The Swedish journalist-turned-documentarian Mads Brugger lacks Michael Moore’s sense of mischief, Frederick Wiseman’s momentous craftsmanship and Werner Herzog’s flair for the eccentric.
Brugger tries to blend these three styles into his third feature, “Cold Case Hammarsjkold,” a smug and self-indulgent examination of the former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarsjkold and his death in a 1962 plane crash in what is now Zambia, Africa.
The movie jumps from one target to another, herded into conspiracy theories: The plane was shot down by a mercenary pilot; operatives from the Congo planted a bomb aboard the plane; Hammarsjkold was marked for execution because of his anti-colonial beliefs.
Having built a fairly strong circumstantial case, Brugger abruptly turns toward the camera and tells us that he isn’t really interested in the plane crash or its celebrated victim, that it’s just a means of covering up his failings as a journalist.
Brugger follows this big tease with an even bigger conspiracy theory fashioned around the notion that a secret organization was, at the time of the plane crash, plotting to spread the AIDS virus across Africa by means of a phony vaccine to kill blacks and restore white colonial domination.
The movie introduces Hammarsjkold as a crusader for peace. We hear President Kennedy eulogizing him as “one of the greatest statesman the world has ever known.” A few moments later, Brugger characterizes him as “a goofball right out of a 1930s screwball comedy.”
Brugger’s stunts illuminate at first, then they infuriate and ultimately insult. At the start of the movie he dresses all in white, like a James Bond villain, claiming it brings him closer in spirit to “the real villain of the piece” — a mysterious man allegedly behind the AIDS plot, also dressed in white, seen only in a photograph. Brugger dons a white pith helmet, the hated symbol of white colonial power in Africa, to search for the plane in the desert.
Some of this material holds our interest from scene to scene, but Brugger’s gimmicky presentation undermines the narrative’s integrity. He dictates his story to two different secretaries, both played by young black actresses, and then says he cast them to prove he is not a racist. His journalism practices leave much to be desired. In several scenes, he is shown talking on the phone to a woman claiming to be the widow of the mastermind, but he is never seen verifying her claim.
The movie is at its most fascinating when Brugger, assisted by private investigator Goran Bjorkdahl, comes full circle and tries to link the fatal plane crash to the AIDS virus plot. In its own loony way, the blending of the two conspiracy theories makes sense, and for a few moments the movie achieves an eerie poignancy.
But then the final title cards explain that Brugger’s discoveries cannot be conclusively substantiated and that his work yielded precious little new information about Hammarsjkold’s death. And we’re left to wonder what it all means.