'The Skyjacker's Tale'
‘The Skyjacker’s Tale’ opens like many true crime documentaries tend to. Stylish re-enactments of a crime are cut together with witness testimony discussing the horrors of the day over dramatic music. The crime in question is a 1984 plane hijacking that saw convicted murderer Ishmael Muslim Ali break free from the guards holding him and force his flight to land in Cuba where he could find asylum.
After that, director Jamie Kastner’s film takes a surprisingly different direction. Ishmael Muslim Ali is actually the star of the movie, which mostly comes from his perspective, positing that the story might not be what it seems and Ali might have had a reason for the hijacking scenario. It’s a fun and fascinating doc that asks some big questions without necessarily offering answers and asks viewers to empathize with someone they might easily dismiss.
The jittery movie rarely stays on one story strand or locked within one timeline for long. It bounces around with the whole picture, not coming into focus until somewhere near the end. That’s not to say that this is a scattershot or confusing film. Kastner is just willing to let the story unfold in unconventional means because this is hardly a conventional tale. After being introduced to the skyjacking, the filmmaker dips back to give viewers a chance to get to know Ali. He has a complicated life story to say the least. He was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, fought in Vietnam, and became a Black Panther. He has complex feelings about his native land and is fairly open about his lifelong dance on both sides of the law.
After his time as a soldier that Ali admits sickened and scared him, the man settled into a life of petty crime between bouts of activism. He sold weed and robbed vacationers – not exactly noble pursuits, but not horror stories either. This put him on a police watch list. After a shoot-out massacre on a golf course that killed eight people and wounded many others, the cops went straight for Ali. They assumed he was the ringleader. All of the accused maintained their innocence, yet all were convicted. Confessions were beaten out of mouths in prison and Kastner even gets one witness to recant evidence on camera. This is ugly stuff that the filmmaker handles well, never quite lionizing or demonizing needlessly, just making the injustice clear.
Eventually, we learn that the skyjacking came when Ali was being extradited to a U.S. prison for a crime he didn’t commit (and the guy has no problem admitting to the crimes he did commit). It wasn’t exactly an act of heroism, but it was reasonable. Witnesses admit that Ali was surprisingly polite and understanding about the whole affair. Although he snuck a gun onto the plane in his underwear, he also got the guards escorting him to call his mother when they landed in Cuba. He happily served seven years in Cuba for the hijacking, claiming it was worth the longer and harsher time that he would have spent in prison. It’s a strange story and Ali is a fascinating man. Thankfully, Kastner made a movie worthy of the tale.
The film is stylishly shot and edited with a swift clip. It moves like a thriller while exploring all avenues with the open-minded honesty of investigative journalism. If there are problems, it’s that the film is a little too short and perhaps a little too generous to Ali. However, given what a surprisingly gentle and endearing character that he appears to be, it’s easy to see how the director was seduced by his star. There’s certainly no one else like him and no other film quite like ‘A Skyjacker’s Tale’. Chances are, better documentaries will hit screens over the next year, but few will be this entertaining and enthralling.