DAVID STRATTON ON SECRETS OF THE GATEKEEPERS
IT sounds like one of those old-fashioned horror films, but Paranoia turns out to be a sober drama, with a few mild thrills, set in the hi-tech world of corporate white-collar workers. The unlikely narrative, which involves an up-and-coming player assigned by his boss to spy on a rival company, is distinguished by some pretty good actors and the slick direction of Australian Robert Luketic, who succeeds in bringing more to the screenplay, by Jason Hall and Barry L. Levy from a novel by Joseph Finder, than it probably deserves.
Luketic isn’t the only Aussie on board this very New York story; in addition there is Julian McMahon as a sinister enforcer, but his is a small part. More importantly, Liam Hemsworth, overflowing with looks and charisma, plays Adam Cassidy, a loyal employee of the mighty Wyatt Corporation, whose chief executive, Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman), sports what sounds like a cockney accent you could cut with a knife. Adam, who lives with his sickly but wise old father (Richard Dreyfuss) in an unfashionable part of town, makes the mistake of encouraging a small group of fellow employees to make a pitch to Wyatt for some futuristic thingummy they’ve designed, but their proposal is dismissed by Wyatt, who dismisses Adam and his pals as well.
Fortunately for them, and the script — but, again, hardly credible — their Wyatt-owned credit cards, supposed to be for legitimate expenses, haven’t been instantly cancelled, so they’re able to celebrate being fired with a boozy night on the town that ends with Adam enjoying a one-night stand with beautiful Emma (Amber Heard), a stranger he meets in a club. Next day, Wyatt calls Adam into his office and offers to reinstate him and the others if he agrees to infiltrate the rival Eikon Corp and report back to Wyatt on the development of its latest piece of technology. The boss of Eikon is Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford), a former colleague but now deadly rival of Wyatt. Wouldn’t you know, Emma turns out to be a senior employee at Eikon, which just serves to complicate things even further.
In this murky world it seems you can be killed for knowing too much about some piece of advanced technology, and Luketic — better known for his comedies — has no trouble whipping up scenes of mild tension at regular intervals. Hemsworth and Heard are both exceedingly attractive, while Oldman and Ford look as though they’ve seen better days (especially Ford, who appears quite old and almost bald — it’s a bit of a shock to see Indiana Jones looking this careworn). It was also odd that all the nasty things said about Eikon seemed, at times, to refer to the film’s distributor, the similarly pronounced Icon.
For a while, Paranoia intrigues but eventually it becomes clear that the plot lacks substance and the characters are superficial. IT’S not often that you sit through a film with a feeling of growing astonishment that it could ever have been made, let alone released, but The Gatekeepers is one of those films. It’s essentially a ‘‘ talking heads’’ documentary, interspersed with newsreel footage, but the ‘‘ heads’’ in question are the six men who formerly headed Israel’s Shin Bet, or counter- terrorism agency. These men were charged with life-or-death decisions on behalf of the government of the day, and they rarely, if ever, speak out in public and almost never as frankly as they do here. It’s safe to say this controversial film could have been made, and publicly screened, only in a democratic country.
The film opens with aerial surveillance footage of the most chilling kind: far below, as remote as an object in a video game, a vehicle is driving through narrow city streets, a target pinned in the crosshairs of the device that is filming it. Inside that vehicle is someone considered to be a terrorist, and within a few moments the target explodes; mission accomplished, but at what cost and with what collateral damage?
By starting his documentary with such a powerful sequence, director Dror Moreh indicates this will be no whitewash. He wants to know how decisions like this were taken and who took them. The answers come from the six former Shin Bet chiefs, starting with Avraham Shalom, who was in change in 1980-86; the most recent ‘‘ gatekeeper’’ is Avi Dichter (2000-06). As these hard men talk about their work, their achievements and their frustrations, Moreh lays out for us a potted history of the Middle East conflict, starting in 1967 when, in the wake of the Six-Day War and the subsequent expansion of Israel’s borders, a million Palestinians found themselves under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza.
The most gripping part of this history shows the Oslo accords of 1993, when Bill Clinton succeeded in bringing together Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Yasser Arafat; the agreement was rejected by militants on both sides, leading, among other tragedies, to the assassination of Rabin two years later.
Through all this, the Shin Bet leaders, in compliance with their political masters, kept a close watch on extremists. ‘‘ Luckily for us, terrorism increased so we had a lot of work,’’ one says. Another admits that ‘‘ we’ve become cruel’’ and that ‘‘ we win every battle but lose the war’’. Another expresses his belief that all the militant Palestinians seek is to make Israelis suffer.
Why have these men spoken out, and spoken so frankly? Yaakov Peri (1988-94) reckons that ‘‘ after retiring from this job you become a bit of a leftie’’. Maybe, but the six interviewees, strikingly photographed in closeup by Avner Shahaf, never deny that, essentially, they were killers. They clearly have taken the blame for the policies of the country’s elected leaders, and they appear to have taken this opportunity for a bit of payback.
I was intrigued as to how this film was received in Israel and did a little investigating. As of late last month it was still playing at a cinema in Tel Aviv, attracting audiences and creating debate. My Israeli contact offered the view: ‘‘ No one expected these secretive people to open their mouths, and even if the censors did snip some of [what they said], what remains is a pretty powerful statement but only the tip of the iceberg.’’ He also noted that in Israel ‘‘ everybody has something to say about it, including those who refuse to see it because they consider it an act of provocation or even treason’’. Strong stuff.
And now Australian audiences have the opportunity to judge for themselves what the fuss is all about. All I can add is that I don’t think I’ll easily forget much of the content of this well-made and frequently remarkable film.
Liam Hemsworth in Paranoia, top, and Yaakov Peri in The Gatekeepers