The political unrest and assassinations of the 1960s, culminating in the Watergate scandal, provided fertile ground for paranoid thrillers, from “The Parallax View” to “Chinatown” to “Klute.”
It says something about the state of contemporary filmmaking that a global trauma like 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror has led to a spate of such mediocre films as “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Body of Lies” and “Traitor.” (Quick: Can you remember anything about any of these movies without looking them up on IMDB?)
Toss “Closed Circuit” on the remainder pile with these other forgettable movies. It’s a story that means to shock us with a tale of wrongdoings and cover-ups at the highest levels, but in this post-Edward Snowden/Chelsea Manning era, does any government-sanctioned chicanery come as a real surprise anymore?
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If the movie had bothered to craft some memorable characters or dialogue or situations, this lack of urgency might not feel so pronounced. As it is, “Closed Circuit” feels stale and even peremptory, wasting the talents of some very skilled actors — Jim Broadbent, Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall and Ciáran Hinds among them — in the process
The film opens with a suicide bombing in a London street market, captured entirely by a grid of 15 CCTV cameras placed in various areas. You might think the screenplay by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Dirty Pretty Things”) is hiding a clue in plain sight in one of those screens, but no, this opening set-up is merely a reminder that there are cameras everywhere, monitoring us constantly, as though this were at all a revelation.
A foreign-born suspect is soon apprehended, and given the sensitive nature of the case, he’s assigned two attorneys: one who will handle the public proceedings and another one who will be given access to classified information and stand in a closed court, away from the eyes of the public and even the defendant.
When the original lawyer for the public half commits suicide, the job goes to Martin (Bana); within hours, he’s getting looped into conversations with the British Attorney General (Broadbent), who skillfully talks around his threats and demands in a very political way, and a New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles), who has suspicions about the death of Martin’s predecessor.
Further complicating matters is that the other attorney, the one handling all the top-secret stuff, is Claudia (Hall). Despite the fact that the two barristers are to have no connection at all with each other during the proceedings, Martin and Claudia had previously had a romantic entanglement — it was, in fact, the affair with Claudia that ended his marriage.
This element of “Closed Circuit” becomes one of the movie’s big problems, since Martin and Claudia do a terrible job of hiding their past liaison and their current (and expressly forbidden) swapping of information; the case gets complicated with secrets and conspiracies, but why should government higher-ups go out of their way to kill both lawyers when they could just pull the plug on the case by proving that Martin and Claudia are in clear violation of the law?
Director John Crowley (“Boy A”) brings far too lax a hand to the storytelling; it’s easy to predict which seemingly friendly collaborators are actually wolves in bespoke suits, and “Closed Circuit” never revs up enough energy to make us care about who’s responsible for the bombing, if justice will be served or whether or not Martin and Claudia will rekindle their old romance.
The whole enterprise culminates in a have-your-cake ending, in which the story seems like it might end ambiguously (and realistically) only to then throw in a voice-over that implies that the bad guys will be punished. It’s a last-minute failure of nerve that caps off the parade of failure that is “Closed Circuit” in general.