Spy 100, #9: The Lives of Others

In my view, the quietly devastating The Lives of Others (2006) is right up there with other classic films investigating the emotional perils of surveillance and voyeurism: The Conversation and Rear Window come immediately to mind. Indeed this may be one of the Spy 100 list’s most powerful entries, underrated even at #9.

In early eighties East Germany, secret policeman Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is given a simple assignment: investigate squeaky clean, party-approved writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). A party idealist to the core, Wiesler dutifully sets about his task, establishing a listening post in the attic of Dreyman’s building. But his job, rather straightforward on the surface, turns out to be a more complicated tangle: a personal vendetta involving a politically powerful rival for the affections of Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). This kind of abuse of power isn’t part of Wiesler’s job description, but then neither is his slowly mounting empathy for the artists he’s been tasked with destroying – an unexpected development that leads him to subtly start pulling strings to manipulate their fate.

Impeccably produced, The Lives of Others is a moving, intense examination of life in a corrupt, communist surveillance state. Its bleak depiction of the stultifying day-to-day conditions of life during that time is truly eye-opening. But it’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of emotional power, thanks to outstanding performances in the key roles. Koch and Gedeck are superb, selling the troubled central relationship convincingly, but it’s Mühe who breaks my heart in this one. His subtle, gradual transformation – from stern, unquestioning agent of the state, to a quietly empathetic guardian angel for the artists whose love he vicariously lives through – is the core of a perfectly structured story. It all culminates in a wrenchingly beautiful final moment. A sad, quiet, slow-building masterpiece.

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Collection: Emerald City and Other Stories by Jennifer Egan

With three books under my belt now, I can say with authority that I’m a Jennifer Egan fanboy. Her collection Emerald City and Other Stories (1993) isn’t quite the dazzling tour de force that both Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad are, but as a sampling of her effortlessly read prose and subtle insight, it’s another impressive read.

There are eleven short stories on offer, and each one is short, succinct, and finely crafted. Egan’s prose style is deceptive: outwardly simple, and yet loaded, as if its surface has been intricately encoded with hidden meaning. A couple of the stories reminded me of Look at Me: the title tale, “Emerald City,” about a photographer’s assistant and his aspiring model girlfriend in New York, seeking acceptance and prestige in the harsh fashion business, and “The Stylist,” which ventures to an exotic photo shoot in Africa. Both stories conjure Look at Me’s thoughtful insight into image-obsession and the almost destructive longing for fame and acceptance American society tends to breed. Egan also seems quite interested in characters quietly, subconsciously striving to recapture past glory, as in “The Watch Trick,” a perfectly clocked bottle show about personalities in subtle conflict during an ill-fated boat trip , or “Letters to Josephine,” wherein a woman who has married into money tries to reconcile the circumstances of her opulent lifestyle with memories of earlier struggles. Another highlight is “Spanish Winter,” wherein a woman, whose homelife has disastrously crumbled, aimlessly roams abroad, searching for a reason to give up, but finding something unexpected.

It’s kind of a spellbinding collection, really, full of small, quietly illuminating stories about ordinary people. They work on an emotional level, but also speak to broader societal issues in a manner that’s almost science fictional. Egan’s sensibility really speaks to me, and I’m finding her work quite addictive and essential.

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Novella: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is a consistent source of satisfying core science fiction, and her recent novella Yesterday’s Kin (2014) is another success. Its sfnal furniture is familiar, but as usual Kress leverages it skillfully into something both entertaining and relevant.

Marianne Jenner is a scientist whose discovery of a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA propels her unexpectedly onto the world stage. It turns out that aliens from another system, who arrived months ago and have lingered mysteriously on their ship in New York’s harbor ever since, want her to join a scientific team that’s working to avert imminent global catastrophe. Even as she throws herself into the job, she can’t help questioning their motives – which also happen to entangle her ne’er-do-well son, Noah.

It’s a story laced with recognizable SF trappings: alien first contact, scientists under pressure, a ticking clock counting down worldwide apocalypse. As usual Kress grounds the narrative in the details of the science, but doesn’t lose sight of the people embroiled in its skiffy disaster scenario. Marianne and Noah, whose addiction to an identity-warping drug is a story in itself, make for accessible alternating viewpoints on the story’s escalating crisis. Kress keeps the reader guessing right up until the end, all the while delivering compelling prose and thought-provoking commentary. Great stuff.

