When most people hear the word “spy,” their mind usually conjures up James Bond sipping a martini or Jason Bourne jumping out of a moving car. But real spy work is unfortunately much more boring – less marksmanship, more penmanship. Films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Argo, however, manage to successfully portray the minutiae of espionage as nail biting houses of mirrors, full of deception and shady motivations. Sadly, The Operative, which is in theaters now, is not one of these films.
Based on the novel The English Teacher by former Israeli intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher Atir, director Yuval Adler’s second feature after his critically-acclaimed spy thriller Bethlehem has all the pieces needed for another solid tale of secrets and betrayal. Unfortunately, poor pacing and the lack of character development makes the movie a well-crafted yet underwhelming experience with a lot of setup but no punchline.
The titular operative is Rachel Currin (Diane Kruger), a drifter caught between cultures that gets recruited by Mossad to infiltrate Iran posing as an English teacher. Her handler, Thomas Hirsch (Martin Freeman), forms a personal bond with her, stalling his superiors while she learns the ropes. The objective of operation “Business as Usual” is straightforward: enter Tehran and set up a cover over multiple months; then infiltrate Razavi Electronics, a major developer of nuclear software; and finally, sabotage them and thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Once Currin begins a romantic relationship with CEO Fahrad Razavi (Cas Anvar), however, she falters and must choose between her mission and the man she fell in love with.
Secrets and Lies
The Operative makes sparing use of action – blink and you’ll miss it – instead relying on its heroine’s transformation for suspense, showing her journey from ingenue to hardened manipulator before falling victim to seduction herself. Nothing groundbreaking, but Diane Kruger and Cas Anvar manage to command attention long enough to play out the plot, even if their romance seems rushed at times. The casting of Martin Freeman, however, seems ill advised: his portrayal of a British/Jewish Mossad officer working out of Germany has him not even attempting to speak either Hebrew or German – even though his superiors do, usually accompanied by subtitles. It’s ironic, as director Yuval Adler is otherwise finely attuned to cultural differences: The scenes in Tehran and Israel are intriguing and otherworldly, shrouded in a cultural veil that most western audiences would find impenetrable but is handled delicately and respectfully. Cinematographer Kolja Brandt manages to capture life on the bustling streets of Tehran, which makes it all the more a pity that most scenes are set in offices or empty apartments, where the players discuss the mission without going anywhere – in more ways than one.
Unfortunately, most of his world building is shattered by the choice to use a nonlinear narrative: Flashbacks within flashbacks, nameless recurring characters and unresolved arcs abound. This is exacerbated by the abundance of clichés undermining realism, like falling in love with your target, near misses with the police, being betrayed by your agency, and, worst of all, a sordid sexual assault that comes out of nowhere, serves no purpose and is never alluded to again. And thus, what promises to be a suspenseful, gritty descent into the shadowy world of geopolitical intrigue and deception never quite gets off the ground – behind the smoke and mirrors, it’s quickly evident that the true mark is the audience. Business as usual indeed.
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