American Spy

American Spy

As ethnic minorities advance through the ranks of the United States government, some have wondered, not unreasonably, why they should owe loyalty to an institution that has oppressed, and in some cases still does oppress, them. Such criticisms were leveled at Barack Obama when he became president.

Conversely, few spy thrillers have dwelled on the interior majority-minority dynamics of the country in question. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson’s 2019 spy novel, quite uniquely does both at once. (And has been praised by the same Obama for it.)

Continue reading “American Spy”

The Game

The Game

If you liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (our review here), you’re going to love The Game. This little-known, underappreciated 2014 spy series has a plot worthy of John le Carré and an impressive cast.

Brian Cox, who stars as the Rupert Murdoch-inspired media mogul Logan Roy in Succession, is the director of MI5. Victoria Hamilton, who played the Queen Mother Elizabeth in the first two seasons of The Crown, is the secret service’s Soviet expert. Paul Ritter, who so brilliantly portrayed the man most responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the eponymous 2019 HBO miniseries (our review here), and who sadly died of a brain tumor earlier this year, is cast perfectly as an sly, ambitious bureaucrat.

The central character is Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), a young MI5 agent who stumbles on a communist plot to undermine British democracy.

Set in 1972 (Tinker Tailor takes place in 1973), the six episodes of The Game are a treasure trove of Cold War tropes. There are defectors and moles, secret American nuclear weapons, the “letters of last resort”: the prime minister’s instructions to the commanders of Britain’s four nuclear submarines in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The IRA is involved.

Continue reading “The Game”

The Courier

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.

Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.

Continue reading “The Courier”

The Fourth Protocol

The Fourth Protocol

Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol (1984) was turned into a movie, starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan, only three years after it was published. Given that the film largely follows the plot of the book, I’ll cover both in this review.

In the novel, it is the infamous British defector Kim Philby who helps draw up a Soviet plot to detonate a nuclear weapon in Britain and trigger a Labour victory. A left-wing government (Neil Kinnock had yet to defeat far-left Militant entryists at the time) would — the Russians hoped — withdraw the United Kingdom from NATO, kick the Americans out and give up the country’s nuclear deterrent.

To make it seem like an accident, the Soviets plan to smuggle in the nuclear weapon in stages, assemble it in Britain and detonate it near an American military base. This would violate the fictional Fourth Protocol to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which supposedly banned the non-conventional delivery of nuclear weapons.

Continue reading “The Fourth Protocol”

Topaz

Topaz

Topaz has a lot to work with. Based on the real-life Martel affair, in which a Soviet defection triggered a crisis in American-French relations, it has a good spy story, believable characters and exotic locations.

Alfred Hitchcock does a competent job weaving it all together, but the end result somehow lacks momentum.

The story sounds exciting on paper. A high KGB official defects to the United States and reveals the presence of nuclear missiles on Cuba. The CIA recruit a French secret agent, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), to get proof from a member of the Cuban delegation — who would not cooperate with an American — that is visiting New York for the United Nations.

Continue reading “Topaz”

The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal

When French president Charles de Gaulle agreed to Algerian self-determination in 1961, his right-wing supporters were outraged. They had returned the general to power only three years earlier so he could put down the bloody uprising in France’s most prized colony. Some of the pieds-noirs, the Algerian French, and their sympathizers in the army banded together in the paramilitary Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) to stop the independence process with assassinations and bombings.

The Day of the Jackal, based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel of the same name, fictionalizes the group’s plots against De Gaulle.

Continue reading “The Day of the Jackal”

Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83 is Germany’s answer to the highly successful American television drama The Americans. Whereas the latter follows two well-trained KGB “illegals” in the United States, Deutschland 83 centers on a young East German border guard who is unwillingly thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The two series have a powerful theme in common: the way in which the extreme polarization of the Cold War could tear families apart.

Continue reading “Deutschland 83”

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie — maker of the two recent steampunky Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. — gives us a great spy-fi comedy adventure this summer that dieselpunk fans ought to be interested in.

Although the The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the 1960s television series of the same name, takes place in the post-dieselpunk era, it contains many of the genre’s tropes and themes: spies, unrepentant Nazis in a plot against the two superpowers, missing nuclear weapons, speedboats, helicopters, industrial decors reminiscent of Thunderbirds and dashing Space Age costumes.

Continue reading “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

If you expect a high explosives, action-packed, gunfire and combat scenes everywhere kind of movie — the likes of which Hollywood puts out every week — then you’ll be sorely disappointed with this. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as far from the bog-standard, no-thoughts action film as it can be.

It’s a movie that takes its time for things to evolve, the plot to unfold and characters to develop. For the best, because this is one of the strongest espionage movies, possibly the strongest, I have seen in years.

Continue reading “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”