Pioneer (Pionér)

Norway (2013) Dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg

Another “based on true events” film, this one takes us back to the 1980’s when Norway was on the cusp of a massive oil boom that would push the country towards the top of the global GDP table. But, there will always be casualties and collateral damage on the road to prosperity which would be better left undiscovered.

In a co-operative deal between Norway and the US, a diving operation in the North Sea will lay the pipelines some 500 metres down to bring the oil ashore. Of the divers to pass the stringent tests were Norwegian brothers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (André Eriksen), who were sent down in a diving bell with Jørgen (David A. Jørgensen).

Petter and Knut venture out of the bell where a problem the oxygen lines costs Knut his life. Petter demands answers but his American superior Ferris (Stephen Lang) offers only deflection and denial. Sensing a cover up, Petter undertakes his own investigation to reveal the truth, putting his life at risk once again.

For this predominantly fictional tale, Erik Skjoldbjærg delivers a slow building Nordic Noir thriller, complete with shady conspiracies and elaborate attempts made on Petter’s life to scupper his investigation. This challenges the audience’s perception of how much stock we should put in the “based on true events” legend without prior or subsequent research on the subject.

The factual parts, beyond the technical aspects, relate to the deaths of four divers in a decompression chamber in 1983; during a twenty-five year period seventeen men died due to unsafe and untested resurfacing methods. It wasn’t until seven survivors went to the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 due to their resultant ill health that the truth came to light and Norwegian authorities were found guilty of negligence.  

It makes for a fascinating subject but the real meat of the story is in the belated court case and the revelations of this egregious cover-up. Skjoldbjærg presumably saw greater capital in building the drama around the circumstances of the accident then spicing up the conspiracy aspect. From a filmmaking point of view, who can blame him?

A horribly claustrophobic and compact setting opens the film with Petter, Knud, Jørgen and others, including brash American Mike (Wes Bentley) in a compression chamber to determine how far their bodies can be pushed. The invasive handheld camerawork does a convincing job in ensuring no-one watching envies these guys for putting themselves through this.

Some levity is injected into the proceedings when they begin to hallucinate the presence of a seagull but the reality is this is serious business and the financial rewards that wait the selected divers are enticing enough for them to feel richly compensated for whatever hardships they encounter. For unemployed family man Knut this is everything while Petter is a professional offshore diver who simply loves the experience.

One can only assume that the technical details were meticulously researched beforehand as the verisimilitude of the entire testing process suggests, with astute attention paid to the bespoke jargon and the mechanics of the procedures. This extends to the fateful dive itself, a masterly piece of underwater photography, rich in eerie foreboding atmospherics as the luminescent diving bell pierces the icy dark blue aura of the icy nighttime sea.

The only other occasion in which we get to enjoy such lush and iridescent visual comes later in the film when Petter is forced to take a dive to decompress himself after being trapped inside the chamber when his investigation comes too close to yielding results. This scene ends in a particularly chilling moment as Petter’s houseboat is under attack, a viewpoint coming from below the surface.

What jeopardises the enjoyment of the film is the tonal shift from glacial tragedy to fast paced crime thriller, that sees the unassuming Petter – a balding little man with a Hulk Hogan moustache – somehow become a Bond-lite hero capable of outwitting his corrupt bosses by stealing incriminating evidence from under their noses and garner a clandestine support group, some of whom get bumped off for their troubles.

Harming the credibility further is how these people, especially those on the “inside”, risk their own livelihoods by openly telling Petter all he needs to know yet doing nothing to publicly back him up for fear of reprisal. Then there is stroppy Yank Mike, who one minute is complicit trying to kill Petter then the next is begging for his help to clear his own name.

Because Petter is presented to us as an Ordinary Joe thrust into an unfortunate and unpleasant situation, there is a small flicker of being able to relate to this Little Man vs. The System battle, sadly compromised by the Hollywood action hero transformation Peter undergoes. Credit to Aksel Hennie for staying true to Petter’s character under the circumstances and keeping his emotional integrity consistent throughout.

Whether it is a translation issue or not, the Americans are portrayed as the smug, untrustworthy stereotypes their duplicitous actions allude to. Both Wes Bentley as Mike and Stephen Lang’s Ferris have no nuance about them, proving dislikeable from the onset for all the wrong reasons. Leave it to the native talent therefore to carry the performances in support to Hennie’s omnipotence as Petter.

The film’s production values can’t be faulted, especially the underwater cinematography, and Skjoldbjærg directs with passion and precision, projecting a sense that he is making something of great prestige here. It would nice to say he did but with all the hallmarks of a brooding thriller and well meaning revelatory intentions, the parts are unfortunately greater than the sum.

Given the subject matter, Pioneer has a story that deserves to be told and perhaps if the real life incidents were given a direct dramatisation, it might have made it smoother and more focused in execution. Again, not a bad film per se but the potential for what could have been earns it a thumbs in the middle.

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