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Home»News»Thriller Thursdays: The Negotiator - A battle of wits in a hostage situation»

Thriller Thursdays: The Negotiator - A battle of wits in a hostage situation

A police negotiator is accused of embezzlement and murder, and takes hostages in an elaborate attempt to prove his innocence, even as he gets into a battle of wits with another negotiator.

  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 04.29 AM, Aug 03, 2022

Thriller Thursdays: The Negotiator - A battle of wits in a hostage situation

In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

In the realm of business, or the business of crime, talking, negotiating, and convincing are skills required to run to a successful culmination of business or a deal. Patience is a skill to master, but so is the psychology of knowing what is working, who is lying, and what is slipping away. The Negotiator brings us not one, but two skilled wordsmiths in a battle of wits, lock horns and then run as if they belong to the same herd.

Danny Roman (Samuel L Jackson) is a negotiator for the Chicago Police Department. And the opening is a tense hostage stand-off with a little girl held to the barrel of a gun. Danny is garrulous and masterful with the art of the glib. But when he successfully closes the standoff, he is sweating with the tension of a possible permanent erasure. Later, in a tender moment with his wife, who is constantly strained with the tension of whether he will return home at all, he promises to her that he would be back every evening to her. It is obvious that the promise would be a hard one to keep.

On a night out, Danny's colleague Nate (Paul Guilfoyle) tells him that he has an informant who has told him that there were policemen who were skimming off the department's own disability fund. And he even names an Internal Affairs officer, Terence Niebaum (J T Walsh) to be part of the take. Nate calls Danny over one night, but before the latter can reach him, Nate is murdered. And everything is carefully constructed such that it points to Danny being the culprit. Completely cornered by his own colleagues, none of whom he can now trust, he shuts himself in Niebaum's office, taking him and a host of others as hostages and makes his demands to clear his name. And he seeks to talk to only one person - Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another outstanding police negotiator and, more importantly, part of a different precinct, hence unlikely to be on the skim-and-take. And therein begins a battle of wits and a hunt for truths.

The setup is fantastic, and an amalgam of fast-moving cliches. Determined chiefs who shout commands like “Tell them to clear the perimeter and lock the elevators!", (to no one in particular!), and genuinely interesting insights into negotiation skills with phrases such as, “never say no, don't, won't, can't to a hostage - nothing negative - ever!”. And when these mesh into the mishmash of clashing interests and leadership arrogance, what emerges is a tapestry of thuggery and strategy.

There’s genuine pleasure in watching Jackson with his increasing angst at a system bent on implicating him in crimes he didn’t commit, and Kevin Spacey with his decreasing trust in a system which refuses to give space to truths. There is a cool gravitas which Kevin Spacey brings into his dance with Samuel L Jackson, as they soar on words, ideas, opinions, and thoughts.

A film, amidst its tense standoffs and nonstop action, stops to quote Nietzsche, “Even the strongest have their moments of fatigue”, and even Abe Lincoln, “Familiarise yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them”, deserves attention. And it’s interesting how the film explores the humaneness of hardened professionals as they recognise truth without knowing the details, and are ready to go along with the diktat of their conscience. There's a fantastic scene when the police burst in suddenly and Danny is exposed for a clean shot to the head, and the sniper - who has long been a colleague and a friend - is simply not able to take the shot. It's a moment of unexpected poignancy and grace.

In a world where you don’t know what lies in the front, continuously looking over one’s shoulder is a task in itself. And The Negotiator negotiates that space with both dread and panache.

Thrillers like The Negotiator end predictably; hero exonerated, villains killed/caught/self-incinerated. But they rely heavily on their twists and their clever plot devices to keep audiences guessing. The charm of such films is derived from the balance achieved between the fantastical and the verisimilitude. The Negotiator achieves this balance with persuasion and urgency.


  1. The film was based on the events of 1988 which came to be known as the St. Louis pension fund scandal. An ex-policeman, Anthony D. Daniele, had been sentenced to prison for robbing $333,000 from the police department pension fund. Although he was not a negotiator, Daniele, like the character played by Samuel L Jackson, had been a member of the police negotiating team. The day after he received his sentencing, Daniele went to the office of the man who exposed him, John Frank, who was a vice president of the city police board and took him hostage. The hostage situation lasted for almost 15 hours before Daniele finally gave up.
  2. The movie was originally written with Kevin Spacey playing Samuel L Jackson's role of the hostage-taker, with Sylvester Stallone playing opposite him. But Stallone turned down the part, and Spacey promptly requested to play the role of Chris Sabian instead. And in came Samuel L. Jackson to play the role Spacey was supposed to play.
  3. Kevin Spacey appears almost one-third into the film.

Watch The Negotiator here.