Hidden Agenda (1990)
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Jim Allen
Cinematographer: Clive Tickner
Producer: Eric Fellner
by Jon Cvack
I write this as impeachment remains at the forefront of congressional politics; with Democrats divided between the political consequences and other members concerned with the principles of the matter. Many on the left are frustrated by Mueller’s equivocation, believing that his refusal to specifically state a crime had been committed has allowed Trump and his Republican acolytes to claim complete exoneration. Given that this entry probably won’t go up for another year (it was written in August, 2019), I remain on the fence about what I think will happen. Ultimately it seems that avoiding impeachment will empower future presidents to bend, or even break the law, knowing that the only consequence they’ll face is a future election. On the other, should the public be drawn into a long legal battle, it could favor Republicans, and with zero chance of conviction in the senate, it could have reverse effects. Hidden Agenda explores a strikingly similar topic.
The apocryphal story takes place amidst the feud between the Irish Republican Army and Britain, as the right-wing British government led by Margaret Thatcher denies Ireland’s independence, labeling its dissidents as terrorists, and utilizing torture and extrajudicial assassinations in order to combat the problem. Loosely based on true events, the characters and their actions are inspired by actual British intelligence and government figures who authorized shoot-to-kill policies against IRA members.
Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand) and Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif) are two American lawyers who have been investigating the torture of IRA prisoners, opening up at a press conference after they’ve released the report. It’s clear that while the media will report the incident, the government will deny the allegations and little will happen. Later, on the eve before they’re set to leave, Paul receives a tape from a provisional IRA supporter which contains British police forces admitting their methods. Driving in the country, security forces shoot them down, steal the tape, and fabricate a story.
The event captures national headlines and the UK police investigator Peter Kerrigan (Brian Cox) is hired to investigate the murder. He quickly learns how little police are going to cooperate. In one scene, Captain Harris (Maurice Roëves) flexes his bureaucratic chops, going so far as to say he can’t provide details due to confidentiality, regardless of the fact that Kerrigan is supposed to have full access to any and all documentation. Again, in an age where Trump and Attorney General Barr prevented the Mueller report’s immediate release due to Executive Privilege, refusing to turn over any and all documents, and putting a gag on present and former Trump administration officials - we see the common thread between authoritarian-leaning governments. They will justify their actions by sculpting the narrative which propagates a lie, then refuse to provide details through bureaucratic skullduggery (the irony being that it’s this exact secrecy and overreach that they typically criticize before their election).
The film follows the traditional hybrid witness-protector political thriller we typically see in films in films such as Mercury Rising (1998), Enemy of the State (1998), and No Way Out (1987); with the cynical tone found in David Mamet’s best crime films. The one difference being the grim conclusion.
Ingrid works with Paul to find the tape, leading him into the IRA’s underworld, where instead of the begrimed training camp headquarters, they find a tavern where guitarists sing folk songs about their desire for independence. After meeting a local IRA leader who explains the terrors they’re dealing with, they get closer to retrieving the tape and learn the dark truth about the government. With Peter’s partner knowing he could lose his job and dropping out, and higher officials attempting to blackmail Peter with suggestive, though inaccurate photographs of him and Ingrid, we soon learn how determined the government is to ensure the information never gets out.
Counter to the typical endings of the genre, Peter succumbs to the pressure. When Ingrid nearly loses her life securing the tape, catching Peter just before he boards his flight, Brian Cox provides a phenomenal moment of humane guilt. Peter refuses to go any further with it and his final report won’t include any information featured on the tape. Completely dejected, Ingrid is left on her own, whether to give up, get caught, or continue on. The movie ends with a quote:
“It is like layers of an onion, and the more you peel away, the more you feel like crying. There are two laws running this country: one for the security services and one for the rest of us.”
James Miller, ex-MI5 agent
Ignorant in British politics and history I believe more liberal British governments have come to power since Thatcher, and I’m left wondering what happened to her methods. Though whether they continue or have diminished or vanished altogether, the story serves as a reminder that authoritarianism isn’t always to the extreme of Hitler. Government’s breaking the law must always be held accountable. Peter is far more a coward than Mueller, and if anything could further defend Mueller against his harshest critics. However, if we learn that this is just one branch of a far wider and more expansive tree; that if, in fact, the migrant camps are flirting with inhumane methods that’d better be categorized as concentration camps, then we might look back on Mueller as failing to have the courage to speak up. I was confident that Peter went on to file a report that specified the extrajudicial killings of Paul and the informant, though perhaps like Mueller, he would only say that those specific offers committed the crime, not wanting to implicate his government so harshly; hoping change would come soon enough. Brian Cox at least allows us to entertain the possibility.
In an age of extreme partisanship on either side of the aisle, my fear is that it allows both the left and right to put blinders up when injustices in their own party are committed. By possessing so strong a conviction that the other side is evil and corrupt, it emboldens to ignore or disregard their own side’s immorality. It’s how those in the upper echelons of power stay in power, by having the masses fight against each other rather than strive for a virtuous government that serves all.
BELOW: Film 90 on the Film from 1990
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