“The Numbers Station” (2013): A Focus on the Opening Sequence and First Scene
Since I was feening for a spy thriller last week, I looked at my “TO WATCH” list on IMDB and found The Numbers Station (2013). Its central concept — spies who transmit, intercept, encode, or decode secret, numerical messages to field operatives — was featured in a Chinese-language movie, The Silent War (2012), that I reviewed not so long ago. It also stars John Cusack. I’ve been a Cusack fan since I saw him in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), where he worked well opposite Kevin Spacey (another actor favorite of mine). Cusack had already done a good number of films by then. By the way, the first Cusack movie I saw was — I admit it — Sixteen Candles (1984). Yes, a Molly Ringwald movie. I was in college and it was a date — yadda yadda yadda.
Back to the film at hand — its title sequence (created by Richard Morrison) begins with an audio background of radio static mixed with the film’s music soundtrack (a mixture of synthesizers and strings that adds a feeling of suspense and tension). As the static is replaced with a female voice reading numeric code sequences, brief opening credits roll and are quickly replaced with text that explains the movie’s historical background.
Since World War II, intelligence agencies have used secret stations to send encrypted assignments to agents in the field.
Unlike digital and cellular communications, these shortwave broadcasts of encoded numbers are untraceable.
Governments deny the use of such stations, but the numbers can still be heard today.
The last word “today” first appears as numbers spoken by the female voice which then morph into the word. The music, now synthesizer-based rock, rises in tempo and volume, and we move back to opening credits. The names in these credits are also formed partially out of numbers that morph into letters and are accompanied by a montage of still photographs and videos of espionage- and war-related subjects from the recent past. A long shot , taken from a helicopter at night, follows, establishing location in a sizable, American-looking city. The camera zooms to nighttime view of traffic on a bridge over a river (which seems to be the Potomac — are we in Washington, D.C.?). The sequence ends with the film’s title.
I went into some detail here because it is easy to overlook how much information filmmakers give their audiences in opening sequences. These sequences became much more artistic — more than opening credits as text — after graphic design began being used to make them. Apparently this trend began in the 1960s with the work of graphic designers like Saul Bass. This film uses this tradition to give the basic back-story and introduce an establishing shot. In a way, it’s a cold opening or teaser. The title sequence can be viewed on Richard Morrison’s website.
Nevertheless, the first action scene starts with superimposed text that locates it in “Jackson, New Jersey, U.S.” In a slick transition, the coded message heard in the opening sequence continues and becomes a mission order for the movie’s protagonist, Emerson Kent (Cusack), a CIA clandestine operations agent who specializes in wet work. Seated in the passenger seat of a car driven by his partner and superior officer, Grey (Liam Cunningham), he attempts to decode the message while Grey tells a story he heard on the radio. The story taught him that the value of a human being’s cremated remains (based on the minerals contained in them) is a paltry $4.40. In other words, human life is of little value, especially in the world of these men.
Given this theme, the first scene teaches us the plot’s main conflict, one that is psychological — internal to Emerson. A stone killer, he has been ground down and burnt out by the job, which basically involves always coming up with a contingency plan to kill everyone he meets. In the scene, he terminates a former operative who embezzled funds in order to start a new life — running his own bar — after getting out of the spy game. Before Emerson does the hit, his target tells him something that resonates with his current mindset: if you do something long enough, it’s hard to think of doing anything else.
Nevertheless, Emerson kills him, as well as everyone else in the bar — except one person, who manages to escape before Emerson can shoot him. Emerson and Grey track the man to his home, where the former dispatches him in short order. However, he can’t bring himself to kill the man’s daughter, who is unlucky enough to witness the assassination. She unwittingly utters the very thought that has been troubling Emerson: “Why did you do that?” As a result, for the first time in his career, Emerson leaves a living person at the scene of a hit. Unfortunately, she runs outside after him and is gut-shot by Grey, who is acting as Emerson’s backup man. Emerson attempts to prevent Grey from administering the coup de grace, but is pistol-whipped to the ground by Grey, who finishes the job as Emerson and the girl make eye contact.
Back at headquarters, Emerson’s new reluctance to follow standard operating procedure earns him a psych eval. He is found emotionally unfit for further deep-cover field ops. In an attempt to salvage his career, Grey offers him an assignment providing security for a “numbers station,” a clandestine broadcasting station that transmits encrypted mission orders to agents in the field. As already explained by the opening sequence, these orders are sent via shortwave radio broadcast in a numerical cipher that requires a civilian cryptanalyst, in this case Katherine (Malin Akerman), to encode and transmit.
Unbeknownst to Katherine, Emerson’s job also involves terminating her if she becomes “compromised.” Emerson seems to be reconciled to this potential action until the station is attacked and taken over by enemy agents while he and Katherine are off-shift. Their counterparts at the station (another field agent and cryptanalyst) have been killed, but not before the cryptanalyst was forced to send encrypted mission orders that are targeted at the fifteen most powerful clandestine ops leaders in the CIA. Katherine and Emerson themselves are attacked by a sniper when they arrive at the station for their three-day shift. They manage to take cover within the station, but not before Katherine is injured by the blast from a booby-trapped vehicle. Locked inside the station, where Emerson kills the remaining enemy agent inside (others were killed by Emerson’s counterpart before he himself was killed), they find themselves under siege by other enemy agents outside the station.
This situation reactivates Emerson’s internal conflict. Standard procedure dictates that he kill Katherine because the station has been compromised. Yet he is hesitant to do so — he has been having PTSD-like nightmares about the incident depicted in the film’s first scene. Once Katherine discovers that the enemy has sent the fifteen mission orders described above, she feels duty-bound to send messages cancelling these orders. In order to do so, she needs to break the cipher that is used to generate the code, as a random version is used for each message. However, when Emerson uses an emergency hotline to report the attack, he is ordered to kill her. The remainder of the film (the third act) shows how he works out this complicated conflict.
On the surface, this is a spy story that has been done before. However, as Lew Hunter (1993) pointed out (paraphrasing Ecclesiastes), “Everything’s been done before” (L. Hunter, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, p. 39). The point is, “It’s not what you do but how you do”:
The second 434 rule (after the first rule, “you will turn in a draft in nine weeks”) is, “you will never tell yourself or anyone that it’s been done.” We don’t give a rodent’s behind that someone else has done it before because they could not have done it the way you will. Always remember, individualism is what makes screenplays great, not their uniqueness. (p. 40)
The individualism displayed by screenwriter F. Scott Frazier and director Kasper Barfoed in this film is exemplified by its opening sequence and first scene. John Cusack’s interpretation of his character is the key to bringing their particular vision of a standard spy thriller plot to life on its own terms. While I am not arguing here that The Numbers Station is a great or classic film in the genre, what I do want to stress is that it pays to look into how screenwriters, directors, actors, and other members of the team that makes a movie contribute to the execution of the film’s vision. In the case of this movie, taking the time to pay attention to particular aspects of filmmaking (such as Richard Morrison’s title sequence) helped me to appreciate it in a different light. In the past, I might have written it off (and naively so) as just another generic movie.