It’s late afternoon on the 31st December 1999. A turbulent twenty-something boy, Sebastian (played by Bartosz Bielenia), arms himself with a gun, hijacks a Polish TV studio, and locks himself inside with two hostages: a charming celebrity presenter, Mira (Magdalena Popławska), and an enigmatic security guard, Grzegorz (Andrzej Kłak).
In Prime Time, director and Łódź Film School alumnus Jakub Piątek’s first feature film, spectators are pushed to discover Sebastian’s plan and the motives behind his actions. The boy demands repeatedly to deliver his message via live broadcast and is forced to confront an uncertain police force, formed by an understanding, good-tempered negotiator Piotr (Cezary Kosiński), his rather frantic colleague Lena (Monika Frajczyk), and Ocer (Dobromir Dymecki), a cynical commander who wishes to put an end to the operation as soon as possible to properly celebrate New Year’s Eve. The narrative seems to place its main focus on Sebastian’s troubled past, which slowly emerges in amid the scattered words of the lead character himself, and later his ruthless father, (Juliusz Chrzastowski), who risks to compromise the operation even further.
Yet Prime Time gradually shifts from a conventional hostage film to a psychological drama, where the interactions and dialogues between Sebastian, his captives, the negotiators, the programme’s producer Laura (Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik) and the network’s chairman (Adam Nawojczyk) are part of a continuous role reversal. In particular, Sebastian develops a delicate relationship with his two hostages, led by a well-balanced mix of tension, “Stockholm syndrome-like” solidarity, and genuine perplexity.
The historical context of Poland at the turn of the 21st century, an era where broadcast television was still king, is a vital and urgent backdrop, rendered through the excellent production design and the sporadic addition of authentic archive footage. Poland is seen as a country in continuous transformation, modernising its economy, and radically changing its political axis in a process all narrated by cable TV. Yet that process of democratisation and liberalisation is leaving some parts of society behind — and despite their seemingly glossy sheen, the cable TV shows narrating this new reality seem characterised by passive fruition, and no interaction. This sense of powerlessness, caused by the vertical communication between television and viewers, seems to be the catalyst of Sebastian’s actions — he is neither the villain, nor the hero, but one more person part of a bigger, uncontrollable mechanism.
A second narrative shift takes place in the film’s final third, where the story attempts to emphasise the perverse role of television in making a show out of emotions and human tragedies. Despite its compelling performances and outstanding technical qualities, the weakest aspect of Piątek’s film is its conclusion. In fact, in its final stages, Prime Time seems hesitant in choosing a clear focus between Sebastian’s human crisis and the critical discourse on television. Its ending may appear too abrupt and puzzling. In this case, a more radical choice would have certainly improved the final result.
On the whole, Piątek’s first feature bodes well for the director’s future – even though its narrative potential has not been exploited to the fullest. It is also fair to say that the late 1990s setting does not favour the delivery of the film’s moral on the dangers of disillusionment and alienation — many other films have criticised the impact of television on society before, and done the job beautifully, perhaps most notably Sidney Lumet’s Network in 1976. Nonetheless, the picture represents an interesting contemporary analysis on how “the show must go on” motto leading the world of entertainment remained fundamentally unchanged over the last 20 years. After all, in 2021, we’re still swept up in the power of spectacle, and screens – now significantly smaller — are still ruling our lives.
Prime Time was produced by Jakub Razowski for Warsaw-based Watchout Studio and co-produced by the Polish Film Institute, TVN and Krakow Festival Office. Next Film will distribute the film in Poland.