‘Cold Case Hammarskjold’ Review: An Excavation of International Intrigue

Almost nothing seems clear-cut by the end of “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” a controversial new documentary from the Danish journalist Mads Brugger, except maybe this much: On Sept. 18, 1961, a plane carrying Dag Hammarskjold, then the secretary general of the United Nations, crashed near Ndola, in what was at that time Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia.

The crash, initially attributed to pilot error, has long been the source of speculation and conspiracy theories. But if you were to assign a filmmaker to sift fact from conjecture, one of the last people you would trust is Brugger, who has built a career — in movies like “The Red Chapel” and “The Ambassador” — on combining reportage with pranksmanship.

Most documentarians don’t know where their movies are heading while they shoot, and Brugger, our onscreen guide, cops to his fear of not finding a smoking gun. Toward the end, he admits that most of his sillier gambits — he dresses all in white like a Bond villain, dons a pith helmet to dig for the wreckage of Hammarskjold’s plane and hires secretaries to type up his brainstorms for the camera — are for show. “I was hoping this charade would cover up my failures as a journalist,” he says, jokingly.

But such game playing only casts doubt on the seriousness of the conspiracy theory that the movie, apparently in earnest, lays out. After raising provocative questions about the circumstances at the crash site and the condition of Hammarskjold’s body when it was found, Brugger goes down a rabbit hole that leads somewhere else.

The spoiler-wary might want to stop reading here. The movie posits that a secretive organization calling itself the South African Institute for Maritime Research actually consisted of mercenaries. According to Brugger’s star witness, the group’s purpose was to destabilize certain countries. The man also says that the group had an operation to spread H.I.V. to black Africans through vaccines. Scientists who spoke to The New York Times in January after the film’s premiere at Sundance called that claim medically dubious. A closing title card added since the festival acknowledges as much.

Most of the evidence ultimately traces back to two sources. One is a mysterious figure named Keith Maxwell, the head of the nominal maritime research institute (and the inspiration for Brugger’s all-white tailoring). Although we see some documentation, it sounds like Maxwell, who wrote what Brugger describes as a “fictionalized account” of his life, had a penchant for fabulism. Maxwell’s wife, interviewed over the phone by Brugger, says she believes that he was mentally ill in his later years.

The second source is that star witness, a man called Alexander Jones who claims to have worked with the maritime institute. (He is not the infamous Infowars conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, although it is odd that Brugger has rested a film of outlandish claims on the testimony of someone whose name triggers skepticism in American audiences.)

Jones answers Brugger’s leading questions with confirmations and provides little in the way of new information. The Times reported that Jones’s responses evolved over the course of several interviews — something that is not indicated in the film.

To be fair, Brugger warns viewers not to take the movie at face value. “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory,” he says at the beginning.

But “Cold Case Hammarskjold” is finally poised unsatisfyingly between an explosive exposé and a self-conscious put-on. Even a full acceptance of its assertions doesn’t do much to illuminate Hammarskjold’s death. The case may be muddier, but it’s still cold.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Not rated. In English, French, Swedish, Bemba and Danish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

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