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Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory has quietly become one of those writers whose output I tend to devour on sight. His latest is a quick, razor-sharp novella from Tachyon Publications, We Are All Completely Fine (2014). It’s the tale of a group of troubled individuals who, under the supervision of psychotherapist Jan Sayer, form a support group for trauma victims. But these aren’t your usual trauma cases (if such a thing exists); the things they’ve been through are of the more inexplicable, supernatural variety. Their sessions are hesistant at first, but as they gradually get to know each other, they finally start to see some progress…and, startlingly, to find a connecting pattern to their shocking personal secrets.

After the madcap futurism of Afterparty, We Are All Completely Fine slides more into creepy, supernatural horror territory — and it’s clearly a milieu Gregory is comfortable working in. The narrative is bracing and memorable, full of realistic, sympathetic characters whose histories and fates are deftly intertwined. I loved the methodical reveal of its mystery, its sense of created family, and its secret history ambience. I could see this one making a perfect little gem of an indie horror film.

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Novel: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

To say that Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (2014) snuck up on me isn’t entirely accurate. I enjoyed it from the get-go. But it is one of those peculiar, wonderful books that works a sort of gradual, accumulative magic: quietly,  steadily building its story, almost unassuming at first, but ultimately revealing itself to be something of a monument. It’s sad and beautiful, full of heart and insight, but not without a sense of fun and a kernel of hope.

Rapidly approaching middle age, Lester Ferris is a British soldier serving out the tail end of a military career as Brevet-Consul for a peculiar little island in the Arabian Sea called Mancreu. With a storied mix of British and French colonial history, Mancreu is now something of a no-man’s-land, a weird, lawless place notorious for its discharge clouds: volcanic explosions of toxic waste caused by an industrial calamity in its past. Mancreu is dying; it’s just a matter of time before the authorities of the wider world drive its citizens out and attempt to raze away the environmental stain of its existence. This shouldn’t mean much to Lester, who expects, when all is said and done, to move on to another temporary job in his transient life. But there’s a complication: he’s befriended a mysterious, bright young boy of indeterminate background, and develops an unexpected attachment. His devotion to the boy only intensifies when the first paroxysms of the island’s imminent demise put them through a shared trauma…and as Mancreu transforms from sleepy backwater into a charged political hotbed, Lester finds himself transforming with it.

The dedication reads: “I knew I wanted to be a father; I didn’t know how much until I was.” On one level, at least, these words hold the key to reading Tigerman: the father-son bond shared by Lester and the boy (never truly named) is the core of the book, and Harkaway builds that relationship masterfully, full of loving nuance. But there’s more to it, broader thematic strokes about the world’s callous machinations. Mancreu is the world, or so I read it: beautiful, striving for peace, but ripped by conflicting desires, poisoned by neglect, and rapaciously used by the whims of the powerful. It’s an unforgettable backdrop, alive and vivid. And meanwhile, bubbling along underneath its thoughtful, literary surface, a surprisingly plotty melange of pulp fiction tropes drives the narrative: comic books, action movies, and science fiction all factor into its inventive world-building, both informing the message and ramping up the entertaining pace.

Overall, it’s an impressive piece of work, that grew from a curious, intriguing opening into what ultimately feels like something of a masterpiece — a neat trick, to say the least, that delivers on many levels. I’ll definitely be looking for more of the author’s work.

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TV: Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawI’ve often wondered how Alan Furst’s work would translate to the screen. The 2013 BBC miniseries Spies of Warsaw finally supplies an answer: not bad, not bad at all. If that’s a less-than-emphatic reaction, perhaps it’s unfairly so: the series is attractive, well performed, richly produced, and full of intrigue. I enjoyed it, but I suspect it will be a trickier sell to those less familiar with the specific rhythms of Furst’s work.

David Tennant stars as Jean-Francois Mercier, a military attache in Warsaw who is also secretly an agent of French intelligence. In 1937, Mercier’s operations not only begin to reveal evidence of Germany’s imminent war ambitions, but also its specific strategies – which he dutifully reports back to a stodgy military establishment that’s reluctant to heed his warnings. Mercier’s success in the field paints a target on him, but despite some close shaves, he continues to risk his life in Poland – primarily due to his love for a young United Nations lawyer named Anna Szarbek (Janet Montgomery).

The miniseries paints a vivid historical picture, and that – a primary characteristic of Furst’s work – is perhaps its chief strength: realistically embedding fictional episodes into the grim realities of the era. The production is impeccable, although I almost found it too…bright and shiny? As a Furst fanatic, I always envisioned his worlds with a murkier pallette. Nonetheless it’s attractive, well written, and full of capable performances.

