Get this! Turns out that the government is spying on you and chasing terrorists by any means necessary and covering up their wrongdoing and sacrificing ideals for the sake of expediency and you can't handle the truth and -- oh, sorry, you know that already? But what if I told you it was happening in England, too? Then you'd find it somehow classier and at least rainier, maybe, and you'd be freshly shocked by this tale of power, corruption and lies, right?
No? Hmmm. Okay, you're right, it's just kind of a bummer, the kind you watched once already and didn't care for then, either.
In the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in the heart of London, a suspect (Denis Moschitto) is jailed. Classified evidence will be used to try him, evidence so secret that even his lawyers won't be allowed to see it. A "Special Advocate" (Rebecca Hall) is assigned, the only person allowed to see the classified material, but she cannot communicate with the suspect or the others on his defense team. When her ex-lover (Eric Bana) arrives as a replacement defense attorney (look, it's complicated) they decide together not to divulge their past. And that's against the law, too (see, told you it was complicated). On top of this framework of ethical compromise looms a conspiracy that could endanger the lives of everyone involved. Suspense-based thrills, we are assured, are certain to follow. But then they don't.
Whose fault? Not the leads, at least. Bana is stoic and determined and square-jawed, while Hall continues building a respectable career as the character actor whose head always manages to rise above whatever mediocre tide she's swimming against. She's smart, clear-eyed, intuitive and engaging, an actor that needs a bigger break in a better film to demonstrate that brightening up dullness isn't the same as shining in good material.
Her performance alone stands out and has the effect of hinting at the movie that could have been, the one that cooperates intelligently with her character's earnest fear. In one scene with Bana, realizing they face an overwhelming cover-up that reaches far beyond them, a life and death (or at least career death) trap partially built by their involvement in the case, Hall says, "We're not strong enough to fight them, are we?" It's a great moment of sobering anxiety and defeat, one that demands an smarter follow-through from the rest of the film. You want it to go wherever she's going.
Instead there are conventional thriller plot points, some chasing and running, then some downbeat resolutions, less-than-meaningful answers already covered in earlier, middlebrow, war-on-terror dramas, answers that really aren't answers at all. Without ruining the rest of the plot, it's still necessary to say that dour, downbeat paranoia in film can often have the effect of inspiring audiences to walk away and, down the road, demand better from government and public life without resorting to magical thinking as a means of accomplishing that task. But as it's currently practiced it's as if this post 9/11 genre of film is its own kind of conspiracy, the sort that convinces viewers to give up on expecting anything less than a superhero flown in from another movie to put a stop to duplicity as usual, to the decimation of private life, from governments holding all the cards on keeping their law-abiding populations in line and free from dissent. It comes off as exhausted instead of unnerved and negatively-energized, floating in a defeatist cloud of "Well, what can you do? This is how we live now." Encounter that lead weight worldview enough times and you'll start to believe it, too.