Paranoid political thrillers crested in the 1970s, but I’m looking forward to a new wave of them inspired by the revelations by Edward Snowden and others about the extent to which our digital trails are being snooped on. Perhaps that’ll start as early as next month with the Julian Assange biopic. In the meantime, though, we have the British entry Closed Circuit, which has some neat ideas wrapped up in an unedifyingly un-neat package.
The story begins with a suicide bombing at a crowded London market that kills 120 people. Scotland Yard promptly arrests the only surviving suspect, Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish émigré, heroin addict, and all-around loser who was renting property to the bombers. It does seem unlikely that Erdogan didn’t know about the half-ton of explosives the terrorists were keeping in his building, but his new defense lawyer Martin Rose (Eric Bana) thinks there’s something his client isn’t telling him, something that the prosecution is withholding from him in the name of national security, and something that may have had to do with the sudden suicide of Erdogan’s previous attorney.
That something turns out to be a delicious twist of the plot, and it’s the best thing here. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) demonstrates an intelligent grasp of the issues involved in a terrorism case, and the movie has a couple of tasty supporting performances from Riz Ahmed, a rapper and comedian playing straight to good effect as an MI6 hit man, and Jim Broadbent as a politely icy attorney general who looks to have killed a few people in his day.
Still, Irish director John Crowley (who has never approached the heights of his 2003 debut feature Intermission) has trouble meshing the courtroom maneuverings with the action sequences here. The romance between Martin and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), Erdogan’s other lawyer who only handles classified information and who’s forbidden from contacting Martin, adds little to the proceedings. The bad guys are either hyperefficient or tremendously incompetent depending on the plot’s convenience, and Martin’s clandestine meeting with a New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles) is so ineptly handled that it comes as no shock when it turns out the government has gotten wind of it.
What really makes Closed Circuit seem passé is its conviction that the government is still spying on everyone the old-fashioned way, with cameras. This probably springs from the British setting, where there are indeed cameras on every street corner. But we know now that governments (not just our own, either) are reading our e-mails and tracking our movements through our cellphones. The situation is overflowing with possibilities for abuse and persecution. It should also make for a better movie than this one.
Starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall. Directed by John Crowley. Written by Steven Knight. Rated R.