Posts Tagged ‘political thriller’

film-posterSecrecy and Surveillance in “Closed Circuit” – film review

by Jennifer Epps 

 

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.

 

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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.

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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” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medal_of_Honor_%28series%29) 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.

 

 

 

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by Branford Perry

I just finished a second reading of Gaither Stewart’s explosive and highly disturbing new novel, Lily Pad Roll, volume two of the Europe Trilogy.

At the end of such a novel I like to sit in silence, in semi-obscurity if possible, and let the atmosphere sweep over me in order to feel the sum effect of my reading and the residue and the mood I know I will feel come over me each time I think of the work in the future.

In this case the sensation is one of unease caused by both this well-told story of major aspects of American imperialism related by a master story-teller, but, above all in particular, of the enmity towards and the fear of the Russian bear on the part of the American eagle, whose evil presence overshadows Lily Pad Roll like Predator drones—because of America’s terrible and terrifying arms sufficient to destroy many times over the entire planet Earth, its highly trained special forces and aggressive policies supported by a chain of vassal states and satraps such as no other aspirant for world dominion has ever possessed. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler could have dreamed of such military power. Nor of commanding a nation-people standing so solidly behind their Fuehrer, a people filled with a sense of Exceptionalism and destiny tailored by God for world dominion, reminiscent of the “Manifest Destiny” of these transplanted Europeans to exterminate whatever stood in their path, even if it meant the extermination of the great indigenous nations of North America. (The “manifest” part would soon extend well beyond America’s continental limits to embrace much of the globe, apace with its growth in industrial might and military muscle.)

Nor were either of the conquerors and invaders of Russia so sick with the fear of Russia and its messianism as is the USA today with already half the world under its control and much of the rest already targeted, or sanctioned or cordoned, many a nation terrified that it may find its way onto the list of peoples destined for, as the author calls it, America’s “humanitarian intervention” or an imported dose of its pseudo-democracy.

The author of Lily Pad Roll spells out this fear of Russia and its Socialism from the very birth of Socialism in Russia exacerbated by the post-World War Two terror of Russian occupation of all of Europe (the image of Cossacks watering their horses at the Vatican City fountains in Rome) and the spread of its messianic Communism throughout the rest of the world. Readers are right to feel disturbed. That major foreign policy aspects, almost the raison d’état of the world’s most powerful nation, are based on fear should not sit comfortably with anyone.

A major character in the novel, the Serb agent, Ilya Milanica explains the perplexity of many like-minded East Europeans. “We are trying to understand what your crazy America is up to. What does it want from us? What does it want from the world? We are starting to think America is little different from Nazi Germany. It too wanted the world … and with a no less crazy ideology, if you can call American thinking today ideology. America has gone too far. Every conqueror in history had its limits. America has now overreached … exceeded the limits.”

I personally wandered around East Europe for years in my journalistic activities especially in the cultural field and share the author’s remarks that in general “East Europeans—whether in elegant Prague and Budapest or in the cultural backwaters of Chisinau and Tiraspol in Europe’s poorest nation—have a natural quality of universality about them. We in the West have lost that … if we ever had it. In comparison to their largeness of spirit, I think, we are the provincials. Our Eurocentrism is too powerful.”

I have essayed here in these few words to prepare the curious reader for the fearsome alternative world he is about to enter when he opens the first page of Lily Pad Roll, just as he did when he read The Trojan Spy, the first volume of the Europe Trilogy, and consequently—or so one can reasonable expect—when one delves into the already announced volume three, Time of Exile. In Stewart’s world, torture is still called torture, and war is war, blood and slaughtered old men, women and children. The reader should also be prepared to enter the most unexpected, dark and relatively unknown corners of our world: beer-splashed tables in the Frankfurt rail station café; Kosovo province stolen from Serbia by the USA-NATO, rendered independent, and converted into a major military base where the USA shares rule with the Kosovo-Albanian drug traffic-mafia militia called the Kosovo Liberation Army; a darkened bar on a U.S. military base in eastern Bulgaria, the hangout of professional DIA killers; lonely tourist hotels on the scary Black Sea; lost cities of East Europe like Chisinau and Tiraspol; a little known Russian-language newspaper in the even less known maverick breakaway republic of Transnestr from the largely Russian-speaking breakaway nation of Moldova that most Westerners continue to call Moldavia (the shadow of Hollywood I presume? Wasn;t that famous prisoner of something not originally from Moldavia? Or was that a Marx Brothers’ republic?); the great staircase entrance to the Russian-speaking Ukrainian city of Odessa, the scene of Sergey Eizenstein’s famous film, Battleship Potemkim; secret meetings in carpet shops inside the maze of the gigantic Istanbul bazaar;the huge darkened cellar archives run by an ancient “cellar mouse” in the German Embassy in Moscow; the cobblestone streets of independent, NATO-linked Riga, Latvia bordering with Russia in the West; and in a surprise ending inside Iran itself bordering on Russia’s underbelly.

