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