Official Secrets 2019 ****

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In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.

The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.

Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.

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The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

The Osterman Weekend 1989 ****

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It must be something of a surprise to those who knew the late actor Rutger Hauer to read obituaries like this (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-49098435) which show almost no knowledge of the man or his films. Hauer came to prominence as a cinema actor of phenomenal power, working on a series of collaborations with Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven such as Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange, both of which are covered elsewhere in this blog. His celebrated turn in The Legend of the Holy Drinker is probably his most mature work, but the stardom that he gained from villianous turns opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks or in The Hitcher made him a bankable enough name to get him a role in Sam Peckinpah’s final film The Osterman Weekend. Adapted from Robert  “Bourne Identity” Ludlum’s book, it’s a Big Brother-type story of various espionage agents holed up in a remote house where micro-surveillance systems have been employed. Hauer plays tv journalist John Tanner, who is being manipulated at arms length by CIA chief Maxwell Danforth. It’s one of Hauer’s most substantial roles, with an ahead-of-its-time conceit and great support from John Hurt, Dennis Hopper and Craig T Nelson. The script is a little muddled, with writer Alan Sharp amongst those fighting Peckinpah’s famed desire for self-sabotage. That none of the above films get even a single mention in the above obituary suggests that Peckinpah’s pessimism was justified ; The Osterman Weekend nails the idea of media manipulation, and its concerns are still relevant today.

https://www.amazon.com/Osterman-Weekend-Rutger-Hauer/dp/B00AQ1N4KQ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=osterman+weekend&qid=1563992971&s=gateway&sr=8-1

 

Mission Impossible: Fallout 2018 *****

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The Mission Impossible formula has improved with each film, to the point where Rogue Nation was a franchise high. About the only problem with Fallout is that it replicates the elements of the previous film so specifically, but that’s hardly a problem when a perfect summer blockbuster is the result. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is once again thrown into the action against Solomon Lane (Sean Ellis, last seen being dropped into a glass cube in the previous film). For reasons that are deliberately confusing to explain, Hunt inveigles his way into a terrorist organisation and win the contract to burst his nemesis out of jail. The heist scene, set in Paris, is brilliantly foreshadowed by a scene in which Hunt imagines the consequences of failure; unlike most blockbusters, Fallout sets the stakes, personal and political, at a high level, and all the action, including grandstanding foot, motorbike and helicopter chases, is more intense as a result. The spy-games keep you guessing until a lavish denouement set in the mountains, with rapid toggling between ratios reflecting the influence of Chris Nolan. Chris McQuarrie does a great job here, mixing intrigue, suspense and humour with the deftness of a classic Hollywood film.

The Looking Glass War 1970 ***

Something of a curiosity in the John le Carre stakes, this 1970 thriller gets quite a few elements right, notably the personnel at The Circus; George Smiley is dropped from the original book, but Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Rogers all fit the bill as the crumpled espionage handlers with the power and life and death in their hands. The film’s centre is Leiser (Christopher Jones) a Polish defector who becaomes a pawn in international espionage games when he’s recruited to spy on East German missile sites. The first half of the film does well to suggest how and why Leiser accepts the offer, but things get a little simplistic once the mission begins, and a final bookend doesn’t quite work. Hopkins seems to have been none too impressed by Jones and his James Dean mannerisms, but it kind of works for the film that Leiser is so much of a fish out of water. The Looking Glass War feels like a compromised efffort, but with a script by le Carre himself, it springs to life whenever Hopkins and Richardson are on screeen, and Frank Pierson, director of the 1976 A Star Is Born, creates some striking compositions.

Firefox 1982 ****

firefoxLong before Space Cowboys or Sully, Clint Eastwood was flexing his muscles with this high-tech thriller with an aviation rather than web-browser bent. Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is recruited to infiltrate Soviet Russia and return in the cockpit of the Firefox, a plane so high-tech it responds to the thoughts of the pilot. The first half of the film has a lot of Clint standing around in toilets looking pensive, but once Gant gets his hands on the plane, it’s all action fare; even if the projection work isn’t quite to modern standards, it’s amazing for 1982. Adapted from Craig Thomas’s novel, Firefox is still fun to watch, even just as a record of Eastwood learning his trade; a strong supporting cast including Nigel Hawthorne, Freddie Jones, Warren Clarke and Ronald Lacey are also along for the ride in this unusual star vehicle. Reboot, please!

Swallows and Amazons 2016 ***

children-in-boat-shallows-amazons-950In terms of unappetizing prospects, an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s 1930’s book about children on a jolly boating adventure is hard to beat; it’s so old-fashioned it makes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven look as hard-boiled as a Jim Thompson novel. Credit Dear Frankie screenwriter Andrea Gibb for adding a few select espionage elements to this BBC prodiction which manage to give it more of the flavor of classic spy-story The Riddle of the Sands. Philla Lowthorpe directs and there’s a strong supporting cast including Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall, Harry Enfield, Andrew Scott and Jessica Hynes. The sunny feel of the Swallows and their rivalry with the Amazons is well caught, but the careful integration of real-world issues is deftly handled and revitalizes a fairly hoary old property to good effect.