Something is missing, though. Interior monologue, perhaps? A hallmark of Furst’s protagonists, I think, is how conflicted they are about intelligence work. Tennant does a fine job with the material, but seems less nuanced than the Mercier of the novel, more one-note. Perhaps that’s simply a matter of script expedience, but I also think we lose something not being able to see into his head. Beyond that, the miniseries build-up doesn’t pay off the same way. Furst’s novels are  tales of survival as much as anything else, and their strict adherence to historical accuracy often give them an unconventional shape. The author’s lyrical turns of phrase can sell all manner of non-Hollywood endings, but the miniseries struggles to do so with the same finesse.

As an attempt, though, it’s an admirable one, quite watchable. And while it deviates from the source material  – over-emphasizing the romance, and perhaps even lifting its final setpiece mission from another Furst novel entirely? – these structural liberties do accumulate into a coherent vision of the place and time. An imperfect adaptation, but an earnest and worthy one.

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TV – 24: Live Another Day

live another day

Say what you will about 24, it changed the landscape of television. It changed TV so drastically, in fact, that 24: Live Another Day (2014) – the resurrected, sort-of ninth season of the medium’s longest-running spy franchise – tracks so comfortably now that I’m almost able to background it, and this for a show that once required rapt attention.

In keeping with other late-run seasons, Live Another Day relocates the franchise to a new city. This time it’s London, where the ever-indestructible Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) resurfaces after four years on the run. Bauer is captured by the local CIA presence, headed by station chief Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) – who quickly learns, with the help of his disgraced, but obviously best, field agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski), that Bauer only gets caught when he wants to get caught. He’s served himself up because he knows the CIA has, in their custody, snarky hacker extraordinaire Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) – perhaps his only friend in the world. And he needs her help to stop a threat against the visiting US president, James Heller (William Devane).

Sound familiar yet? It should. 24: Live Another Day serves up its familiar stew of ingredients, freshening the flavor with new characters and scenery. You’ve got your presidential track, your agency-that’s-one-step-behind track, and your villain track – headed up here, quite formidably, by Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley as a sociopathic jihadist hellbent on revenge. And, of course, there’s Jack and Chloe – scrambling chaotically between them all, flagrantly breaking laws and cracking skulls, their ends ever justifying their means.

It’s contrived, kinetic, preposterous, and pretty fun. The mercifully shortened length (12 episodes rather than 24) tightens the proceedings. London makes for an attractive new backdrop, and its familiar streets – along with roles (sadly miniscule) for Miranda Raison and Alex Lanipekun – made this feel a little like an MI-5 crossover. After years of male-gazey ass-kicking on Chuck, Strahovski proves she can play it serious as well as something of a protégé loose cannon for Bauer. Fairley goes all-in with her villainy, and her clan of fanatics gives the heroes a good run for their money. And for the feels, there’s the return of Jack’s tragically shattered love, Audrey (Kim Raver) – moved on now, and married to the president’s scheming chief of staff, Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan). The moments between Sutherland and Raver are exquisite, little islands of humanity in a sea of plot mechanics. Also: Stephen Fry as the prime minister?  Why not!

On the other hand, like most of 24’s seasons, it’s chock full of flaws. The plot contrivances get pretty ludicrous. The scripts are so busy delivering repetitive exposition that the characters often feel more like information conduits than actual people. Logistical implausibility abounds, and some late plot twists and shocking surprises spiral the narrative into video-game violence territory. When its structure and concept were fresh, 24 could dazzle its way past these hiccups, but alas, everyone watches television differently these days. The seams show now.

That said, in a rather laid back and nostalgic way, I enjoyed it. It doesn’t live up to the series’ earlier heights, of course, but it’s good enough to wash away the bad taste of its disappointing eighth year. I was happy to revisit.

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Film: Hipsters

You know, I just can’t get enough of Russian musicals. Er, wait, no. Actually, Hipsters (2008) is the only Russian musical I’ve ever seen. Alas, despite a promising idea and an arresting look, this one didn’t exactly captivate me.

But it’s certainly interesting. Set in 1950s Soviet Russia, it’s a love story about Mels (Anton Shagin), a wavering member of a communist youth organization, who, following a raid on an underground jazz club, falls for a young woman named Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels’ infatuation with Polly quickly causes him to lose his grip on proper, drab Soviet behavior, and he crosses over into a politically risky, colorful subculture of jazz afficionados – the “hipsters.” These non-conforming free spirits, with their loud clothes and wild parties, transform Mels into the Americanized “Mel,” making him an outcast in his own country – but also a part of something else.