As Paul Carline notes in his Preface, “Pad Roll takes us into the world of the inexorable spread of American and NATO bases around the world, and in particular in those countries which form a kind of crescent surrounding Russia on its south-western, southern and south-eastern borders. The exact number of such bases is unknown (except presumably to the Pentagon and the White House), estimates varying from around 740 to over 1000, with new bases continually being created or older ones extended – such as those on the Yemeni island of Socotra and the Omani island of Masirah, both situated strategically at the southern exit of the Strait of Hormuz, within easy striking distance of Iran. The base on Masirah is (with a sense of irony perhaps) called Camp Justice.

In the novel’s preliminary pages the author explains the reasons for the odd title of Lily Pad Roll. “The giant water lily, victoria amazonica, is the world’s biggest lily pad, up to four feet, and can support the weight of several people at once…. The lily pad is quiet. It lies tranquilly on the pond water, offering rest for the frog. The American military jargon has adopted the lily pad to mean an outpost, an advance camp, a foreign base, or staging area, only one in a series of stops, a scaled down military facility with theoretically little permanent personnel, often used as a staging ground for Special Forces and Intelligence operations. Soldiers may then leapfrog from one lily pad to the next. The outpost aspect of the military lily pads however follows in the footsteps of the multiplying lily pads and especially giant water lily leaf: they not only multiply but also grow in size and tend to become permanent military bases encircling the world. Afghanistan is a giant lily pad, permanent, a place to move out from, a place from which soldiers go out to kill other people around that part of the world.”

Already back January of 2004, Chalmers Johnson—author of Blowback, a bestseller after 9/11 wrote a piece entitled “America’s Empire of Bases.” He said:

“Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet. This vast network of American bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire—an empire of bases with its own geography not likely to be taught in any high school geography class. Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can’t begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order.”

From my home base today in London I look back across the Channel and extend my vision to Serbia, then northwards and eastwards toward Russia and sum up the physical, moral and cultural devastation wrought by the lily pad philosophy of strategy of dominion and cannot but marvel that the whole East has not already turned its back on the West. I can hardly believe my ears when I hear that the European Union considers as anti-democratic and anti-European leaders like Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych who continues to win popular elections and dares name Russian the official language of East Ukraine where Russian has been almost forever the de facto dominant language.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was “sold” as a response to 9/11—despite the total absence of any Afghan involvement in that crime (even the FBI has formally admitted that it has “no hard evidence” linking Osama bin Laden to 9/11)—reminds the reader that the present fear that another false-flag event will be staged to ‘justify’ an attack on Iran, with the current attempt at regime change in Syria intended to open up that country to further “Lily Pads”.

I’m afraid that until Americans realize what is really going on in the world—an almost insuperable task given the scandalous distortions and lies peddled every single day by the American media—nothing will stop this sinister force from acquiring more victims until the ultimate tipping point is reached. Those who make the wounds, as the great Norman Bethune once said, need to be exposed. This was never so urgent as today, when the Big Lie wraps itself in everything that is noble and good.

It may sound terribly hackneyed but at this point only the truth can save humanity from itself.

Branford Perry is editor of Branford Perry’s Hipographia. He also serves as The Greanville Post‘s Assistant Editor for literary matters. Something of a recluse, he now makes his home near London.