Eleven months of Groundhog Day. Every morning waking up and missing your father, not absent by his own will, but held somewhere in the Colombian mountains by guerillas. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, kidnapping was a cottage industry for Colombian cartels and revolutionaries alike—big business that developed its own economy, professionals and best practices. When Miles Hargrove’s father, Thomas, was kidnapped in 1994 by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, now a legal and registered Marxist political party), it was a traumatic blow but not a wholly unexpected one. They could adapt, learn the rules of the waiting game and play it out. And Hargrove was filming all the while. His father’s kidnapping is documented with vigorous intimacy and authenticity in Hargrove’s Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad, assembled from home movie footage and unpacking kidnapping as a financial, communal part of life.
Don’t let its clunky title fool you: Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad might be on Discovery+, but it has nothing to do with the dangers of extreme fishing. It’s also a much better movie than its TV-oriented streaming home or strange title might have you believe. It’s true crime done right, blending that sense of ogling fascination you get when understanding the procedural details of a criminal act with the dramatic empathy developed through its documentary framing. And this doc does some things right out the gate that separate it from most of its genre contemporaries: Miracle Fishing never cheapens things like human life for suspense (you hear Hargrove’s father speaking in voiceover early on, assuring you that this story does indeed have some kind of happy end) and focuses its structure on the nuts and bolts of the family’s negotiation reality. Director/editor Hargrove’s closeness to the material steers it away from tasteless decisions, though it can also lead to a jumble of odds and ends cluttering the story simply because they’re friends of the family.
While we don’t need asides from every acquaintance or well-wisher that stopped by (nor such an extended introductory portrait of the family’s globetrotting), they contribute to the film’s public spirit. So too does the very aesthetic of the film. The quality and quantity of home video footage—relatable in its shaky, in-your-face closeness and ubiquity—and the surreal serendipity of a kidnapping victim’s kid going through a camcorder phase cobbles together a more personal portrait than any news story could accomplish. The community effort that a kidnapping becomes, with neighbors pitching in while a local college kid—a friend moonlighting as a negotiator—and stateside relatives help with everything from securing untappable telecommunication equipment to actually speaking with the FARC kidnappers. Weaving what was actually shot with voiceover (recorded in hindsight a quarter of a century later) reveals the intersection between extraordinary circumstances and the human desire to keep on keeping on—something that should especially resonate with contemporary viewers.
Hargrove and company throw in a few overly stylish trappings like a hokey on-screen definition of “kidnapping” to open things up, but these and the other visibly cinematic bells and whistles mostly and quickly disappear. In the film’s strongest moments, even voiceover cuts down to the bare minimum. Once these familiar flourishes fade, Miracle Fishing’s purity is in its depiction of time and process. We watch as smiles sag, goatees grow, children sprout and prices shrink over the long and harrowing duration of the negotiation. Watching the business dealings spar back and forth while a life hangs in the balance is one thing. Watching the sense of humor of those around it—joking that the proof of life question that should’ve been asked of the victim was the date of his anniversary, something he wouldn’t get right—is a jarring confrontation of coping mechanisms and collective strength. The family’s surface morale stays mostly high throughout, barring one wrenching near-break from Hargrove’s mother, so the real way to observe the kidnapping’s emotional effects is in the candid camcorder images.
Some crackling editing and Hargrove’s addiction/devotion to filming seemingly everything around him (speaking of coping mechanisms) pieces together elegant little snapshots of the main players of the case, observed both hiding ransom money in wooden pallets and posing a sleeping dog with a beer bottle. The expert juxtaposition of the mundane and the unimaginable give the film a magnetism, a buzzing heightened reality caused by the motion of these opposites. In this environment, focusing on either extreme makes for compelling cinema. The dinner parties are engrossing, while seeing the young family members’ foray into the robust kidnapping economy—where professional negotiators, consultants, drop men and drivers all have their place alongside the criminals—makes spy movie thrills pale in comparison. Some questions and details go unanswered or intentionally obscured (the money and connections involved boggle the mind), but the organic feeling of the film’s twists, developments and “oh, shit” moments emphasize the storytelling acumen of its curators.
Miracle Fishing succeeds at developing a sense of awe, of depicting an on-the-ground account of a successful kidnapping negotiation (for both victims and kidnappers) and at mostly keeping the proceedings bracingly straightforward. There are certainly weak spots like the score, which, like much documentary music, is overwrought and pushes perfectly good images into parodic levels of melodrama. But the film’s ability to capture anxiety and despair, without compromising realism or changing the fact that we know Thomas Hargrove was recovered alive, is a testament to Miles Hargrove’s abilities as an editor and his compulsive documentation of this event. After a rocky start, Miracle Fishing is a gripping journey featuring one of the first great documentary moments of the year.
Directors: Miles Hargrove
Release Date: March 25, 2021 (Discovery+)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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