Political thriller puts timely national security spin on seemingly forgotten genre


COLD WAR CONTEMPORARY | ‘Closed Circuit’ recalls the smart, sophistocated political thrillers from the Cold War era, reflectling modern issues through a tone of Watergate-era cynicism.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 3.45.41 PMMovie genres have their moments. Musicals were big from the 1930s through the ‘60s, comedies keep getting crasser, horror films become more bloody and since Spielberg introduced the idea of the summer blockbuster, we’ve had those to deal with.

But the era of the political thriller — the smart, sophisticated, often depressing look at the sad realities of the modern world — hasn’t been the same since the Berlin Wall came down. Sure, we have the Bourne movies, and docudramas like Zero Dark Thirty dramatize actual events. But the progeny of classics like The Parallax View or The Last Embrace are more interested in technology than people. The grandchild of Seven Days in May is Olympus Has Fallen. It hardly seems fair.

So the fact that Closed Circuit recalls both modern thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy and ’70s spy movies like Three Days of the Condor is something of a feat: Contemporary issues reflected through the tone of Watergate-era cynicism.

The story couldn’t be more contemporary if the screenwriter had a crystal ball. One fall day in London, as security cameras record people going about their daily lives in a public square, a terrorist bomb goes off, killing 120. A Turkish radical is quickly arrested, but the government balks at sharing “national security secrets” with his attorney. So two courts go on at once: One, a public hearing where his barrister is the aggressive Martin Rose (Eric Bana); another, a closed court of star chamber, where the defendant is represented by Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), who gets to see the secret evidence … but can’t share it with Rose.

The plot might sound outrageous if we didn’t see reports just like this in the news every week, from FISA courts to WikiLeaks to governments spying on their own people. The director, John Crowley, and writer, Steven Knight, drop suggestive breadcrumbs around, but never in a heavy-handed fashion. Is the new security guard in Claudia’s condo a spy? Is Martin being followed? We’re never sure, and the film doesn’t belabor the point. It’s precisely because the style is off-handed and not brooding and melodramatic that you don’t know who to suspect — or who to believe.

That said, the existence of traitors amid the defense team comes as no surprise, and the resolution is both a little too hopeful and a little too tidy. And the vagaries of the British legal system (not to mention the idiomatic dialogue) can take some getting used to. But Bana is stolid and impressive, and the courtroom scenes (I wish there were more of them) crackle.

Closed Circuit doesn’t reinvent the political thriller — but it does something perhaps more daring: It looks back on what made the genre good to begin with and gives us the closest possible approximation, where shadows exist in daylight even more than in darkness, and citizens still have reason to be concerned about the depths leaders will go to in the name of security.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 30, 2013.