"Closed Circuit," the story of a high-profile terrorist bomber case, draws on the legacy of 1970s political thrillers like "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of a Condor" to create a film that feels very much of the moment.
The political and social events that fed paranoia about bureaucratic malfeasance in that decade – the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam — have changed, giving way to things like Wikileaks or Edward Snowden. Yet the anxiety remains, and gives the low-budget thriller opening Wednesday a weightiness beyond its conventional story of two lawyers caught in a vast government conspiracy.
However, the "Closed Circuit" actor and co-star Rebecca Hall both acknowledged that though their film was conceived and shot in advance of Snowden's decision to leak information to the Guardian about government surveillance, the revelations have made their story more topical.
"I don’t think a film or any piece of art work is any good if it answers all the questions, because then it’s just propaganda," Hall said. "It’s didactic. Any relevant piece of art raises more questions and that’s what I think we’re doing with this film. I don’t think you come out of it with a message, per se, about 'This is what should or shouldn’t be happening.' It’s just raising the various issues."
Audiences won't find any explicit parallels with the NSA leaker or the U.S. government's efforts to extradite him from Russia. Instead, it's an examination of a part of English jurisprudence involving “closed session" cases, where evidence relating to issues of national security is kept confidential from a defendant.
Director James Crowley vividly remembers that he was enmeshed in editing the film when news of Snowden's revelations hit. Although he found the debate it stirred fascinating, he was dumbfounded when the film's backers Focus Features told him that the Snowden case would give "Closed Circuit" added resonance.
"I just wasn’t looking at it like that," Crowley said. "I thought this was a film set in England and an attempt to engage with this democracy, but the more I’ve read about the Snowden case and the issues that it brings up — it’s right at the core of what this film is about. It's looking at increased power in the government and does that lead to increased wrongdoing when a part of democracy feels it is above the law."
It may have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but even the filmmakers and stars admit that an adult thriller like "Closed Circuit" faces an uphill battle opening in a summer dominated by superhero movies and cartoons.
"It’s a lot harder for a film like this to get made than it was ten years ago," Bana said. "If it's going to keep its head above water in the marketplace, we’re going to be reliant on word-of-mouth."
Getting the film made might not have been possible, Crowley said, had it not been for Focus' success with another distinctly English thriller — 2011's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which was densely plotted but nevertheless racked up more than $80 million worldwide.
It also required being economical. Despite a cast that includes Bana, Hall and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, the film only cost $19 million to shoot. However, Crowley said he thought the leaner budget actually helped the film, and noted that because his previous films like "Boy A" were all shot for under $4 million, he felt like he was working on a "Michael Bay film."
"Some of the later incarnations of thrillers, like 'The Interpreter,' felt a bit bloated to me," Crowley said. "They were costing huge amounts of money and the effects were a bit clunky. When they’re made for less money, you are forced to focus on the characters and on the situations and the inevitable thrills and spills that creep into things like that."
After a summer where big budgets have not always equaled big box office, Crowley said he was hopeful that the recent collapse of tentpole films like "White House Down" and "Pacific Rim" might lead to a paradigm shift. Moreover, films like "The Conjuring," which consciously evoke an earlier and more character-driven era of moviemaking, have scored.
"Thrillers used to be a mainstream genre, but we lost our nerve about it," Crowley said. "I hope things change because these are very challenging times and there are some amazing things happening ethically. They’re the things that need addressing in our movies right now, not 'White House Down.'"