Do you ever feel that someone out there is listening to you without your permission? The Listening is an Italian-made espionage thriller about the spying capabilities of the United States and the abuse of those capabilities by corrupt people in power. A film of wonderful production values, The Listening concentrates on spying technology being used by the US National Security Agency, but it also makes a story of global proportions personal, and quite relevant. The movie looks good and is a pleasure to watch.
The story follows Jim Wagley (Michael Parks), a high level NSA technician stationed in England. He works at the headquarters of Echelon, a multi-billion dollar surveillance system that listens in on phone calls all over the world for key words that could signify national security threats to the United States or its allies. Wagley is a man of conviction who, at the beginning of the film, genuinely believes that the spying the NSA does is right because it is used to protect citizens.
That conviction disinigrates at the beginning of the film when the Echelon project takes a sales pitch from a private corporation, Wendell Cranchaw, whose employees have clearance to enter the NSA facility and demonstrates their new toy, Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed is a program that allows someone to listen in on any room in the world where there is a phone or cell phone, even when the line isn't open. The NSA is very impressed with the technology and looking to buy.
However, at the same time in Rome, Italy, some misplaced Tumbleweed literature finds its way into the hands of an innocent civilian, Francesca Savelli (Maya Sansa). Though she has no intentions of exposing the Tumbleweed project, she becomes the target of Wendell Cranshaw's hit men (euphemistically called "logistical support teams"). Wendell Cranshaw knows that if Tumbleweed is exposed, they'll lose all of their sales to surveillance agencies around the world, and thus lose millions of dollars. The company uses its pull with the NSA to get Jim to spy on Francesca using Echelon. Jim then discovers that the support team is torturing Francesca and planning to cripple her, and he finally accepts that things have gone too far. The fact that the NSA is aiding a private company to target a woman he knows to be innocent finally pushes him over the edge.
Jim leaves Echelon and flies to Rome, where he finds Francesca and takes her away from danger. Together, they decide to take on Wendell Cranshaw and the NSA by exposing Tumbleweed to the public. To do this, they have to use the equipment and technological expertise of Jim's old friend, Gianni (Andrea Tidona). Hence, the action scenes of The Listening contain people sitting around computers, fighting using keyboards instead of guns.
Admittedly, some of the technical jargon about how to break into other signals and how to get acces to certain satellites is above the heads of average viewers. I had no idea what was going on during such discussions, but the plot eventually makes it clear what the characters mean, by showing the results of their actions. The techno babble isn't prevalent enough to cause disinterest, which is good.
Giacomo Martelli's direction is superb. The compositions he orchestrates through cinematographer Eric Maddison speak volumes, and he makes wonderful use of montage, whether it is used to show the threatening, omniscient nature of the spying technology or to speed up a long, technical process for the viewer. The Listening focuses on the contrast between the cold, inhuman world of government surveillance and the feeling humanity of the rest of the world. One notable and humorous bit contrasts the ridiculous things people will talk about over the phone when they believe the connection is secure against how guarded they become if they know someone is eavesdropping.
Maddison's cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. The camera, as with any great film, tells its own story, and the contrast between the cold, lifeless greys of the Echelon headquarters and the warm, vibrant colors of Rome (and the rest of the outside world) hit you like a slap in the face when Jim defects. Even though she's in danger, Maya's world is real and alive and human, and Jim goes into it with her. There are some absolutely stunning views in The Listening, filmed at locations such as Mont Blanc in the Italian Alps.
The effects of The Listening are high quality, but wisely kept to a minimum. There is some spiffy CGI of Earth and its satellites used to eplain Echelon, and Martelli throws in some cool time lapse photography here and there. I love seeing a rare director who has access to flashy visuals, but limits himself to only achieving the required effect. Michael Bay could not have made The Listening.
The Listening is never subtle in its intent, which is to say to the people of the world, "This technology is real; you are being spyed on!" It is very accusatory towards the corrupt types who use this technology for their own ends. The film is book ended by factual information explaining the NSA and its surveillance technologies, and it uses actual news headlines to back up what it says. Tumbleweed is the filmmakers' fictional version of tehnology they believe to already exist.
It surprised me, then, that Martelli and his team told such a human story and didn't just point fingers the whole time. Jim's journey and his past are just as much a focus of the film as the technology he uses, and his journey is reason we watch and love this movie.