Political conformity being what it is, especially among the nonconformist types you expect to find in the arts, anytime a movie begins with a terror bombing and the immediate suspect is a Muslim, well, you know he didn’t do it.
But Closed Circuit is no ordinary thriller, and so while liberal pieties are certainly on display, there are still real terrorists in this War on Terror.
A bombing in a London street. A suspect, Farroukh Erdogan, a Turkish immigrant with a record of petty drug crimes in Germany, is arrested. Because the crime has national-security implications, Erdogan will be given two defense attorneys: one public and one secret. Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the public face of Erdogan’s defense, while Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) is playing defense in private. See, there is evidence in this case of a top-secret nature, which cannot be made public, which cannot be made available even to the defendant himself. That evidence is shared in a secret hearing before a judge and the defendant’s private barrister.
There’s just two problems: Simmons-Howe and Rose have a romantic history, which should have disqualified at least one from performing his/her duties, and would have disqualified his/her had they not both lied under oath regarding any personal impediments to performing their duty. The other problem is Erdogan himself: an abusive jerk of a defendant who’s not very forthcoming about how he was able to leave Germany and enter Britain with such ease, or how his low-level heroin dealing allowed him to drive such an expensive car.
Enter an MI5 agent, Nazrul Sharma (Riz Ahmed), who’s keeping very close tabs on Simmons-Howe, even entering her locked, file-strewn office with the ease of a bilocating locksmith. Moreover, Rose finds that every time he hails a cab, regardless of time or locale, it possesses the exact same license number. Throw in a nosy American journalist, another Brit barrister who supposedly committed suicide but who had a tangential relationship to the Erdogan investigation, Erdogan’s wife and son trapped in a “safe house” under the supervision of the same agent watching over Simmons-Howe, and we have ourselves a game of cat and mice.
Can we talk about conventional “good guys” when the state is employing many of the same tactics of the terrorists it’s surveilling? And when everyone is under surveillance, doesn’t everyone become a suspect in his or her own country? Have the bad guys won (and the film does not deny that there are, in fact, bad guys of the Islamist terror-cell variety) by forcing free nations to constrict civil rights? Rather obvious questions, many of which are cribbed from Cold War–era films where the lawyers and journalists are the only honest brokers, Closed Circuit nevertheless offers enough plot twists to make for an entertaining-enough thriller of the Three Days of the Condor kind. It’s flaws are as obvious as those questions, however, like the cartoonish secret-agent types who spout rationalizations for their behavior that under other circumstances would sound reasonable enough post-9/11 and 7/7, except for the fact that the cartoons are usually in the process of doing something brutal and illegal as they spout them. And I must say that the rather interchangeable characters, or should I say personalities, of Bana and Hall and the pedestrian aesthetic compels one to ask what might have been possible with another director, say a true visionary—a Hitchcock, a Kubrick?
What if it the barristers, under unrelenting scrutiny and threats of violence, began to come unglued? What if the lines between paranoid conspiracy theories and ugly War on Terror realities, between false flag operations and security necessities, became so blurred that what the barristers imagined was happening and what was really happening was never clear? What if the binary barristers were not two people but one person, torn by competing allegiances? Imagine Hitchcock’s murderous gazes shooting lines of sight that both betray and confound? Imagine Kubrick steady-camming through a maze of London streets and office, living, and courtroom spaces that begin to mirror each other?
A double entendre of sorts, Closed Circuit is a reference to both the ubiquitous cameras that capture virtually every eye flutter of London’s millions, and the infinite loop that is the security-state justice system. It’s also an unintentional reference to the conventions of the Cold War subgenre that the War on Terror subgenre is emulating. The result in this case is a film that both diverts and disappoints by eliciting questions of what might have been.