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Sundance 2021: 'Prime Time' Opts for Low Profile

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Before I begin to look at this movie in depth, I want to acknowledge that it was my most anticipated of the entire festival. Hostage situation? Check. TV studio setting? Check. An up and coming actor who is bound to deliver a great performance? Check. I was psyched for Prime Time, so if you observe any trace of disappointment in this review, know that it’s a byproduct of extraordinarily high expectations.

Poland. New Years Eve, 1999. A cigarette thrown to the side of the road as a low angle shot captures a menacing man scanning a The Raid-style building. Title screen: Prime Time, in thick red lettering. Lettering that tells you “gear up, you’re in for a wild ride.” We meet the actors inside the studio: the elegant but vain reporter woman Mira, the crew in the control booth. A little taste of show business, interlaced with our menacing man, Sebastian, pushing the conquered security guard through the hallways. Is there tension? A little. Although, it should be mentioned that Sebastian is a single man, a skeletal-looking guy, with a gun. He wants to read something live on air. That may seem precarious enough for a whole hostage movie to take place, but I dare say there was more than one opportunity to tame the situation with a little chutzpah. Instead, we watch a ninety minute negotiation, as the character of Sebastian is unraveled through the art of “active listening.”

What I chose to take away from Prime Time, rather than seeing it as a failed nail-biter, was a notion of media demonization. Set against Y2K angst and the final steps of transitioning Poland to democracy, it was director Jakub Piatek’s intention for Sebastian’s true motives to remain unclear. He’s a young guy, he has a lot on his mind, and he’s quite lonely. Of course, it’s natural for any person wielding a gun and threatening people to be assumed as an antagonist by their peers. Thankfully, the term “antihero” exists for our usage. Sebastian is a sympathetic antihero. The movie is not about whether or not he’s volatile, but whether or not the negotiators are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Applying that lens adds a layer of ambiguous justice to the whole matter that makes an anticlimactic progression seem a little more warranted.

Television is a key element of this movie. Piatek mentioned in his post-premiere Q & A that it was necessary for the film to take place during the era it did. Nowadays, you can go live on your phone at any time to share your speech to the world. Twenty years ago, TV was the only broadcasting outlet from which to be heard. Sebastian’s on-brand question to the negotiator sees him wondering about the plight of the Polish people if they watch an average of four hours of TV a day. He asks her, what would she do with those four hours if she had that time back to herself? This sort of fear and criticism of modern society rooted in the lack of human connection seems to be the basis on which to speculate about Sebastian’s message to the public. It is perfect irony that the same weapon he wishes to use to share his sermon will no doubt come back to abuse him.

Bartosz Bielenia is beyond remarkable in his follow-up to Corpus Christi as the glassy-eyed loose cannon Sebastian. Every single twitch in his gaunt face is perceptible, and he sheds genuine tears like it's a hobby. If you choose to examine the movie as a character study rather than a thriller, you are likely to appreciate the onslaught of conversation a great deal more. There are some creative moments that are amplified by the use of the multiple screens of the control room: the main action coincides with the counting down to the New Year or an orchestral performance. There’s even a Breakfast Club-esque moment that provides a nice contrast to the film’s most winning scene, its brutal end.

Prime Time didn’t quite make it big, but it’s a feature film worthwhile debut and it certainly propels the star power of Bielenia. Check it out if you can fit it into your program.



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