Callous People and Compromised Codes:
The Numbers Station
I’ve always been drawn to the theme of redemption in the films that I find most interesting. It may be something to do with not being a religious man and who has done more than a few bad things over the years, yet who hopes at some point before he falls off the twig for—yes, redemption—of some sort. Maybe just for a chance to do some good for people. And I suppose that the theme of redemption is what keeps me fascinated, after all these years, with the films of Sam Peckinpah. And perhaps they were so singularly powerful because he was looking for something very like that himself.
The close mouthed Emerson Kent (John Cusack) of Kasper Barfoed’s low-key thriller The Numbers Station never articulates that this is what he’s searching for. In fact, certainly in the early part of the movie, I doubt that he is aware of it; but that’s what he’s ultimately on the trail of, just the same.
In an almost botched assassination the CIA operative is confronted with a young girl who has witnessed one of his killings and asks him tearfully: “Why? Why did you do it?”
Well, it’s one of those key questions, isn’t it, why the hell we do anything? Certainly, one of his superiors seems to recognise this when she asks him why he does do it. “After all”, she notes, “you’re not sociopaths.”
Recognising that he’s approaching complete burn-out they send him to a remote Numbers Station in Sussex, England where it is his job to sit with a beautiful young cryptographer while she sends out messages that she doesn’t know the meaning of. A bit of an idealist, Katherine (Malin Akerman) seems to be under the illusion that if her country asks her to do something then it must be for the good of all, in some vague sort of way. I suspect that there are hundreds upon hundreds of naive Katherine clones around the world, working for Governments and their shadowy agencies that care not a spit-in-the-breeze for them.
This Katherine, however, is about to be educated. She thinks that Emerson is just the uncommunicative agent who is there to protect her. Instead, he is there to end her life if she becomes a liability to the agency. Which has just come to pass, because she is the only one who can stop messages to fifteen operatives going out that will end fifteen lives. Emerson puts it to her that if she kills these men today then the world will be a very different place tomorrow. Which I’m not sure is a great argument, to tell you the truth. I can think of fifteen people right off the top of my head that the world would be no poorer for seeing the back of. Still, I’d better not go there.
Anyway, Emerson is told over the phone: “The Code has been compromised. Retire the broadcaster.” I do love the way these people speak. Retire. I can’t wait to see what codename is trundled out for the Syrian operation in a few days.
Later on, one character tells Emerson:
“I used to work for the same righteous pricks who twisted your life. Now I work for the other side: just as twisted, but they pay a lot more. They break us, you know. Turn us into these awful things…make us into men that we’re not. And then they complain when we no longer function.”
Sure, we can dismiss this as the glib philosophising that we’ve heard in a hundred spy films; but it rather struck me, this being written on the eve of American intervention in Syria. Because I think that there will again be many Americans who think that ‘they’ are doing it for one reason whilst their Government—and more importantly the men who really run the country—are doing it for another. And no, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; but anyone who thinks that President Obama is the most important man in America really doesn’t have a clue.
Also, in another life I’ve met and spoke with people who have been ruined because they got into something when they were younger that they thought would actually make a difference to this world.[Strangely, though, and just to go off on a tangent for a moment: the most important man in Britain’s decision not to get involved might well have been the ghastly Tony Blair. Widely considered by the British people to be a war criminal, his helpful comments on Syria may have been enough to scupper Cameron. After all, if the cynical WMD-hunter of yore supports something then most rational people would do the opposite.]
I doubt that The Numbers Station will be much of a crowd-pleaser, which is a shame. It has the look and feel of an old-fashioned Cold War piece: claustrophobic, austere, spare…yes, cold. It’s reminiscent of last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in its subdued way, though on a much smaller scale and obviously not in the same league as that fine film.
Still, I hope that it gets some kind of break.
The screenplay is by F. Scott Frazier.
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