Every so often, British filmmakers come out with some pretty daring statements about their government. In 1990, the politically-committed movie director Ken Loach made Hidden Agenda, a pessimistic conspiracy thriller which speculated not only that state forces had themselves committed acts of terror in Northern Ireland, but that conservative politicians knowingly colluded with such tactics so as to usher in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her iron fist. In 2010, joint British, French and German financing helped renegade auteur Roman Polanski film English novelist Robert Harris’ book The Ghost Writer -- another pessimistic conspiracy thriller, but this one timed to trail P.M. Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street with a fictitious story of a British P.M. under scrutiny for war crimes and entanglements with the U.S. and C.I.A.
Now the Brits are at it again, with a new pessimistic conspiracy thriller, Closed Circuit, and it should appeal to a much more diverse base than just BBC America fans. The subject of this savvy and contemporary courtroom/espionage mystery is quite different from the Cold War spy vs. spy machinations of the producers’ elegant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of 2011. It takes on nothing less than the modern national security state, and its findings are as bleak as the 1974 classic The Parallax View, or Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Though Closed Circuit is now playing in U.S. multiplexes thanks to the visionary boldness of Focus Features and Working Title films (a London subsidiary of Universal), it is not scheduled to open in the U.K. until Nov. 1st. Reaction there may be heated, since to British viewers, the vicious terror attack at the center of Closed Circuit’s made-up story – an invented, highly lethal incident at a busy open-air market across from a subway (aka “Tube”) station – will almost certainly evoke the notorious suicide bombings of July 7, 2005. The real-life coordinated terrorist attack of 7/7 rocked London with three nearly simultaneous explosions on the Tube and, soon after, another on a double-decker bus -- 52 people were killed and 700 injured. Two weeks later, an almost identical terrorist plot was attempted again on London’s public transport, though this time all the bombs failed to explode. Like 9/11 in the U.S., 7/7 provoked accusations and criticism in the U.K. and put the authorities, particularly Britain’s MI-5, on the defensive. Blair sure didn’t still the outrage by refusing to launch an inquiry --- his claim was that to do so would undermine support for the security services.
Surveillance, secrecy, and the appropriation of great powers in the name of national security began to be put in place in Britain post- 9/11, and civil libertarians over there began to object within the first few months. But 7/7 revealed even scarier ramifications. Among the disturbing practices were ‘shoot-to-kill’ policies like that in evidence in the incident on July 22nd of that year, when plain-clothes police tailed a Brazilian man, chased him into the Tube, tussled him to the ground, and shot him 7 times, point-blank, in the head. They believed the man, Jean Charles de Menezes, to be a terror suspect. He was, however, unarmed and completely innocent.
It is this atmosphere which seems to have been the genesis for the Orwellian world of Closed Circuit, a compelling counter-narrative about lack of transparency and an antidote to the lowest-common-denominator exploitation of ‘the war on terror’ by far-right entertainment like 24. The detective drama Closed Circuit engages in the debate on a similar playing field, with a slick, entertaining, twisty thriller that follows several standard tropes of the genre and immerses in-demand romantic leads Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall into huge life-or-death stakes. But instead of identifying terrorist plots by enemies of the state as the only serious threat to democracy, Closed Circuit is a movie that would be on Edward Snowden’s side. MI-5, the British intelligence agency which handles counter-terrorism, becomes the devouring behemoth that the hero and heroine – a pair of defense attorneys – must flee. Unlike the way sister agency MI-6 has been presented in endless James Bond movies – with any ethical transgressions excused by their excellent judgment and patriotic motivations -- MI-5’s conduct in Closed Circuit is unambiguously wrong. The movie makes a convincing case that things in Britain may have already crossed the line into a combination of security surveillance and government secrecy, a combo so unhealthy the door is left wide open to abuse, cover-up, and the endangerment of the very citizenry these institutions are allegedly protecting.
Footage from security cameras is interspersed throughout the film, subtly reminding us of the eyes of Big Brother upon our protagonists, a Big Brother who is anonymous but seemingly omnipresent. As the tension mounts, the protagonists can’t seem to walk across a courtyard or into a lobby without some guard observing them on a monitor. The technique begins in the very first sequence, during the quiet before the storm at Borough Market; the shoppers and commuters passing through are seen via an array of monitors, the movie screen subdividing into smaller and smaller screens as the tension mounts. It’s an effective suspense-builder, but it also illustrates the movie’s themes. These Londoners go about their business unaware of being watched, yet they can barely make a move in private. The multiplicity of angles on the same event also hints that what we think we know might shift, that recording the ‘facts’ of a case may not in themselves bring the truth into focus. And furthermore, the watching doesn’t bring safety. On the contrary, surveillance and vulnerability to attack actually merge visually in that opening.
