Thursday, February 25, 2021

Annals of pop culture

As we close out the first year since this household, at least, became aware that something was rotten in the state of epidemiology, it seems fitting to look back on a couple of the less exalted cultural artifacts we’ve sampled (revisited, actually) during this extended period of house arrest. I mean, it can’t be all Antonioni all the time, can it? Under consideration today are two genre products, The Game (not to be confused with the considerably cleverer David Fincher film from twenty-five years ago) and Silverado, a sort of generic western.

I had supposed the Cold War thriller as a dramatic form to be extinct, like masques or passion plays, or at the very least moribund. After all, even John le Carré, generally considered the greatest master of the genre, felt obliged to move on to depictions of contemporary mischief during the latter years of his long career, although he returned to the classic milieu one last time in portions of his penultimate novel.

But after all, if Regency romances continue to be written and sold, and if an Edwardian costume soaper like Downton Abbey garners rapt audiences on either side of the pond, why should we not find creative spirits drawn to those fraught decades when the Soviet Union and “the West” were ideologically at daggers drawn, each side desiring the extirpation of the rival ethos; each in dread of the other’s intentions and of its ordnance? Now there was an existential threat worthy of some serious knicker-twisting! There’s still drama to be mined

The fact that we know how the story turned out—no one pushed the button; no one perished defending the Fulda Gap; the Red Russians renounced their wicked ways, or at least exchanged many of them for our wicked ways—does pose some issues for the storyteller, which brings us to the entry under consideration here, the 2014 six-part BBC series The Game. There will be minor spoilers in my discussion.

I have alluded to John la Carré, who pretty much holds the patent on Cold War spy fiction, and whose œuvre is the yardstick against which all contenders and pretenders are perforce to be measured. By its major plot elements the series does not merely invite but positively compels comparison with the 1979 BBC dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this juxtaposition does not flatter the newer production.

We are once again made privy to discussions in the upper echelons of “British Intelligence” (“The Circus” in le Carré’s world; here doing business as MI5—one of the series’ few unimpeachable touches of verisimilitude) as its senior officers ponder the measures that must be taken to thwart the latest covert assaults by international communism upon the British Way of Life as it is lived in 1972. There are the obligatory touches of moral ambiguity (“alas, we are obliged from time to time to undertake questionable measures in defense of our ancient liberties and our values, and it’s a jolly good thing that the latter are incontestably preferable to those of the foe, else our slumbers would be troubled by the prickings of such vestiges of conscience as we have retained”) that have been expected of British spy fiction since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There’s the long-time chief of the operation, like Tinker, Tailor’s “Control” an embattled, lonely figure who has to contend with swinish, obdurate politicals above and scheming, ambitious subordinates beneath. In fact, let’s meet our principals, shall we?

  • There’s the aforementioned chief, a shrewd, corpulent, raddled character known to his team only as “Daddy.”
  • Bobby Waterhouse, Daddy’s deputy: an aging, expensively-tailored (well, by the standards of 1972, I suppose. In one scene the points of his shirt collar terminate somewhere in the neighborhood of his armpits. I am obliged to recuse myself from any critical discussion of the fashion and grooming choices made during this period) nancy-boy who is itching to put the bureaucratic shiv in pater’s back. Bobby’s actual pater is not in the picture, but his formidable mother has a few scenes, and frankly, I’d rely on her to hold the Fulda Gap in a pinch.
  • Wendy Straw, Daddy’s pert secretary (the actress puts me in mind of the young Rita Tushingham), whom MI5 appears to be grooming for field work, being as how the outfit appears to be chronically understaffed (see below).
  • Alan Montag, the bearded Aspergerish tech boffin who can with equal facility paper a room with concealed microphones or wire an intelligence source with a transmitter so small you could fit it into a golf bag. This is 1972, remember.
  • Sarah Montag, Alan’s wife and one of the agency’s top analysts—she’s one of the first to raise aloud the possibility that someone on Daddy’s inner team might be playing for the other side—and a crackerjack field agent. A candy mint and a breath mint!
  • and finally, looking as though he has just arrived on the set from a GQ photo shoot, our protagonist, tousle-haired young Joe Lambe, an even better field agent than Sarah. In fact, he’s the star of MI5, Daddy’s golden boy, and I’m here to tell you that on the evidence of this series, if Joe was the best they had, the UK would have been a Soviet Socialist Republic by 1973.

