Hollywood isn’t having much luck turning the Millennium books into successful movies, so maybe it’s time to let documentaries have a go at Stieg Larrson. The late author, who penned the trilogy of thrillers that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is subject of the nonfiction feature Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire. The doc has almost nothing to do with his fiction work, though. Instead, the focus is on the efforts he made while still living (Dragon Tattoo and his other two Millennium installments were published posthumously) as Sweden’s foremost expert on right-wing extremist groups.
Director Henrik Georgsson takes us back through not quite a biographical profile on Larrson as a chronicle of the rise of neo-Nazis and the Sweden Democrats political party from the perspective of Larrson and his colleagues. The latter being alive and able to participate as talking heads providing details and commentary about the titular subject, his work independently researching and exposing members of right-wing organizations while a graphic designer for TT News, co-authoring the book on the extreme right in Europe in the early ’90s and co-founding and editing the anti-racist magazine Expo.
In addition to the interviews, The Man Who Played with Fire consists of the expected archival footage of Nazi skinheads marching in the streets and attending Ultima Thule concerts and later swapping their boots and bomber jackets for suits and ties. Georgsson fills in the rest with reenactment scenes in which an actor (Emil Almén, who also, probably coincidentally played a police officer in the Swedish film of Dragon Tattoo) portrays Larsson. It’s pretty much all shots of him behind a computer late at night, either smoking a cigarette or eating a fast food burger, foreshadowing his death from a heart attack in 2004. These dramatized bits seem pointless but they drive home Larsson’s drive to cover an important narrative being ignored by mainstream media, even as he and others received death threats for doing such a thankless and tireless job.
With its portrayal of a journalistic obsession, the doc should appeal more to fans of David Fincher’s Zodiac than fans of his Dragon Tattoo remake, but The Man Who Played with Fire is a very stiff, sober, and conservatively made film. Respectfully so. There’s not a lot of energy to keep your attention as it slowly treads through the history lesson that should have been followed when they were current events over the past 30-40 years. But you owe it to Larsson to watch it all now. And not only to honor what he was trying to do then but to recognize that this is a history of what’s happened in much of the world, not just Sweden.
Larsson may be gone, almost 15 years now — and near the end of the film, many wonder what he might have thought of the extent that nationalism has risen and how much democracy has been in peril, everywhere — but as this doc shows, we need passionate journalists like him who research, investigate, report, expose, and evaluate what’s going on in the world, especially before that going gets worse. Maybe even after hours, and under risk of death threats and potential heart failure. If only his legacy could have been that all the money from Millennium book sales and movie rights and box office success would have benefited Expo and other essential outlets.