Jakub Piątek’s tense feature debut, Prime Time, is a smart hostage drama that sidesteps — or subtly reinterprets — some of the genres cliches, and showcases another finely-tuned performance from Corpus Christi’s Bartosz Bielenia. Nevertheless, the film’s ambiguity robs it of the energy to make it particularly memorable, aside from a brutal closing sequence.
In Prime Time, Piątek’s camera sweeps through the chaos of a Polish TV station preparing for a 1999 New Year’s Eve broadcast, capturing the anticipation of a new millennium. There’s also nervous energy to Sebastian (Bielenia) as he approaches the TV station’s building. Forcing his way inside, the character uses a gun to take host Mira (Magdalena Poplawska) and security guard Grzegorz (Andrzej Kłak) hostage, demanding to be put live on air to deliver a message.
Prime Time is at its most energetic and engaging during the early scenes; a setup familiar enough for any viewer of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon or the many films he inspired. Piątek’s production starts to deviate by upending what may seem like a narrative twist on Lumet’s 1976 classic Network. Rather than putting Sebastian on-air and gripping the nation in a morally dubious move, the authorities do everything in their power to prevent his voice from being heard.
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The police arrive and attempt to take control of the situation, beginning the most pervasive of Prime Time’s central ideas: the bumbling incompetence and empty ideas of those who hold the reins of power. Sebastian frequently fiddles with his papers containing his scribbled message, but he is denied a chance, at multiple points, to deliver it. That barrier does not come through skilled negotiation and expectation management by the TV station or police, but through thunderous blunders to which Sebastian, in turn, struggles to respond.
As Prime Time first settles into a rhythm between Sebastian, Mira and Grzegorz on the studio floor, some complementary ideas are developed. In the opening scene, Mira’s haughty indifference to her colleagues echoes her superiors’ later indifference to her welfare at gunpoint; a logical extrapolation of the casual disdain she shows to her supposed inferiors at the start. Further, the single location highlights how those in power compartmentalise grievances and hush voices of objection. The studio control room’s hamfisted attempts show powerful figures are often not there by virtue of skill, understanding or insight, but merely luck or accidental privilege (including Sebastian’s father).
Unfortunately, the script’s lower-key nature as this mid-section rumbles on allows that coarse Lumet-like energy from the beginning to seep away. To an extent, the diffusing energy can be seen as symbolic of the seemingly logical conclusion of Sebastian’s ill-conceived plan. Still, Piątek and Lukasz Czapski’s script struggles to re-energise Prime Time as it progresses.
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Prime Time re-energizes itself with a brutal resolution, albeit a bit too late, as the ending hammers home the helplessness and silence Sebastian seems to endure, resulting in a spectacle. The period trappings of the analogue 1990s setting cannot distract from the fact Piątek’s film seems to that hint little has changed in the digital age.
Jim Ross (@JimGR) is a film critic and film journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TAKE ONE Magazine, which began as the official review publication of the Cambridge Film Festival and now covers film festivals and independent film worldwide. Jim hosted a fortnightly film radio show on Cambridge 105FM from 2011-2013 and joined the crew of Cinetopia, on Edinburgh community radio EH-FM, in 2019.