Though it’s based on a true story from the ’80s, there is an agreeable sense of stylistic freedom to “23” that gives it an edge as a movie rather than just being a fact-based drama. This slickly mounted, enjoyable thriller about young computer hackers who sold secrets to the Russians will entertain auds in search of quality commercial fare, and represents another feather in the cap of Munich-based producers Jakob Claussen and Thomas Woebke (“Beyond Silence”) as well as a step up for sophomore director Hans-Christian Schmid after his so-so cross-generational comedy-drama “It’s a Jungle Out There” (1995).
Following the death of his father, editor of a right-wing Hanover paper, young Karl Koch (August Diehl) finally gets the chance and resources to let his rebelliousness against the status quo bloom. In thrall to Robert Anton Wilson’s cult book “Illuminatus!,” which proposes a hidden, parallel world of government conspiracies and political murders, Karl and pal David (Fabian Busch) start seeing proof of Wilson’s theories everywhere, both in the appearance of the mystical number 23, and in current events. Their friends simply think they’re nuts.
Working on computers that would now seem antiquated, the pair hack into minor-league data and, with the help of a friend, Pepe (Dieter Landuris), manage to sell some stuff to the Soviets in East Berlin. But from the hours spent in front of his computer, Karl starts to develop a coke habit, fueled by the flamboyant Pepe.
What started out partly as a prank turns more serious when the Russians demand military data. Karl and David start working from hotel rooms to escape detection by the police, and then accidentally access a U.S. government database. By now, Karl is close to the brink and thinks his hacking is responsible for disasters like Chernobyl. His eventual breakdown leads to a tragic coda.
In some ways, the movie sketches a whole generation that grew up during a period of rapid growth in home technology and a series of volatile events: anti-nuclear demos in Germany, Reagan’s mad arms race during the dying years of communism, the bombing of Libya, the murder of Swedish premier Olof Palme, and Chernobyl. The kids’ obsession with Wilson’s theories crystallizes the crazed years of the late ’80s, and Schmid’s movie, crisply edited and driven by a busy music track, has a striking intensity without ever becoming manic. (One sequence , where Karl loses his mind in a speeding car, features a genuine shock effect.)
Adding to the film’s freshness is its refusal to get bogged down in the minutiae of hacking or the usual noirish cliches of conspiracy movies, and even Wilson’s arcane theories are referred to rather than examined in detail. After the light tone of the first hour, which features plenty of humor, pic becomes more chilling as the hidden forces of law and order close in.
Actors are all fine, with newcomer Diehl well cast as the fresh-faced Karl and Busch likable as his less obsessive school pal.