The CIA needs a major public-image overhaul. Last year’s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” did much to salvage and then revamp what had essentially become Hollywood’s go-to institution for portraying bad, bad stuff such as conspiracy, betrayal and government BS. Ultimately though, those two movies — though heroic in their efforts — worked out like brief rainfalls on acres of parched earth. Now the year is half over and the CIA is still a baddie. Look no further than “The Numbers Station” for further (if redundant) evidence that those guys in Langley just can’t be trusted.
For one thing, they have a tendency to off their own field operatives at the slightest provocation. Of late, on-screen CIA agents spend as much or even more time dodging bullets from colleagues and bosses as fighting terrorism. Talk about multitasking. “The Numbers Station” is no exception, or rather, its whole premise seems to hinge on how awful it is to work there, and how after years on the job an agent’s brain will turn to mush, and how crappy the bosses are, and so on. With movies like this, it’s a wonder how The Company manages to recruit people in real life.
Enter Emerson (JohnCusack, these days starting to resemble Nicolas Cage), who at the beginning of the movie is having another in a series of sleepless nights. At this point in his CIA black-ops career, he’s gunned down one too many lives in the name of justice, and it’s getting to him. After a near screw-up on one of his assignments, Emerson receives orders to lay low for a while and fly to the U.K. to bodyguard cryptologic specialist Katherine (Malin Akerman), on duty at an operations house located in the English countryside.
At the outset of the story, “The Numbers Station” informs us how agents are given instructions over short-wave radio, in coded numbers read out by local women who themselves have no knowledge of what the numerical sequences mean. Apparently the practice is quite common and has been going on since World War II, though “governments deny it.”
While this sounds retro and potentially interesting, “The Numbers Station” somehow bypasses this intriguing aspect of CIA espionage and prefers to concentrate instead on the usual mayhem of guns and explosions.
Emerson and Katherine wind up trapped inside a gray concrete bunker with a mysterious platoon of weapon-toting thugs on their heels. Emerson thinks just maybe they’re being double-crossed by his bosses. Katherine gives him a long, annoyed look but it’s hard to tell whether it means “Duh!” or wondering if she can charge for overtime. Or maybe she is downright resentful of being confined in a cold, forbidding bunker with sour-faced, no-fun Cusack instead of someone cute and amenable, like Zac Efron. That’s so like the CIA.
That said, “The Numbers Station” is incredibly stylish, blending Scandinavian design and aesthetics into the wintry English hillscape. This is Danish director Kasper Barfoed’s first Hollywood feature, and though the story suffers from over-predictability, the visuals seem fresh and unfamiliar, a wilderness glimpsed in a marshland of tired spy tactics.