The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

WE love a good con­spir­acy thriller. We’re eas­ily sucked in by the con­flict of se­crecy and spies, hon­our and be­trayal, the dark­ness in the shad­ows. I started out in the sub­ver­sion-ob­sessed late 1950s after dis­cov­er­ing Bri­tons John Buchan, Ge­of­frey House­hold, Gra­ham Greene and Eric Am­bler. I was fix­ated on trade­craft: clan­des­tine meet­ings, dead-let­ter drops, surveil­lance traps and how to hide mes­sages in a boiled egg. The more am­bigu­ous, bleaker 70s and 80s gave spy­mad read­ers de­cent agents be­trayed by treach­ery in the top lev­els of the es­pi­onage es­tab­lish­ment in the books of John le Carre, Len Deighton and Ross Thomas.

The con­spir­acy even be­came its own film genre, with won­der­ful flashes of para­noid bleak­ness such as The Par­al­lax View, All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, The Con­ver­sa­tion and The Manchurian Can­di­date. Any pro­tag­o­nist who stum­bled on ev­i­dence of con­spir­a­cies deep within the up­per cir­cles of the US gov­ern­ment and the cor­po­rate es­tab­lish­ment found them­selves in ter­ri­ble jeop­ardy.

Drama­tis­ing the idea of con­spir­acist fan­tasies and in­sti­tu­tional dis­trust, th­ese dark un­set­tling films were also pro­foundly plea­sur­able. In the real world there were po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions and scan­dals, and the hated Viet­nam War. It was easy to be­lieve in the ex­is­tence of a right­ist con­spir­acy within the es­tab­lish­ment aimed at de­stroy­ing any­one who threat­ened the power of the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex.

Fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror at­tacks the genre has come in from the cold; dark con­spir­a­to­rial vi­sions highly sus­pi­cious of our po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions have be­come a part of main­stream TV view­ing with shows such as 24, State of Play, Prison Break, Burn No­tice, NCIS, House of Cards and Home­land.

It’s not some­thing our lo­cal TV storytellers have seemed all that in­ter­ested in. There were touches of con­spir­acy lurk­ing in the bril­liant East West 101 but it was es­sen­tially a highly in­ge­nious ver­sion of the tra­di­tional de­tec­tive story. Pro­ducer Steve Knap­man and co-cre­ator Kris Wyld drama­tised the am­bi­gu­ity in­her­ent in the search for truth, mean­ing and cit­i­zen­ship in the post-9/11 world with Don Hany’s Syd­ney Mus­lim de­tec­tive Zane Ma­lik. And I vaguely re­mem­ber about five years ago there was Dirt Game, a rea­son­able at­tempt at the cor­po­rate techno thriller cen­tred on the in­ter­na­tion­ally con­trolled min­ing in­dus­try, but it was cu­ri­ously un­in­volv­ing, though pro­duced with some skill.

Hap­pily the ABC has de­liv­ered us The Code, start­ing this week, cre­ated and writ­ten for pro­duc­tion house Play­maker by the stun­ningly clever Shel­ley Birse, along with Blake Aysh­ford and Justin Monjo. And it’s a cracker. With a starry cast in­clud­ing David Wen­ham, Lucy Law­less, Aden Young, Chelsie Preston Cray­ford and the re­doubtable Aaron Ped­er­sen — all in fine form — it’s di­rected by Shawn Seet with style to burn.

What they give us is an edge-of-your-seat por­trayal of po­lit­i­cal skul­dug­gery and sub­terfuge that’s omi­nously pre­scient in this age of ter­ror. Birse’s con­cerns are mod­ern ones: state surveil­lance, the role of in­ter­net hack­ers and the cor­ro­sive ef­fects of po­lit­i­cal spin. More than that, Birse has de­vel­oped a sprawl­ing po­lit­i­cal cover-up story that, like all good shows of this man­ner, un­furls through the agree­able viewfinder of a dy­namic and en­gag­ing se­ries of hu­man re­la­tion­ships.

A ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent oc­curs in the out­back when a stolen four-wheel-drive col­lides with a trans­port truck from a highly clas­si­fied re­search fa­cil­ity, badly in­jur­ing two lo­cal kids from the Lin­dara Com­mu­nity School in the ve­hi­cle.

It should have re­mained a mys­tery, eas­ily si­lenced by gov­ern­ment. But Ned (Dan Spiel­man) — a young knock­about in­ter­net jour­nal­ist on on­line pub­li­ca­tion Pass­word who is des­per­ate for a break — and his trou­bled hacker brother Jesse Banks (Ash­ley Zuk­er­man), who is on a strict good-be­hav­iour bond, are gifted a poi­soned chal­ice. When a video of the chil­dren’s ac­ci­dent ar­rives in their in­box, they be­come the un­like­li­est cru­saders for democ­racy. Ned is Jesse’s long-suf­fer­ing carer; his brother is slightly un­hinged by a kink in the brain’s wiring — even Asperger’s is not a per­fect fit — but cy­berspace is a world where he can shine.

