Did you ever see “Dog Day Afternoon”? That 1975 Academy Award-winning movie starring Al Pacino dramatizes a real-life hostage situation that occurred in Brooklyn in 1972. It’s extremely good.
In its very different way, “Hold Your Fire” is extremely good, too. Stefan Forbes’s compelling and revelatory documentary recounts another real-life hostage situation that occurred in Brooklyn, just months after the one that inspired “Dog Day.” The crucial difference between the two is that the one in “Hold Your Fire” effectively marks the start of police forces using hostage negotiations.
As a New York police captain says in the film, “Out of tragedy, amazingly, this was the birth of hostage negotiations.” So while the incident was itself remarkable — the standoff lasted 47 hours — it’s even more remarkable for its historical significance.
“Hold Your Fire” is playing at the Capitol Theatre, in Arlington, and is available on multiple streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.
Hostages had been taken, and killed, in the Attica prison uprising, in 1971, and, a year later, at the Munich Olympics. When four armed men entered Al’s Sporting Goods store on what the owner describes as “a very cold Friday night,” it seemed inevitable that many or all of the dozen people they held inside would die. And not just the hostages or hostage takers. There were a thousand rounds of live ammunition in the store. The use of teargas or some other flammable substance might have set the rounds off, imperiling the many police officers and bystanders.
That no hostages died was largely owing to one man, Harvey Schlossberg. Schlossberg was a onetime New York traffic cop who also had a PhD in psychology. He was then working in the department’s medical bureau. A fellow police officer heard from in “Hold Your Fire” calls Schlossberg “the least-ever macho dude.” He says it admiringly. Schlossberg was the right man in the wrong situation at the right time.
“The real difficult part is waiting,” Schlossberg says in the documentary. “Do anything you can to make a conversation” with the criminals, he adds. The key to handling a hostage situation is “dynamic inactivity.”
Forbes has assembled a wealth of material: vintage photos, radio reports, news footage. Even in a pre-cable-news 1973, a 47-hour hostage crisis in the media capital of the world was going to attract enormous coverage. All the real-time archival reporting means he doesn’t have to use a voice-over, which adds to the sense of immediacy.
The wealthiest part of that wealth are the talking head interviews Forbes draws on. Interviewees include Schlossberg (who died last year); Jerry Riccio, the owner of Al’s, who’s a real Noo Yawk character and quite the talker; various police officers; one of the hostages; the daughter of another; and two of the hostage takers.
Forbes does something daring with the interviews. He will juxtapose comments that are contradictory, not necessarily in fact but in interpretation or emphasis. This creates a kind of stereo effect that enlarges the film. It’s indicative of the filmmaker’s fundamental sense of fairness. Clearly, his heart is with Schlossberg. But he lets people he just as clearly disagrees with have their say.
Shu’aib Rahim, the chief hostage taker, is the heart of the documentary. He’s a very impressive man: reflective, articulate, self-critical. “If he was a customer in the store,” Riccio says, “he’d have been a decent-type character.” We learn early on that the robbers were after shotguns. Forbes waits until almost the midpoint of the documentary to reveal the reason why. There are many twists and turns to the story, and the documentary is consistently surprising. That robbers’ motive is easily the biggest surprise.
No, that’s not quite right. The biggest surprise is that no one in the store was killed. “Hold Your Fire” can’t be said to have a happy ending. A police officer died; two others were wounded. Men went to prison. At least one hostage never recovered emotionally. What it does have is an encouraging ending. Nearly half a century later, those are awfully rare and very welcome.
There will be a Q&A with Forbes at the Capitol after the 7:30 p.m. screenings on Sunday, May 22, and Monday, May 23.
HOLD YOUR FIRE
Written and directed by Stefan Forbes. At Capitol Theatre and available on various streaming platforms. 95 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, highly stressful situations).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.