Mark Reviews Movies

The Numbers Station


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kasper Barfoed

Cast: John Cusack, Malin Akerman, Liam Cunningham, Richard Brake, Bryan Dick, Finbar Lynch, Lucy Griffiths, Joey Ansah

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language)

Running Time: 1:29

Release Date: 4/26/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 26, 2013

It's probably best to avoid opening the can of worms that is the premise of The Numbers Station. The screenplay by F. Scott Frazier assumes as a fact that the CIA and other intelligence agencies throughout the world are using secret bunkers to broadcast encrypted shortwave radio transmissions of seemingly random numbers, which are in turn heard and decrypted by agents in the field to receive the assignments. It sounds plausible in the context of the movie's opening text, which points out that it would be harder for such transmissions to fall into the wrong hands, especially when compared to modern technology.

Then, though, one must take into consideration the fact that anyone with the right equipment could hear these messages, too, which is, of course, why the theory exists that these kinds of coded transmissions are happening in the first place. If the CIA is doing this, it's one of the worst-kept secrets in espionage.

There we go delving into the movie's premise, which, like all conspiracy theories, starts to sound ludicrous the more one considers the ramifications. It's a credit to Frazier's screenplay that we're only really pondering the problems with the hypothesis when the movie is directly talking about it, and it's an even greater credit to the script that such instances are rare. The idea of these messages is simply a MacGuffin that, in this instance, holds the key unleashing the deadly force of CIA field agents across the globe to kill anyone they've been assigned to without question. It's a clever setup, and there's a devious irony to the villain's plan: to manipulate the CIA's own system to trick its own agents into disrupting the agency.

The only people standing between the bad guy and the super-duper-secret system are Emerson (John Cusack), a CIA agent who's been placed on babysitter duty at a numbers station in England after having a crisis of conscience after an assassination mission he was on led to his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham) killing a young woman, and Katherine (Malin Akerman), a civilian cryptologist who broadcasts the messages without any knowledge of what they say. There's an attraction between the two of them, but the movie shows a lot of restraint in not letting any kind of romance bloom between them in the midst of the chaos and confusion that's about unfold. They go their separate ways for the night—maybe with a little disappointment.

Arriving at the station for their next shift, it's quiet—too quiet. A sniper opens fire; a car explodes. They make their way into the bunker, where another man with a gun starts shooting at them. It's at this point that we realize what an effective space this location is for a firefight and a cat-and-mouse foot chase—full of tight corridors and corners, labyrinthine doors that seem to circle around each other like the set of a farce, and plenty of shadows. After, it becomes an atmospheric backdrop for director Kasper Barfoed to stage a lot of talking and listening.

The immediate threat eliminated, Emerson and Katherine are now trapped in the station, as the remaining man or men outside attempt to drill through the door to gain access and ensure the plan goes without the pair's interference. Meanwhile, the man on the other end of a secure line to headquarters orders Emerson to "retire" Katherine.

It's a minimalist setup but one that's rife with potential conflict, especially that last part (Sadly, it only results in a cheap fake-out moment, and that's not the last one, either). Instead, Frazier focuses on having Emerson and Katherine piece together what happened before they arrived for their shift from audio recordings that turn into flashbacks. The two wander this neatly designed edifice, finding dead bodies and uncovering events that really have no relevance to their current situation (The solution to the problem at hand is in an email that's haphazardly discovered at the last moment). There's no tension in what has already happened, and the scenes only serve to offer unnecessary expository details and to watch two people beaten and threatened before inevitably being killed (One of the men doing the threatening provides a strangely philosophical argument to why one of the bunker's employees should give up, lest she face "the unconditional end of future choice").

More effective are the scenes between Emerson and Katherine that have nothing to do with the plot. In those scenes, we obtain some understanding of the motivations of these two people to work for an agency that—the movie argues from the start when Emerson kills a runaway agent—believes they are completely expendable. For Katherine, it's patriotic duty; for Emerson, it's the only thing he's known since he was a young man.

The characterizations here aren't wholly enlightening, but they come as a relief after the movie spends so much time on superfluous plot background. By the time the story finally catches up to the present, The Numbers Station falls back on a lot of manipulative tricks (more fake-outs and even a ticking time bomb). It's little wonder the movie spends so much time running in circles when we see where it ultimately goes.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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