After Watergate, such films arrived with alarming frequency. But today with N.S.A. leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations about how the “war on terror” has created a super-surveillance society in this country, the time is again ripe for such a movie.
Cue “Closed Circuit,” a film written by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) and directed by John Crowley (“Boy A,” “Is Anybody There?”).
It’s about British rather than American society and it’s a little bloodless for my taste — more like a good telefilm than a theatrical feature. But “Closed Circuit” credibly builds the case for a governmental conspiracy and the resulting paranoia is palpable.
That it takes place in London, home to a half a million visible closed circuit cameras — and many more that are not — only adds to the creepy sense that someone is watching the characters’ every move every minute.
The set-up is efficiently done but the ensuing situation does get tangled up in the particulars of the British legal system. A bomb blast one morning in a busy London outdoor market gets the film going with a dramatic charge. Soon enough police arrest the only surviving member of a suspected terrorist cell, a Turk named Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto).
The defendant will require two very different kinds of lawyers since the government will use classified evidence to prosecute Erdogan. Thus the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent, who can suggest menace with a raised eyebrow) must appoint a Special Advocate who may see this evidence and argue in a “closed” court session for its full disclosure.
He selects Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). Once she sees this evidence, however, she legally is not permitted to communicate with the defendant or even his court-appointed defense attorney.
On the eve of this “trial of the century,” that defense attorney dies suddenly, apparently a suicide victim. So attorney Martin Rose (Eric Bana) must quickly step in and acquaint himself with the case.
One not so insignificant problem exists: Martin and Claudia were once lovers, an affair that evidently shattered Martin’s marriage and led to a bitter divorce. So neither is at all comfortable about this pairing but careerism precludes either one from saying so to the Attorney General.
As the two attorneys meet their client and pursue the case for the defense, both begin to feel that not only are they being manipulated by the government to insure the “right’ outcome at the trial but that the government may be hiding something.
Boy, is it ever — or let’s say that certain government officials are involved in a huge coverup and will stop at nothing to prevent its exposure. Which makes Martin at least wonder if his predecessor’s death was a suicide. An American reporter (Julia Stiles) plants that thought in his mind.
This leads to all sorts of increasingly frantic efforts by the attorneys to communicate with each other despite the prohibition and to escape a similar fatal accident all the while trying to defend a man who may be guilty of something but not terrorism.
Connections are made and witnessed uncovered all over greater London while all those spy cameras look impassively on. In this manner the film starts to resemble Tony Scott’s underrated 1991 “Enemy of the State,” where a man targeted by certain U.S. government officials is tracked from spy satellites, surveillance cameras, listening devices, bugs, wiretaps and database searches.
For that matter, it contains a slight echo of Francis Coppola’s 1974 “The Conversation,” an early excursion into surveillance paranoia, and even Sidney Lumet’s 1971 “The Anderson Tapes,” where an ex-con’s plan to rob an apartment building is threatened by a surveillance system in which his every move is recorded on audio and video tape.
(Hey that’s a great idea for a film series at any cinematheque: A curated collection of such conspiracy thrillers.)
Tension does arise from this untenable situation but never enough. The film’s set-up is so profoundly unsettling and the characters perfect for a kind of blackmail that further underscores the risks they take that the payoff feels weak.
Plus there’s the matter of the number of bodies or at least attempted murders surrounding characters involved in the trial. When a coverup reaches this extreme, Fleet Street is bound to notice and screaming headlines will result. A coverup that calls attention to itself is no longer a coverup as Richard Nixon once learned.
Bana is mostly effective but doesn’t quite convey the desperation necessary here. Hall is undisputedly one of Britain’s new leading ladies and delivers a performance where the urgency escalates with each passing minute.
The leads are admirably supported by a clutch of acting luminaries including Cairan Hinds as a mysterious colleague of Martin’s and Kenneth Cranham as the case’s stern judge.
Riz Ahmed, who starred most impressively in Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” has some terrific scenes as a mysterious MI5 operative where the veiled threat is barely veiled. He’s so good, in fact, that he inadvertently provides the model for what the rest of the film should have been like.
It all comes down to your climax: Do you end with a bang or a whimper? The film choses the latter so the impact is greatly lessened.
Nevertheless, while getting there “Closed Circuit” raises some highly pertinent issues about our descent into 24/7 surveillance and what can happen when a democratic government targets its own citizens to keep its secrets secret.
Opens: August 28, 2013 (Focus Features)
Production: Working Title Films
Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Kenneth Cranham, Anne-Marie Duff, Julia Stiles, Denis Moschitto
Director: John Crowley
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Chris Clark
Executive producers: Tim Owen, Liza Chasin, Amelia Granger
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Production designer: Jim Clay
Music: Joby Talbot
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
R rating, 95 minutes