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Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, we’re celebrating the release of Red Sparrow by asking “What is your favorite movie about espionage and undercover work?” Naturally, more action-oriented spy movies were disqualified.
Chris Evanglista: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Before Tomas Alfredson helmed the truly terrible The Snowman, he directed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which may just be one of the best spy movies ever made. There are no action beats here; no scenes of super-cool spies in tuxedos wooing international babes. Instead, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cold, analytical slow-burn thriller. British Intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement. Rather than enjoying his golden years, Smiley is drawn back into the game when he’s recruited to find out if there’s a mole hiding somewhere within his former organization. Anyone expecting car chases and fist fights a la a Bond film will be sorely disappointed by the low-key character drama on display here. Working from John le Carré’s novel, Alfredson crafted an engrossing spy game that you can find yourself getting lost in. The spy work here is all about data, and information. Who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and who can no longer be trusted? The answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might guess.
Jacob Hall: Army of Shadows
The movies often make being a spy or a secret agent look exciting. You get to travel the world, sleep with beautiful people, kick a bunch of asses, and generally have a vacation punctuated by bursts of thrilling violence. But actually going undercover, actually working in the shadows, and actually spending your days doing this kind of work doesn’t sound fun at all. It sounds exhausting. It sounds terrifying. It sounds like the kind of thing that would break most people.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is one of the least romantic movies ever made about a subject that is frequently romanticized in cinema. Adapting Joseph Kessel’s loosely autobiographical 1943 novel about French Resistance fighters during World War II, the film feels authentic in a way that could only be informed by real-life experience. And it was – Melville was a member of the French Resistance and fought against the Nazis when they occupied his homeland.
But fighting the Nazis in Army of Shadows isn’t an Indiana Jones-esque adventure filled with gun battles and acts of derring-do. It’s about clandestine meetings in dark rooms. Intense conversations where you have to pick your words very carefully. Going home and not knowing if you’re walking into a trap. The agents, the spies, the soldiers at the heart of this film, are heroes and the film treats them as such, but it doesn’t pretend that they’re superheroes. They’re ordinary folks forced to lie and kill and operate in the darkness because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s hard work. Most of them die. Doing the right thing has never been so chilling, so unsettling, and so stomach-churning to watch. This is not a life many people would choose and Army of Shadows isn’t shy about that.
Hoai-Tran Bui: Notorious
Notorious wasn’t the first spy film that Alfred Hitchcock made during his storied career, nor would it be his last. But it’s certainly his sexiest. And how could it not be, with stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exuding pure sensuality and star power? The pair of them play ill-fated lovers in Notorious — he a government agent sent to recruit her as a spy, she the former daughter of a convicted Nazi who must marry one of his old friends to infiltrate a Nazi ring in post-World War II Brazil. Together, they seek to uncover her husband’s (an eerily affable Claude Rains) secret plot involving a classic Hitchcock McGuffin. (Fun fact: Hitchcock’s inclusion of uranium ore would get him investigated by the FBI). But it was all a backdrop to the steamy, fraught love affair between Grant’s T.R. Devlin and Bergman’s Alicia Huberman.
Some of my favorite HItchcock shots make up this movie: the wide tracking shot that hones in on a key hidden in Alicia’s hand, the giant teacup scene where Alicia realizes she has been poisoned by her husband and mother-in-law, and of course, the two-and-a-half minute kiss that Hitchcock managed to sneak past censors. It’s a movie I secretly love more than some of his more famous films, and one that I wish could get more credit. Because Notorious offers the best of both worlds: a sensual, tense romance and a thrilling spy movie.
Ben Pearson: Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is divided into a few different sections, each with their own title card. One reads “Tradecraft,” which sounds like it could have been a perfect alternate title for this film. Bigelow’s movie is all about process. It’s about Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent, Maya, doing the actual work of being a spy – not seducing foreign agents or dramatically escaping with a parachute, but doing the nose-to-the-grindstone work of tracking Osama bin Laden day after day in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
There may be some problematic aspects to the movie in terms of fudging the truth of real events, but Zero Dark Thirty is a modern espionage classic that cares far more about the big picture than individual action beats. Chastain’s tireless performance as Maya embodies the concept of determination, and the film’s crushing final shot – Maya sitting in a helicopter after bin Laden has finally (spoiler alert!) been killed, unsure of her future – touches on the all-consuming impact of a live lived in dogged pursuit of a target. Maya’s work may have directly prevented future attacks on American soil, the film says, but years of such intense work have turned her into a casualty, too – and it’s only after the job is done that she discovers that. What now?