Spy 100, #94: The Osterman Weekend

Sam Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend (1983), is exactly the kind of intriguing oddity I hoped the Spy 100 project would serve up, a convoluted and interesting kludge of ideas, themes, and film-making techniques. In light of Peckinpah’s reputation as a director of violent action movies, I wasn’t expecting much complexity from this one…but was I ever mistaken. Hardly without flaws, the film is a deviously plotted one that goes unexpected places, and while it doesn’t entirely come together in my view, it does a lot of things well.

The early situation takes some parsing: FBI agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) comes to hardline CIA director Max Danforth (Burt Lancaster) with evidence of a Soviet network on American soil in southern California. The Omega network, as it’s dubbed, is headed by three men, all connected to popular muckraking TV journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer). Since the three men (Dennis Hopper, Craig T. Nelson, and Chris Sarandon) are just the tip of the network’s iceberg, simply arresting them may not be enough to stop the attack they’re suspected of planning, so Fassett suggests an alternate plan, and Danforth agrees to help implement it.┬áTanner traditionally hosts a regular weekend retreat for the Omega three and their significant others. Convinced by overwhelming video evidence that his friends are Soviet spies, Tanner allows himself to be recruited into the risky operation. The objective is to turn one or more of the three men into a double agent, thereby aiming them back against the Soviets as well as countering the imminent biowarfare threat they represent. Tanner’s upcoming retreat provides the perfect opportunity to spring the trap, and Fassett has Tanner’s house fully wired for sound and video in order to gather evidence and monitor Tanner’s progress. But the operation gets off to a rocky start, and only gets worse, as events take turn after sinister turn.

The Osterman Weekend is quite satisfying for its intricate and twisty plot, which provides truly surprising twists, especially in the late-going. It’s a movie that requires closer attention than its cheesy 1980s surface would lead you to expect, and I enjoyed puzzling out its mysteries. As for the violence, I’m generally not a huge fan of it for its own sake, and definitely not of the kind of stylized, slow-motion violence Peckinpah tends to employ. But I have to say, the explosive penultimate scenes at the Tanner house are well handled, unsettling, and not unearned.

Unfortunately, spy trappings aren’t quite enough for Peckinpah. He seems much more interested in the Big Brotherization of Tanner’s house, and in examining the perils of voyeurism and media manipulation. While nominally related to the plot, these themes seem crudely attached — and besides, it always strikes me as disingenuous when films decrying voyeurism employ elements catering to voyeurs (cue gratuitous nudity and sex, largely inessential to the story). Moreover, the wiring of the Tanner house is sadly dated, clunky, and insecure. The way he has Fassett pop up on TV screens to speak with Tanner about the mission (risking all operational security, on multiple occasions) is highly unconvincing. Evidently Peckinpah was fascinated by these subjects, but they’re shoehorned in to the detriment of the story. The script’s closing dialogue seems like the coda to an entirely different film, perhaps the movie Peckinpah was seeing, in which the media — and Tanner’s role as a TV interviewer — was more important. Forcing these media themes onto what is otherwise a fairly conventional spy thriller makes for an awkward, if interesting, marriage.

There are other, less blatant missteps. The Lalo Schifrin score lapses into distracting cheesiness too often. The casting is weird. (John Hurt as an American agent? Rutger Hauer as a patriotic American journalist? Dennis Hopper as…a meek guy? Okay, I actually kind of liked that one.) The TV show bits aren’t entirely convincing, and the endgame really lacks finesse. But ultimately I’m glad to have seen this one: a complex mystery, a bizarre time capsule, and kind of an ambitious, grand mess.

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