Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Numbers Station (2013, Film)

The Numbers Station opens with two men parked on a darkened street in present day Jackson, New Jersey. The driver, an older man named Grey (Liam Cunningham), is relating the mineral worth of humans – less than five dollars – while the passenger is focused on his small black notebook writing a series of numbers down, circling some of the digits while referencing a separate printed page of numbers. Emerson (John Cusack), the decoder, acknowledges he has received his mission directive, lights the page on fire and tosses it out the window. Grey gives him 10 minutes to complete his task. Thus begins this suspense-driven thriller that follows Emerson's fall from grace within the CIA's Black Ops organization when he fails to kill an innocent bystander who witnessed him cleaning up a hit, causing him to spiral into a psychological journey to discover his answer to “why” through the rest of the film.

Emerson (John Cusack) has a lot on his mind

Emerson is given one more chance to prove his worth with what should be a straightforward babysitting mission. In an off-the-radar bunker located somewhere in rural Suffolk, England, Emerson protects a civilian codes operator, Katherine (Malin Akerman), who broadcasts shortwave messages encrypted in a series of apparent random numbers. However, Emerson’s mental and emotional state after the last hit has followed him; on his off duty hours, he drinks to block out images of the witness’ death. After two months pass without incident, Emerson and Katherine are shot at as they await a switch off with the other team in the bunker. The bunker becomes a dangerous refuge as they try to unravel how the bunker became compromised during the prior team’s watch, and more importantly, how to reverse 15 suspect broadcasts that could be orders for nefarious activities. Emerson’s safety net, the organization’s operator, directs him to “retire” Katherine, putting him squarely in the same situation of being ordered to kill an innocent person. Feelings of extreme emotional conflict bubble to the surface for Emerson. This time, he must face his demons and reconcile who he is and what he believes in.

Emerson drinks himself into a stupor to find momentary peace

A Closer Look at The Numbers Station

The first and most rudimentary question when a clandestine agency is involved in the storyline is where the movie (television show, book, manga, et. al.) fits along the spy/espionage spectrum and others of its ilk. Because the genre is a conglomerate of varying degrees of spy and espionage and identifiers of genre can be and are often shared, it seems easier to talk in terms of one overarching genre, but I think that does a disservice to what is being analyzed. 

Based on prior exposure to the genre’s many offerings, let’s start by dividing the genre into soft spy-fi and hard spy-fi. The former is based in fantasy and the fantastical plots of world domination and/or complete destruction. Technology will usually be a prominent feature, typically in the capabilities of the gadgets and weapons brandished by secret agent/superspy and maniacal villain alike. Character development may be secondary to the mission as the main plot device to propel the story towards its conclusion. Examples of soft spy-fi would include the Bond and Eurospy films, Get Smart, Deux Ex, and Najica Blitz Tactics. The latter form is rooted in the realistic spy and espionage, with emphasis on technical aspects of the clandestine activities. The spy uses their ingenuity over gadgets on steroids; likely, they may only have a smart phone at their disposal to compliment their experience and training. A personal character flaw may become an important aspect to the story. Some examples would include The Quiller Memorandum, Enigma, MI-5, Burn Notice, 24, Splinter Cell, and novels by Ian Fleming, Edward Aarons and Stieg Larsson, to name but just a few. The lines are apt to blur when one takes on some of the characteristics of the other, leading them to fall more in the center of the spectrum than further away to one of the opposing points.

Mystery encryptions - can the key be found? 

So, where does this put The Numbers Station? This movie sits squarely in the hard spy-fi camp because it portrays a sense of realism to being a Black Ops agent for the CIA. Issued with a little black notebook and a gun, Emerson relies on his seasoned experience and training to get himself through the various issues he must face during the movie. Technical encryption expertise is explored in some detail from the viewpoint of coder (Katherine) and decoder (Emerson) when they must work together to figure out how to reverse the 15 encrypted codes broadcast. This narrative of sharing encryption expertise and problem solving is reminiscent of Tom and Hester in the 2001 Enigma (although neither one of them are spies: they worked for a clandestine British intelligence organization at Bletchley Park during World War II).