The decision to dig deeper drags the brothers into the dark­est heart of pol­i­tics and the web of black mar­ke­teers, and the in­ter­na­tional agen­cies that mon­i­tor and ma­nip­u­late them. (Spiel­man and Zuk­er­man, who are both ac­cru­ing im­pres­sive TV cred­its, are ter­rific here, cred­i­ble as brothers, and able to hold character con­vinc­ingly in the com­plex machi­na­tions of Birse’s plot­ting.)

Con­ceived as a kind of “ripped from the head­lines” se­ries, The Code has been four years in the mak­ing since the first pitch, Birse says — a case of “cast­ing stones into the fu­ture” — but the po­lit­i­cal cur­rency of her ma­te­rial has proved as re­silient as its cre­ator.

Trav­el­ling in the Mid­dle East at the height of the Arab Spring, Birse was sur­prised to find Aus­tralians play­ing a piv­otal role in get­ting the truth of what was hap­pen­ing in coun­tries such as Egypt, Turkey and Tu­nisia out to the rest of the world.

“They were help­ing the voices of or­di­nary men and women be heard against the ex­press wishes of ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary forces, and they were do­ing this not with fire­power or wealth or strength, but with their brains and their dig­i­tal prow­ess,” she says. “At the same time, the act of whistle­blow­ing was at­tract­ing seem­ingly un­prece­dented pun­ish­ment, and to have Aus­tralians op­er­at­ing on the world stage in both th­ese ar­eas was story ter­rain too rich to re­sist.”

We have learned in re­cent years to trans­late almost all of po­lit­i­cal life in terms of con­spir­acy, and Birse nails that quasi-moral and spir­i­tual vi­sion of some­thing go­ing on just out of our reach.

“The weight of the clas­sic po­lit­i­cal thriller is with plot, and once you light the wick of the con­spir­acy, it can be tremen­dously hard to stop the plot rocket in or­der to spend time ex­plor­ing the shades of character,” she says.

“Our aim for The Code was to try to turn the tra­di­tional thriller bal­ance be­tween plot and character on its head. We wanted to tell a story about two very par­tic­u­lar brothers drawn kick­ing and scream­ing into the belly of a po­lit­i­cal thriller, rather than a po­lit­i­cal thriller which hap­pens to be un­rav­elled by two brothers.”

It wasn’t an easy task with so many nar­ra­tive arcs across the well-re­alised char­ac­ters.

“There were days when plot­ting The Code felt like try­ing to catch a crocodile with a but­ter­fly net,” says Birse. “The six-hour jig­saw puz­zle was made some­what more com­plex by the choice to opt for mul­ti­ple points of view, which de­liv­ers the great ad­van­tage of be­ing able to travel through door­ways with all the play­ers in the piece, but there were times when jug­gling the dreaded ‘ who knows what when?’ ques­tion had us bang­ing the ta­ble with our fore­heads.”

They have suc­ceeded splen­didly, Birse’s com­plex plot bril­liantly con­trolled and en­hanced by Seet’s di­rec­tion, the cin­e­matog­ra­phy of Bruce Young and Roger Ma­son’s sound­track. Seet loves big, hov­er­ing close-ups, tense cam­era work and kalei­do­scop­i­cally cut ac­tion se­quences (pre­cise edit­ing from Deb­o­rah Peart). He and his col­lab­o­ra­tors de­liver a sense of men­ace in the every­day — a sub­ur­ban ter­ror that lies just be­neath the sur­face, or just out of the cor­ner of your eye.

As Birse says, Seet also brings to the se­ries a clear sense of the im­por­tance of place. “His vi­sion was to play out this drama in two deserts — one ur­ban and one re­mote — and he was able to jux­ta­pose the stark, cruel, beau­ti­ful an­gles of Can­berra with the or­ganic earth­i­ness of the out­back to great ef­fect.”

The Code is highly en­ter­tain­ing but chill­ingly pre­scient. As Birse sug­gests, there is a sense that we’ve all dived head­long into this vast, gamechang­ing in­ter­net age with­out read­ing the fine print, and we don’t yet know whether it’s go­ing to be the most won­der­ful, democratis­ing gift of the cen­tury or whether we have in­vited the dig­i­tal Stasi into our liv­ing rooms.

“Do we end up with a po­ten­tial print­ing press on the desk of ev­ery cit­i­zen or a closed-cir­cuit surveil­lance unit?” she asks. “Per­haps writ­ers of ev­ery age feel it, but it does seem a dan­ger­ous time to be asleep at the wheel.”

Septem­ber 20-21, 2014

Ash­ley Zuk­er­man plays a gifted com­puter hacker in also in the cast are Aaron Ped­er­sen

and Lucy Law­less, be­low

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.