Writing is hard. Anyone who says otherwise, whether successful or not, is overrated or most likely had a helping hand. It’s not something that is natural. It’s months, maybe years, of hard work on whatever project one chooses to commit to. Developing a narrative’s natural pacing, character development, story progression, and a satisfactory climax that brings it all together. For the spy genre, there are added layers of action, twists, and turns.
Politics often intercede in the story, giving itself self-importance that is often only matched by that of the lead characters. The odd-men-out who are smarter, stronger, or simply have a factor that separates them from the other spooks in their respective narratives. Most think of this, in this day and age, they think of larger-than-life characters like Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, etc. But for the sake of this analysis article, I’ll focus on lesser known franchises or one-offs, despite this writer’s affection for the dizzying espionage angle done effectively in the recent M:I films, namely Fallout.
For this writer, the tales of spycraft are the hardest to make, especially with now over 100+ years of film that has seen the genre utilized effectively and ineffectively. In recent years, a slew of new spy films have come out that have revitalized the genre for both the good and the bad.
Why is this genre so difficult? Some would argue it’s like a 2 hour magic trick where everything has to be simultaneously believable on the surface yet the illusions must appear seamlessly with the realities. And, like a good magic trick, audiences have an expectation that is very high when one reaches the climax or, if we’re keeping to the magic trick analogy, the “prestige”. If ever a payoff is required, the genre of twists and turns must surely come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The Tropes of the Trade
Often, the genre carries certain tropes that serve as a foundation. A confident, yet crafty lead. A noted focus on suits and the color black to signify the obscurities about to occur in morals, politics, and character motivations. The most common example of this of course is James Bond, known for his tuxedo and often tales about the Cold War. The character eventually, particularly with the 1995 film Goldeneye, began to focus on a post-Cold War world. But always, at the center, was this character facing the above mentioned obscurities.
The difference between the good Bond films and the bad Bond films? Often, the issue was the films that would focus on “entertaining factors” for general audiences (Sex, elaborate action scenes, eccentric villains) but lack a deeper meaning for existing. Distinguishable factors like personal stakes for Bond or well-done narratives that have relevance to the real world without making it so paper-thin contemporary. That’s the difference between Goldfinger (The villain wants to contaminate the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox) and Quantum of Solace (Dealing with the oil shortages of this age). The former was it’s own story first, the latter attempted to be direct commentary. Especially because, like those movies, those times pass and so do those issues. So the film has to be self-contained, thus allowing relevance of it’s narrative and not the way it connects to a certain point in time.
Several other films have done this mind you, notably with the recent slew of femme fatale films such as Red Sparrow (Noted for it’s focus on sex and torture scenes in place of a good narrative) or the equally derivative Anna, which irony enough was written and directed by French director Luc Besson who helped popularize the femme fatale subgenre with his 1990 film La Femme Nikita. The 1990 film was it’s own thing, one of the first of it’s kind, thus held that distinguished factor. But the former films mentioned were simply duplicates with cliché ideas (There was even some confusion why Red Sparrow was set in modern times yet clearly carried Cold War tones). Even more so, films like this serve to note the substitutes of the “thrills” in place of the much needed context and meaning behind these actions that would otherwise appear shallow and exploitative.
Yet where those failed, the 2017 film Atomic Blonde more succeeded. Despite a convoluted plot, the film was a self-contained Cold War story that featured a colorful and somewhat fantastical version of Berlin with a fantastical lead. It wasn’t trying to make a commentary on the Russian scandals of the real world, it wasn’t trying to do anything but tell it’s own story about the lead’s dizzying experience through Berlin. However, like Matthew Vaughn’s spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service, Atomic Blonde lacks in gentle pacing, thus offering entertaining popcorn thrills with minimal effort required, but at the cost of a deeper exploration.
The Subtle Spy
When I think of the best spy movies, they seem to be the definition of the “slow-burning” films. They require immense attention to detail in all aspects, most of the film consisting of conversations that seem irrelevant, later revealed to be clandestine in purpose. On a technical level, the editing needs to feel seamless with the story’s subtleties, thus allowing the twists and turns to have maximum efficiency. And if done incorrectly, it can drastically affect the flow of the film. It’s why Red Sparrow was criticized for basically throwing in nudity or torture when they needed to move the plot forward instead of the painstaking movement that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Our Kind of Traitor employed in every conversation, every character movement, and every turn of the plot.
It’s equally the relatable nature of the character that is required, thus an even more focus on subtly in character development. In the spy trade, every detail can be potentially relevant. It’s why George Smiley (The lead of TTSS) is an old-timer on the brink of divorce and it’s revealed that the guy who had an affair with his wife, his friend in fact, is also the mole Smiley has been looking for for most of the story. The personal stakes intersect with the larger consequences of a political nature. It’s why we’ll all remember who George Smiley is decades from now and why I can’t even in this moment remember the name of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Red Sparrow or that of the lead character in Anna without the title giving it away. Because of such large and complex consequences involved in spy films, it takes an intimate character to keep audiences from rolling their eyes at the political machine often used as a driving force of a film. Circumstances so large that without a relatable character, potential themes and ideas could be lost to the audience’s attention.
In Conclusion – A Delicate Web & A Quick Spider
Spy films are both socially and political relevant, of course. But they are also a fantasy for viewers. As often as these characters need to be relatable, they are often forces of nature, hidden under suits of style. A great spy film is one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy, but at all times they are delicately crafted tales of detail and an ultimate test of the audience’s attention span. A test where moments burn slow with intrigue, only to strike at the opportune time in a beautiful symphony of proper narrative beats, pacing, and stakes. It is for this reason, that when the genre is done right, it’s grandiose entertainment and magnificent relevance at the same time. A duality matched by the lead characters more often than not.