Psychologist: "We are has all been distilled down to zeros and ones" 

The Numbers Station does spend a fair amount of time on exploring the character flaws of Emerson and briefly, Katherine, because it does weigh in on decisions made during the movie. After many years of being a “yes” man, Emerson begins to question the “why” when he botches his hit and he refuses to follow through on an order to kill a bystander. After the event, Emerson ia subjected to a psychological evaluation to examine what went wrong:

Emerson: She [the young woman who he refused to kill after she witnessed the hit] asked a very good question.

Psychologist: Which was?

Emerson: Why.

Psychologist: We are sociopaths. We’re vulnerable to qualms of conscience like anyone else. We face these decisions every day, and we vote up or down. Like everything else, it has all been distilled down to zeros and ones.

According the psychologist, decisions are black and white and seem to carry the same weight regardless if it is deciding which brand of soap to buy or whether to follow an order, even an order to take another person’s life. For Emerson, decisions do not distill down to a binary structure of one or the other; it’s a concept that he is forced to revisit a number of times.

At one point, Emerson and Katherine sharply point out each other’s shortcomings: he tells her she fits the coder’s profile of a college dropout, insecure, a possible victim of sexual abuse, and highly intelligent, and she responds that he is an arrogant person hating everyone and seeing everyone as a potential hit. He tells her she is close, but in actuality, he assesses himself with the following traits that led Emerson to reveal how the CIA was able to recruit him:

Emerson: I had a stable childhood but with an underlying desire to break free from control or authority. Restless. Sense of entitlement. Striking lack of empathy or compassion for other people….Recruited me straight out of college. Said it was the best opportunity I’d ever have. Told me I’d do special things, important things.

Katherine: But you’re worth more than that, what some bureaucrat wrote down on a piece of paper 20 years ago.

Emerson: All they’re talking about is what’s real. Reality. They know how to use it. They’re good at it.

While Katherine’s belief is that it is a job – hers and his – and that when the going gets rough, it’s as simple as walking away and doing something else. However, is it that simple? Tempers flare again and Emerson pushes Katherine to realize that although she is a civilian employee, she is still culpable for the part she plays within the organization. Her na├»ve patriotism and service to her country is not an excuse of innocence, claims Emerson in an angry outburst. As the anger subsides, each set to their respective tasks – Emerson to resolve the physical threat of the unknown assailant and Katherine to discover the password to the master encryptions so she can broadcast cancellation orders. 

Despite differences of opinion, Emerson and Katherine find code a common thread

After evaluating against the spy-fi spectrum, I look for any facets of the film that can be traced back to Bond’s sphere of influence on popular culture. Sometimes there are blatant homage instances to James Bond and other times, it may be subtle or none at all. In the case of The Numbers Station, Cusack’s Emerson is anything but Bond incarnate. Rather, his portrayal of a flawed Black Ops CIA agent is gritty and a pragmatic approach to the spy genre. Emerson toils away his evenings in tormented contemplation – haunted by his growing sense of morality, questioning his loyalty to the agency. He drinks to excess to dull the pain in the wee hours of the night, but the doubt remains and is at the forefront of his mind as he deals with the central crisis of the movie. Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond, especially while pretending to be dead after the opening sequence of Skyfall, one could find some parallels between the two characters. However, in the case of Emerson, he calls into question one’s blind allegiance, exploring and challenging the rules of engagement in the Jason Bourne series and hit man type films such as Wanted (2008) and The Replacement Killers (1998). Otherwise, Bond is no where to be seen or felt in this movie.

As an independent film, the use of one location – an old English bunker – for the vast majority of the movie is utilized to stretch a modest budget. Although the use of audio playback and visual flashbacks build a sense of suspense, there are other indie films that have utilized the single location to better advantage: Pontypool (2009), The Outpost (2008), and The Devil’s Rock (2011) come to mind. What works for The Numbers Station is the psychological component of two people, competently acted by Cusack and Akerman, having to pool their respective skills and knowledge and find trust with each other in spite of their character flaws. While Emerson is no Bond, he does add to the hard spy-fi offerings within the larger, ever evolving spy/espionage genre. 