Hipsters was a mixed bag, for me. It has a rich, visually striking look and an infectious energy to it, but unfortunately it loses steam as it goes along – the structural polish isn’t quite there, nor is the pacing. The musical numbers are okay, but failed to charm me consistently – and the weird lyrical translations made it difficult to fit the music into the story. Indeed, I suspect much of the film’s theme and message just didn’t quite translate cleanly enough. It’s attractively produced, and culturally and politically intriguing, but ultimately Hipsters just didn’t flip my switch.

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Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel

For sheer visual artistry and comedic whimsy, there really isn’t a better director working today than Wes Anderson, whose latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), is another clever and wholly unique entertainment. It’s a story within a story within a story: a writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls an encounter his younger self (Jude Law) has with a wealthy hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who himself recounts the adventures of his younger self (Tony Revolori) as a young lobby boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel. For all that convoluted set-up, the narrative is really about how Mr. Moustafa became the owner of the grand, mountaintop resort, through his friendship with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s suave, civilized concierge. Gustave’s upper-crust pose, and his numerous romantic entanglements with wealthy, older women, lead to complications when an elderly dowager countess (Tilda Swinton) dies just as the First World War is breaking out. This entangles him in a madcap inheritance drama, pitting him against the countess’ ruthless family.

Anyone familiar with Anderson’s earlier films will immediately recognize the distinctive visual style: The Grand Budapest Hotel has it in spades, each shot a colorful, carefully composed canvas, all spliced together with humor and panache. The cast is basically a Wes Anderson Repertory Company, all the usual suspects: Swinton,  Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson, as well as a newcomer who fits in with the quirky style perfectly: Saoirse Ronan. But it’s Fiennes who owns the film, a comically sophisticated Old World fellow to whom Revolori plays straight man throughout their escapades. It’s his most interesting and fun role in years, and goes a long way to selling the complex tangle of a plot, which involves murder, mayhem, war, romance, prison breaks, and even the odd, ludicrous action setpieces, all against a stylish, rich historical backdrop. It’s another assured and visually engrossing triumph from a director that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

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Rewatching MI-5

There are few shows I’ve watched more compulsively than the epic BBC spy series MI-5 (2002-2011). A few months ago I casually backgrounded a couple of early episodes only to find myself getting sucked into a full-run marathon. It was an interesting rewatch, holding up both worse and better than I remember it: worse in that its earliest seasons aren’t quite as strong as I remembered, better in that its later ones aren’t quite as disappointing. One opinion that didn’t change, though, is that the series’ sixth season is its best – an astonishingly late peak that colors my impression of both the show’s earliest steps and final moments.

Harry Ros

The series revolves around “Section D” of the British Home Security Services, MI-5, a team of crack agents tasked with the protection of the British homeland from external threats. In every episode, Section D – led by its scheming leader Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) – thwart terrorist threats, analyze intelligence, work sources in the field, respond to political events, and more. The structure throughout is very “crisis-of-the-week,” with each episode focused on resolving an urgent situation, but it’s also an evolving series, each mission contributing to a larger story: characters change, the makeup of the team shifts, reputations are built or destroyed, and series lore accumulates. It’s a fine balancing act of the familiar and the novel, the lure of a comfortable milieu tinged with the ever-present threat of drastic disruptions – which come, as it happens, on a regular basis.

Danny & Zoe

The original, core team consists of promising young section chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), viperous senior analyst Tessa Phillips (Jenny Agutter), and two junior case officers, Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) and Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), as well as a bevy of administrative and support officers, the most notable of which is surely the avuncular technical genius Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon). This crew – which should probably include brilliant analyst Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), introduced in season two – is perhaps the series’ most accessible and human. In retrospect, the early seasons seem much more interested in integrating the high stakes suspense of security work with the troubled personal lives of the agents, especially Tom, Zoe, and Danny. In these years, Hawes and Oyelowo are both particularly likeable as idealistic young hotshots, trying to balance their better natures against the ugly realities of the business – a conflict that comes to a powerful head in the superb season three outing “Love and Death.” The human element makes this team the warmest, but perhaps also the series’ least formidable – more prone to emotional lapses and rookie mistakes than some of the badasses and daredevils that would follow in their wake.

