Sometimes a film perfectly fits into current events. The filmmakers can perhaps glean the zeitgeist, but there’s no way of knowing that the release of the finished product will coincide with the day’s headlines. John Crowley‘s Closed Circuit could clearly see the privacy-versus-security argument through the Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTV) that dominate London. Someone is always watching, and that’s supposed to lower crime, but it can also be seen as a way of seeing every citizen as a potential criminal or victim. Crowley and screenwriter Steven Knight couldn’t have known that someone like Edward Snowden would come forward and reveal a massive surveillance program being conducted by the NSA and CIA. They also couldn’t know that the partner of the journalist who assisted Snowden would be detained at the airport by British authorities several months later. With Closed Circuit, Crowley hasn’t just made a tense, mature thriller, but one where the story’s immediacy is felt throughout.
After a major terrorist attack in London, the prime suspect is quickly captured, and the real challenge is to bring him to justice. The odds are already stacked against the accused as the government has secret evidence that it doesn’t have to share with defense lawyer Martin Rose (Eric Bana). They can share with special advocate Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who previously had a secret affair with Rose, but the discoveries made by both put them in grave danger as the United Kingdom’s security service, MI-5, attempts to cover up the agency’s damning relationship with the terrorist suspect.
Closed Circuit is a movie that demands the viewer’s full attention, and even then it may still cause some confusion for U.S. audiences. Personally, I couldn’t figure why the defense and the special advocate couldn’t communicate even though they’re both representing the same client. The special advocate has access to the classified documents, but why would the government bother sharing the evidence at all? Does she have the ability to strike down secret material in her cross examinations? The plot lets you know enough to follow what’s happening, but the particulars are somewhat lost in translation.
Thankfully, the overarching plot doesn’t rest on the complexities of British law—a system the script points out as already being subverted by the very existence of a closed court where the process of discovery has been undermined. Instead, it’s about the investigation by Rose and Simmons-Howe, and how that translates to a thriller where their lives are threatened by nefarious government forces. While we should expect our heroes to live, Crowley casts a dark shadow over the picture that provides a sinking feeling they may not get out alive, and that MI-5 will actually win because they’re currently winning in real life.
By “winning” I mean that their power has grown substantially. Closed Circuit has the markings of a Cold War thriller, but made more relevant by the War on Terror. Because the battlefield could be anywhere, we’re fighting everywhere and the fights are done behind the scenes. Current events bolster Closed Circuit‘s message, but it’s a message that would have been recognizable even if Snowden hadn’t come forward. Some Americans may forget that on July 7, 2005, a suicide bomber blew up a bus in London. The United Kingdom isn’t a stranger to terrorism, and they have to face the same question we do regarding the trade off the government says we have to make when it comes to our privacy and security.
The movie does have an unfortunate habit of having characters voice the film’s subject, and subtlety is rarely a strong suit of a movie that is making an active commentary on the state of fighting terrorism in the 21st century. As one character says near the beginning of the picture, “We’re not being allowed to see the whole picture,” but eventually Crowley is making sure we know every piece of the puzzle because that’s how mystery movies operate. Thankfully, it never becomes too overbearing, and the director handles his subject with a maturity that matches the sharpness of the plotting and characterizations. For example, Crowley never goes so far as to sympathize with the MI-5 agents we see, but he doesn’t depict them as nefarious, moustache-twirling villains. They truly believe they’re on the side of right and that they have to do ugly things in order to stop the horrors we see in the movie’s opening scene where a truck bomb detonates in a crowded marketplace.
Ultimately, the larger question is, “Do you feel safer?” That’s the oppression conspiracy thrillers offer, and Crowley’s picture is a strong entry into the genre because the villains aren’t simply after power. They’re part of the equation, and that equation can’t stand variables like the noble lawyers who want to uphold a justice system that is now considered a nicety the government believes it can no longer afford. That’s the obvious but relevant commentary: shadowy forces are tearing down the very institutions they’re claiming to uphold because the real power here is fear.
Closed Circuit cleverly and thoughtfully matches up with the fear that has come to permeate our lives even though the picture’s small scale can occasionally undermine the magnitude of our current situation (the film feels like a BBC movie, but to be fair, the BBC makes great movies). We fear our government, and our government fears terrorism because that’s the purpose of terrorism. It instills paranoia and lets the country’s values corrode from the inside out. And in our paranoia, the watch dogs have been let off the leash, and we’re all in danger when they run wild. The film doesn’t let us leave our worries at the door. It shows that the danger is at our door, and while the filmmakers may not have expected the threat to be so close, Closed Circuit is not only an exciting thriller, but a historical record worth keeping on file.