Emerson deep in thought


  1. To me, the Number’s Station was an average bit of thriller, with more shortcomings than successes.

    Cusack is treading familiar territory with his Emerson character – a lone agent of sorts. You have Grosse Point Blank (comedy where he is a hit man) which was pretty decent, and then you have War Inc. (a black comedy) were he is a special agent of sorts. War Inc. definitely hit the political critique fast and hard, and failing on all counts. But the character in War Inc. has a lot of ties to the character in Grosse Point Blank, and I can’t help but tie his character of a CIA agent back to both of these movies. At least The Numbers Station is a superior movie over War Inc.

    I fell in love with Akerman in Watchmen were she was amazing as Silke Spectre 2. Her sexuality is greatly diminished for this movie, which helps solidify her as a believable, common character, but as a male moviegoer who does appreciate his eye candy, I was a little sad.

    But my problem with the movie isn’t with the lack of eye candy – it’s with the disposability of people. I have a really hard time believing that one cannot leave the CIA or other secret service – that the only out is to be killed.

    While this may make a neat plot device for, say, a gangster movie, it just doesn’t feel right for this type of movie. If the only out is death, then what’s the appeal for anyone to even join the CIA or other organization? We have special forces troops who engage in clandestine activities, and when their service is up, they are returned back to the civilian world. They must keep mum on what they’ve done, and their activities are unacknowledged, but they are still free to go.

    Even though Emerson is knee deep in the CIA world – he can’t possibly know everything. There is a reason for things to be on a “need to know basis” or “For your eyes only”. I would assume that Emerson only knows his piece of the bigger puzzle, and not the whole picture. I would also assume that is how most clandestine organizations are ran anyways. You need your information parsed out, especially in the events of capture or corrosion.

    In this day and age of Snowden and other leaks, what the character of Emerson has access to is the smallest of potatoes. It doesn’t make sense that he or Katherine’s character or even the agent at the beginning of the movie to die. Emerson gets orders to kill this ex-CIA person. But why? He’s been out of the game for months – so why now? And why there in his own public bar with witnesses everywhere that they too have to die?

    This seems like a clumsy way to operate. I had just watched the Hindi film Ek The Tiger recently and it has the same mentality: the main agent “Tiger” just “knows too much”. He must be killed or apprehended. I just have a hard time buying this mentality in today’s age.

    You mention the movie Pontypool being a superior movie. There is more common between these two movies, since the local of both is a transmission station (or radio station in Pontypool). There is key information being conveyed via the radio in both films which has a great impact on how the characters react and what they must do.

    The film also makes me think of the plot of Call of Duty: Black Ops. In that game, the main character is also receiving orders from a numbers station which guides him to execute various criminals (and apparently JFK!). So there are serious consequences going on for what information is relayed through these important stations!

    Which again brings me back to the big fault with the movie – if these stations are so important, why do they keep the same process in place for decades? You’d think that in case of compromise, instead of trying to kill the operators, you’d simply change the code? You bring up the movie Enigma which reminds me of the book Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. In the book, Enigma has been broken, but the allies try to use what they learned in a fashion as to not alert the Nazis they did break the code for fear they would change it! We had this mentality back in the 1940s, so why doesn’t this contemporary film have it now?

    1. Nick, while I will agree that The Numbers Station was an average thriller, I am more apt to believe the premise that his career choices were limited and potentially fatal. So for that, I think that the movie was more believable. Also, as you rightly pointed out, it doesn’t make sense that if these stations are so important, why the laissez-faire approach to security? Additionally, I think that if the ramifications of the persons selected for the 15 broadcasts had more emphasis, then it could have been a stronger, more politically enlightened film. That said, I did enjoy the references to coding, a subject I find utterly fascinating. I do wish there would have been more on the subject in this film, but I’m thinking that period films, such as Enigma, did a better job of it.


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