The news is full of headlines about the nerve-agent poisonings of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England, while at the movies you can see Jennifer Lawrence as a spy from Moscow in Red Sparrow. On television, the sixth and final season of The Americans, a fact-based series about deep-cover Russian spies in Washington in the 1980s, is starting this week in the US and will be available in Israel on YES Edge starting March 29.
It’s official – Russians are scary again.
When I was a kid, the default villain in any James Bond movie or action flick was always a Soviet. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s/early 1990s, there was a brief time when the movies scrambled to find a new face of evil. That’s when you started to see a lot of Latin American drug cartels and psychopathic serial killers threatening on-screen heroes. Post 9/11, of course, the new go-to bad guys were Islamic terrorists.
But now, to quote a song, everything old is new again.
Perhaps there is no clearer sign of the times than the fact that the last installment of the James Bond franchise, the 2015 Spectre, returned to the titular mostly Eastern European spy organization that provided Bond’s most memorable villains from the Soviet-era classics such as From Russia with Love. Russians have returned in other movies as well, including last year’s Atomic Blonde, which starred Charlize Theron as a Cold War-era double agent.
Not all spies are created equal, though. Sadly, watching the media coverage of the Skripal poisoning was vastly more intriguing than Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, currently in theaters. In Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director) plays an injured Bolshoi dancer – her pained ballerina expression and arm flappings are rather less convincing than Natalie Portman’s were in Black Swan – who is recruited as a so-called Sparrow, a seductive spy, by an uncle named Vanya (no Chekhov reference intended).
The first problem in this unpleasantly violent melodrama is that although it was filmed on location in Europe and every detail of the production design is meticulously correct, everyone speaks in English with weird Borisand- Natasha accents. At times, I found it hard to keep a straight face as these pseudo Slavs snarled at each other. The strain of this seems to have made Lawrence – who was an engaging presence in such films as Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy – poker faced and glum. She doesn’t even have the energy that got her through the Hunger Games franchise. Only Jeremy Irons, old pro that he is, seems to be having anything resembling a good time.
But what of the spy craft in Red Sparrow? By any standard, it’s abysmal. Lawrence is sent to Sparrow school, where she is instructed by a tough old broad who is called Matron, played by the normally appealing Charlotte Rampling. Matron teaches her charges, “The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces,” and “Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything.”
To illustrate the latter principle, Matron forces the students to have sex in front of each other, the logic of which was not crystal clear. Lawrence’s character, who is complimented on her flair for the profession many times, displays her talent by playing hard to get with the American agent (Joel Edgerton) she is sent to seduce and by turning up the volume on the TV when she tells him something she doesn’t want her handlers to hear. Couldn’t she have learned all that on the wikiHow page about espionage without the humiliating public sex at the Sparrow school?
The movie devolves into a kind of torture porn, much more in the vein of Game of Thrones than John le Carré. At one point, a sadistic Russian guy talks with glee about how he’s going to flay Edgerton with a special device, and all I could think of was Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones saying, “In my family we say, ‘A naked man has few secrets. A flayed man none.” Soon, Lawrence has wrested the flaying device from the bad guy’s hands, but not before both she and Edgerton end up in the hospital. If real-life Russian spies were this incompetent, the Skripals would have gotten home from the Salisbury mall days ago and be having their tea right now.
But from the ridiculous to the sublime, let’s look at two of the greatest fictional spies in history, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings of the TV series The Americans, who are played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. The Americans was created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg, and the characters are closely based on real spies who lived undercover in the US for years.
The Jennings could give lessons to the Red Sparrow spooks on how it’s done. They speak only in English at all times, even when they are alone in their home, so if someone – especially their FBI-agent neighbor – were to stumble in, he would have no clue that the Jennings were anything other than the travel agents they pretend to be. The characters on the show who work for the Rezidentura, the Russian embassy, which provides cover for the KGB in the US, speak in their native tongue with English subtitles. The Americans co-showrunner Joel Fields said in an interview with Vulture, “The rule is that whatever language they’d be speaking in reality is what they speak.”
In addition to being true linguistically, The Americans feels true down to its smallest details, from the contempt and bewilderment Elizabeth can’t help feeling when her daughter joins a liberal church group, to Philip’s attempts to grapple with his guilt over having murdered people by attending meetings of EST, a self-help group popular three decades ago. And because of this show’s authentic feel, its scariest moments – when another spy couple is murdered in a motel room, or when a Soviet spy working as a biologist at a US facility gets infected with a deadly virus – will have you locking your doors and looking over your shoulder.
The characters on The Americans are infinitely more complex than those in Red Sparrow, and certain common threads – Elizabeth reveals at one point that she was raped by an instructor during her training, which increased her determination to learn to defend herself – play out with far greater depth.
Given the cruel fate of the Skripals, the recent revelations about Russian cyber meddling in the US elections and Russian President Vladimir Putin imprisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it’s likely that Red Sparrow and The Americans are just the beginning of a new wave of on-screen Russian bad guys.