‘The Cranes Call’ Review: Documentary’s Hunt for Russian War Criminals Is the Stuff of Studio Thrillers

Tribeca 2024: Laura Warner’s film follows criminal investigators with a riveting cinematic flare

"The Cranes Call," Tribeca Film Festival 2024
"The Cranes Call," Tribeca Film Festival 2024

If you walked into a theater showing Laura Warner’s “The Cranes Call” by accident, two things would happen. First, you’d probably assume it was a David Fincher movie for several minutes, given its dark mystery storyline, piercing photography and intense editing. Second, you’d probably sit down and watch the whole thing because it’s a hell of a film.

“The Cranes Call” is the latest documentary about the ongoing, horrifying Russian invasion of Ukraine. It follows Anya Neistat, a human rights activist working for the Clooney Foundation for Justice, run by Amal Clooney and her husband George. Neistat enlists the aid of Ukrainian activist Solomiia Stasiv to investigate Russian war crimes — murder, torture, sexual assault, bombing of civilians — with the goal of building such an airtight case that every country in the world could claim “universal jurisdiction” to prosecute any and all perpetrators should the opportunity arise.

Whether that day will come, Neistat and Stasiv do not know. They can’t promise justice to any of their victims. But they can take the accusations as seriously as they deserve, which leads them into war-torn cities, mass graves and torture chambers that make the “Saw” franchise look reasonably well researched. If this was a Hollywood movie, it might seem implausible that the villains would leave piles of evidence on tables behind them. But in reality, it seems the perpetrators of state-sanctioned human rights violations live in little fear of repercussions.

Meanwhile, Neistat and Stasiv wrestle with daily fears. The threat of missile strikes looms large. When a massive attack against Ukraine is underway, they’re on a moving train and Neistat suggests they leave the country immediately. Stasiv has family in Ukraine and cannot bring herself to pull up stakes. No sooner than Neistat says they don’t have much time to make a decision, the train runs out of power, stranding them in the middle of nowhere during air raids. It’s a plot point Hitchcock could have devised.

"The Cranes Call," Tribeca Film Festival 2024
“The Cranes Call,” Tribeca Film Festival 2024

I keep bringing up Hollywood movies as a reference point because “The Cranes Call” has been executed as efficiently as any fictional thriller. It doesn’t have the catharsis we’ve come to expect from studio pictures — and maybe that catharsis will never come at all — but the intensity of the chase is ever-present. Warner’s grim cinematography sells the horrors of which Neistat and Stasiv are up against, and that paints them as heroic figures for pushing forward. The editing by Martin Kayser-Landwehr (“The Oil Machine”) and consulting editor Andy Worboys (“The Tinderbox”) makes maximum use of tiny details, punctuating scenes with sharp shots of fingers hitting pages and pens anxiously spinning in said fingers, giving even straightforward conversations a suspenseful rhythm.

This slickness can sometimes be detrimental in a documentary, since there’s always risk of sensationalizing the subject or making it look artificial. The visual approach vaunts Neistat and Stasiv a little, but given their chosen profession and nearly impossible tasks, that’s understandable. They are, by all reasonable measures, badasses in a very moral sense.

But while “The Cranes Call” never feels artificial, it never feels DIY either. If there were any major problems during filming, they look like they’ve been well solved. It’s as slick a production as one could possibly muster under these circumstances, nearly to the point of distraction. And when people say things like, “As your security advisor, I would advise you to move your ass,” it can’t help but sound a little like dialogue that got lost on its way to a generic action film.

The very qualities that make “The Cranes Call” so cinematically striking are also, sometimes, briefly detrimental. But none of that detracts from the impressive work being done by Anya Neistat and Solomiia Stasiv, whose dogged hunt for the names and faces of war criminals is inspirational, even at its worst moments. There are true terrors in “The Cranes Call.” There are real victims. There are real monsters. Fortunately, it seems there are at least a handful of human beings trying their best to do what heroes do.

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