Season one starts well, but doesn’t really catch fire until the fourth episode, “Traitor’s Gate,” a terrific espionage puzzler surrounding a possible rogue agent named Peter Salter (Anthony Stewart Head). Here the show reveals itself as something more than just “the British 24,” incorporating more classic espionage elements – politics and personalities in the vein of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Sandbaggers. At its best, MI-5 balances action, intrigue, politics, and personalities in a careful blend, and “Traitor’s Gate” – the episode that secured my addiction – gets the mix just right.

Carter

The first time around, I remember lamenting the individual departures of Tom, Zoe, and Danny in season three. On the rewatch, though, I found myself looking forward. The introduction of a more charismatic, traditional leading man in Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) – a character I originally resisted – would end up being the first building block of an MI-5 “dream team,” which starts to come together in seasons four and five with the arrival of new junior officers Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey) and Jo Portman (Miranda Raison). (Jo’s recruitment episode, “The Book,” is probaby my favorite single episode – and the beginning of my not-very-secret love affair with this character, who serves as the heart of the team for much of its run.) The cast is further strengthened in season five with the arrival of the venomous Ros Myers (Hermione Norris), who enters the series as a love-to-hate character. Indeed, she’s so potently unlikeable at first that her later evolution into an essential element of team chemistry comes as a gradual surprise. With Harry, Ruth, Adam, Ros, Zaf, Jo, and Malcolm minding the store through much of seasons four and five, the series grows stronger and stronger.

Jo2

Then in season six, everything gets turned up a notch. Without quite abandoning its crisis-of-the-week roots, the sixth yer threads its weekly setpiece episodes together with a complex, season-long throughline involving threats from Iran. Season six throws itself headlong into episode-to-episode continuity, and its more urgent timetables, more integrated storylines, and the earned goodwill of the roster all combine to take the show to another level. Its ten episodes are rife with compelling aspects: the mystery of Zaf’s disappearance, Adam’s reckless afair with an asset, Malcolm’s first field mission, Ros’ dangerous involvement with a sinister international organization, the gradual recruitment of a new agent named Ben Kaplan (Alex Lanipekun) and the return to the fold of an old one, Connie James (Gemma Jones) – all these elements integrate smoothly and seamlessly, and the results are brilliant.

lucas

Of course, having such a memorable peak year makes the subsequent ones suffer in comparison, and the series begins a gradual decline in its last four years. When Adam Carter departs the show early in season seven, he’s just the first of many characters inadequately replaced – although Lucas North (Richard Armitage) is a good and interesting try. He starts well, and Armitage certainly has the chops for the role, but Lucas is a colder, darker presence that’s somewhat harder to invest in. As other characters leave the show and more pressure is placed on Norris and Armitage to carry the action, the series loses some of its warmth and continuity. The death knell for team chemistry comes early in season eight, when both Malcolm and Jo are written out. The newcomers slotted in to fill out the cast in seasons nine and ten are adequate enough performers, but they’re not nearly as developed, and we never really get to know them. Nor do the season-long arcs of these later years hold up compared to the Iranian plot in season six.

SPOOKS

That said, there are plenty of bright spots winding down the run. Excellent individual episodes are present right up into season ten, and if the casting changes seem more arbitrary and unplanned than usual, they continue to contribute story material. Season nine’s spark comes from newcomer Beth Bailey (Sophia Myles), a snarky operative from the private sector who reapplies to MI-5 to wash the blood off her hands. Beth is a promising new presence on the team who is unfortunately dispensed with offscreen at the end of one season. In season ten, a cocky new wiseguy tech shows up named Calum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfield) – a character I appreciated more this time than during my first watch, when he felt like just another replacement. He’s hardly around long enough to explore, but he flavors the proceedings nicely with jerky sarcasm.

Harry Ruth

Even so, by season ten, familiar faces are hard to come by, and Section D’s grid feels like a ghost impression of its former self. Harry and Ruth are left to carry much of the emotional load in the final, six-episode arc, and they do an admirable job of it, in a modest wind-down that caps off the series and brings it some closure.

MI-5 is by no means a perfect series. It’s prone to melodrama and infodumps, and in order to generate tension it over-relies on shocking reveals, dark twists, and far too many mistakes from the team . But even as I saw its flaws more clearly, I came away from this rewatch loving the series more than ever. It’s an ambitious, intelligent, and challenging show, gutsy and stylish, well produced and chock full of memorable characters. It’s a singular blend of suspenseful action, creeping intrigue, thorny politics, and fraught workplace drama, and surely one of television’s best spy series.

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