These are The Spies Who Don’t Know Any Better Than To Come in from the Cold. The story relies repeatedly and unduly on the convenient “idiot plot”: “Yes, mate, we want you to meet a deadly Soviet assassin in this basement room and worm important information from him. And don’t worry. Me and Alan will be monitoring you from our listening post on the tenth floor, and if something looks to go wrong we’ll be down here in, like three minutes.” Or “So you’ve got vital information on a mole within MI5, have you? Well, you’ll be absolutely secure in this safe house—of course it is. Where do you think the expression ‘safe as houses’ comes from? How certain are we? Well if we weren’t certain, we’d have sent someone on ahead to make certain there wasn’t an armed Red concealed in the laundry room, wouldn’t we?” Intelligence assets perish, bad guys routinely elude surveillance (not surprising, since MI5 apparently has only Bobby, Wendy, the Montags and Joe, plus a policeman seconded to the operation, as field operatives to keep tabs on the Bolshies), and the Russians are constantly getting the drop on our heroes. Perhaps more ludicrously, the entire tale requires us to believe that forty some-odd years ago the senior echelons of the British intelligence community were worried sick about the possibility of an imminent Soviet military invasion of the kingdom.

The series has a few worthwhile set pieces, and the latter episodes proceed a little more briskly. Notwithstanding a few red herrings strewn about, I correctly guessed the infiltrator about halfway through. If you fancy a Cold War thriller (or plodder), and are prepared to withhold comparisons with more distinguished examples of the genre, you might be entertained.


Like many another child of my generation, I was raised on westerns, and I remain at least mildly partial to the genre, which I suppose is why I put up with Silverado, an unduly formulaic example of the form. This is something of a “paint by numbers” western: one senses the writer/director dutifully ticking off the conventions of the genre one by one. Barroom brawl, check. Free-range ranchers vs. farmers, check. Outlaw hideout in canyon, check. Wise and worldly female saloonkeeper, check. Oily gambler, goodhearted prostitute, check. Taciturn hero, check. Gunfights, check, check, check, check, check. Injuns, inexplicably MIA.

It’s not a bad approach to making a cowboy movie. Contrived, to be sure, and more than a little self-conscious, but those of us who esteem the western expect certain elements, and if your favorite trope has not put in an appearance at any point in the flick, another quarter hour will likely summon it forth. Add to this some decent set design and cinematography, a handsome cast that appears to be enjoying itself and a workmanlike if not altogether memorable screenplay, and it’s two hours well spent, although likely not among the first- or even second-tier of westerns I’ll screen again. Among the cast members, craggy Scott Glenn acquits himself well as the aforementioned taciturn hero, as does Kevin Kline as the hero’s diffident sidekick. Kevin Costner chews the scenery halfway across New Mexico to the Colorado state line, but he’s having so much fun that his otherwise annoying performance compels our indulgence. Danny Glover hits all his marks as the Magical Negro; Roseanna Arquette is briefly on camera as the Love Interest in a role so severely truncated that it probably ought to have been omitted altogether; John Cleese(!) shines in a small part as an honest, by-the-books sheriff who nevertheless maintains a realistic vision of his professional responsibilities, particularly where these involve his personal safety.

The soundtrack by Bruce Broughton is unobjectionable as music, but is deployed in an almost intolerably heavy-handed fashion, and served throughout as an auditory irritant. I appreciate directors (John Sayles in Lone Star comes to mind) who do not feel the need to punch up the orchestra to convey drama, excitement, romance that ought properly be carried by the actors and the camera. Lawrence Kasdan has not learned this lesson.

Summary: a pleasant western pastiche, ably performed and photographed. Not otherwise particularly memorable, and rather less than the sum of its tropes, but nevertheless a diverting evening’s entertainment for fans of the form.