and its strengths (although his visual work was not as impressive), while Bielenia leads an all-round great cast that give the good parts of the script the proper commitment and performance they required. It doesn’t translate to an actually interesting base-layer story and people will find its slow pace and low stakes to be boring, but I enjoyed taking a peek at a country’s history in that moment and exploring some of the characters.