Before editor/cinematographer/director Miles Hargrove explains the reference for the obscure title of “Miracle Fishing,” you could think it applies to what you’re watching when camcorder footage from 1994 is capturing the developments inside his home after his father Tom Hargrove has been kidnapped by the guerrilla soldiers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His mother Susan wanted a diary for Tom to see when he eventually found his way home, and it’s at once totally extraordinary and completely mundane to be sitting in on hostage negotiations unfold over the course of months with the threat of becoming years, presented in a format so typically associated with home movies capturing the very worst moment in the Hargroves’ lives.
Twenty-five years removed from the crisis, Hargrove and co-director Christopher Birge smartly adopt the all-archival format that filmmakers have used to shed new light on cultural icons (“Amy”) or moments (“LA 92”), conducting present day interviews with his mother and others who were holed up with his family as they attempted to bring their patriarch back home, but lets the situation play out in all its uncertainty. The result is an engrossing thriller that seems like a corrective to any Hollywood treatment when, despite the pair of professional kidnap and ransom specialists that the Hargroves enlist, there is no brilliant, charismatic negotiator to swoop in to handle the talks with FARC or a three-act structure to adhere to. (In fact, the diametrically opposed Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan drama “Proof of Life” drew inspiration from these events.) Instead, the family has to rely on a half-Colombian friend of Miles to convey their wishes to FARC, occasionally deal with radios that can be broken on one side or the other and go for months at a time without hearing anything back.
Rather than the obvious heroics, “Miracle Fishing” observes the power of patience with the family’s anxieties manifesting themselves in unpredictable ways. At one point, Susan laments that when a family member is kidnapped, “you become kidnapped yourself,” unable to talk about the situation with others and left in limbo that only serves to isolate one further, and how everyone reacts to Tom’s absence and the demands made of them by FARC reveals a variety of emotions as every bit as complex as what Tom must’ve experienced in captivity. From the start, the filmmakers exploit the standard def material they’re working with towards creative and dramatically effective ends, particularly in editing where random amateurish shots serve now as unconsciously intimate details about the family while the long, unmediated scenes of negotiations with FARC play out with the type of tension that found footage films aspire to.
However, watching ordinary people respond to extraordinary circumstances proves compelling enough, with the family not only concerned with what Tom is going through in the moment, but whether they’ll recognize him if they’re fortunate enough to see him again, and regardless of the outcome, what becomes evident is that you’ve never seen anything like “Miracle Fishing” before.