'Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire': Film Review | Sundance 2019

The best-selling author's life was just as compelling as his fiction.

Henrik Georgsson's doc delivers a biographical portait of the author of the 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' trilogy who spent much of his career investigating extreme right-wing organizations.

Most people are familiar with Stieg Larsson through his hugely successful Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novels and their subsequent Swedish and Hollywood film adaptations. But while Henrik Georgsson's documentary about Larsson's life and career riffs on the title of one those best-sellers, it concentrates on the far more fascinating story of the author's decades-long journalistic efforts exposing European neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. Receiving its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire will have no problem garnering interest among international audiences.

"He should be known for his consistent job of mapping out the far right and the Nazis," a commentator says early on about Larsson in the film. It's a situation the doc attempts to rectify, delivering a biographical portrait in which the Millennium crime novels revolving around Lisbeth Salander are little more than a footnote.

Larsson reported on the subject for decades, starting his career at as a graphic artist for a news agency before segueing into written journalism. In the doc, Eva Gabrielsson, described as his "life companion," attests to how he worked tirelessly, largely subsisting on junk food, coffee and cigarettes. It was a lifestyle that no doubt contributed to his 2004 death from a heart attack at age 50.

It was a dangerous beat, especially since Larsson took such steps as joining the neo-Nazi organization Nordic Realm Party under an assumed name so he could receive their literature. The doc chronicles the political turbulence that led to the rise of right-wing elements in Sweden in the 1980s and '90s, including the founding of the "Keep Sweden Swedish" anti-immigrant organization and the 1986 assassination of former prime minister Olof Palme, then the leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party.

Director Georgsson, whose previous credits include such television series as The Bridge and Wallender, uses a combination of archival footage, contemporary interviews and dramatic recreations to recount Larsson's story. It includes such dramatic episodes as Larsson and his co-author Anna-Lena Lodenius delivering a lecture promoting their book about right-wing extremists to an audience packed with white supremacists. While he was editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to investigating such groups, Larsson and his fellow journalists were regularly the object of threats. Those dangers apparently continue to this day, since several of the journalists interviewed in the film are shown with their identities hidden. 

Even while he was working full-time as a journalist, Larsson wrote his three novels known as the Millennium trilogy; according to Gabrielsson, the project was an "outlet" for him. A colleague recalls how he thought it was "amateurish" that Larsson had written three books on spec, until Larsson told him that he had already received a large advance.

The dramatic recreations, featuring a Larsson look-alike actor wearing the author's signature round, wire-rimmed glasses, are the film's weakest, most distracting elements. As several commentators describe how Larsson ignored his health, we see a scene of him voraciously eating a greasy sandwich at his desk. And the account of Larsson's death is accompanied by a foreboding shot of the actor struggling to walk up a flight of stairs. They are moments more suited to tabloid television than a feature documentary.

Despite its occasional missteps, however, Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire packs an undeniable, and especially timely, punch. Its relevance is made dramatically clear in vintage footage from a televised interview in which Larsson, asked about the state of the world, presciently and ominously declares, "Democracy is threatened."

Production companies: B-Reel Films, C More Entertainment, Film i Vast, Generalissimo, Nordvensk Filmunderhallning, TV4
Director: Henrik Georgsson
Producers: Mattias Nohrborg, Fredrik Heinig
Executive producers: Per Bouveng, Tomas Eskilsson, Viveka Hansson, Maria Morner, Jan Stocklassa, Josefine Tengblad
Directors of photography: Anders Bohman, Sven Lindahl
Editors: Kalle Lindberg, Patrick Austen, Thomas Lagerman
Composer: Andreas Mattson
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
World sales: The Match Factory

95 minutes