Screenwriter Steven Knight and director John Crowley go about this project very cleverly. It is not about an actual historic incident, nor is a real Prime Minister named. It feels current, but no date is supplied. This frees the filmmakers to write a speculative scenario rather than be tied to a factual record – and it may help them avoid quarrels with those who might take offense at the movie’s point-of-view. Nor does Knight’s script go into real-life examples of MI-5’s overreach. The British audience may remember numerous instances which came to light over the decades: MI5’s secret file on a Labour Party Member of Parliament, Harold Wilson, before he became Prime Minister; the file on another Labour MP, Jack Straw, before he was Home Secretary; the surveillance of Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, when he was an environmental activist; and as recently as 2006, the revelation that the MI-5 was at that very moment holding secret dossiers on 272,000 individual Brits as well as 53,000 files on British organizations. (Like its American cousins, the agency has a history of finding the left suspicious – it spied on trade unions, and a senior MI-5 officer even labeled the Archbishop of Canterbury a subversive because he campaigned against Thatcher’s devastating policies.) Knight doesn’t bring up the historical fact of the MI-5’s collusion in the 1989 death of Irish attorney Patrick Finucane, nor the 2006 report which found that state agencies had colluded widely with Loyalists during the Irish ‘Troubles’ – a report accepted by David Cameron, the current, Conservative party Prime Minister, when he made an official apology on behalf of the British government. Knight and Crowley are right to leave all this out, not just for the sake of dramatic economy, but because it gives viewers some responsibility: to do their own research to determine whether the MI-5’s behavior in the film is credible or not. It gives the film an after-life.
Though the fictitious characters who commit grievous wrongs in Closed Circuit are very highly placed, and though our protagonists must go up against an overarching, all-powerful system which extends its tentacles far and wide, the conspiracy at the story’s core is ultimately perpetrated by a few very bad apples. The film thus targets human nature as much, or even more, than it targets an institution. But in doing so, it allows viewers to infer that since an institution like Britain’s spy agency MI-5, featured so prominently in the film, is run by people whose human nature means they can be and often are fallible, corruptible, vain, and self-deluding, safeguards are very much needed -- that because of their flawed human nature, there is no rationale that justifies trusting them to operate in total darkness.
The title of Closed Circuit refers eloquently to both surveillance technology and the secrecy of a closed loop of a legislative, judiciary, and national security apparatus – a Star Chamber of mutually-supportive decision-makers who hold the power of life and death over everyone outside their circle. In the movie, darkly inscrutable Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) warns Martin (Eric Bana) off of digging too deeply, hinting at the un-scalable walls of the closed system when he describes “powers at play that neither you nor I nor the Prime Minister can control.”
At the very center of the story is the notion of secret evidence in post-9/11 prosecutions: the evidence against terrorists that is supposed to be so vital to the nation’s safety that neither the accused nor his personal defense attorney can see it; only a third party ‘special advocate’ can peruse it and decide. In the particular case that is presented, that security argument is clearly and unequivocally bogus, and the institutionalized secrecy merely a convenient way to cover up complicity, yet the deception is so effective we see it could easily bypass the checks and balances set up to prevent it.
Closed Circuit implies that the very act of keeping the security apparatus outside the bounds of accountability invites those inside the circle to view themselves differently, to believe that normal ethical standards do not apply to them. Claudia (Rebecca Hall) is able to identify an undercover MI-5 agent the moment she meets him, in fact, simply because his level of hubris gives him away. Power corrupts. And as we shall see later, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
At the same time, the movie is about more than spying. (Without nearly as labyrinthine a plot as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it can manage it.) For one thing, Closed Circuit plays around with expectations and prejudices about its Middle Eastern characters, about what it means to be Westernized, about good guys and bad guys. This is sometimes achieved quite concisely: the accused terrorist’s teenage son Amir plays the all-American military videogame “Medal of Honor” with great devotion and skill. And the opening sequence captures on security cams a Muslim woman walking through Borough Market, the monitors zooming in on her suspiciously as soon as her ethnicity is recognized. Yet in a few moments she’ll be one of the victims. Knight and Crowley already have politically-left highlights on their filmography -- Knight penned the period drama about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Amazing Grace; Crowley directed the truthful, humanitarian, character study Boy A – so it may be consistent with long-held principles that they are scrupulous here in making sure they do not equate Muslims with terrorism, nor equate terrorism with Muslims. And after all, principles and ethics are part of this film’s subject.
Jurisprudence becomes another key focus the moment Claudia and Martin are assigned to the case of the man accused of terrorist conspiracy for the fictitious market bombing that kills 120 Londoners. The judge and legal team wear those ancient grey wigs and walk around in black robes under the impressive high ceilings of the Old Bailey -- solemnly observing centuries of rituals from the world of criminal law -- but it seems likely that the filmmakers find the layers of custom and ceremony ironic.
Unlike cookie-cutter Hollywood fare where active protagonists can defeat fire-breathing villains through resourcefulness and perseverance, the stakes in Closed Circuit are too huge and the hydra too multi-headed for a simple fix. The protagonists are active, but even with their diligence and self-sacrifice, even with a news media following what is billed as “the trial of the century”, the film poses the serious question: is justice even possible in the system that’s been created to fight the ‘war on terror’? If the film holds out any hope, it seems to reside with the ordinary individual: the pre-pubescent kid who refuses to obey, the journalist (Julia Stiles) who doesn’t laugh when a woman at a party jokes that she’s happy to be “searched by a handsome policeman.” And especially with the movie’s central duo, the lovebird lawyers whose affair has compromised them but who still worry about legal ethics and protecting their undeserving client’s interests despite the overwhelming odds.