A CALL TO SPY (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1941 and the Nazis are dominating France. Winston Churchill creates a secret British Intelligence Organization calls Special Operations Executive (SOE). It’s basically a group of spies in France with the purpose of undermining the Nazis. The group is run by Maurice Buckmaster (played by Linus Roache) and after very limited success, the decision is made to recruit women – the thought being they will be less likely to arouse suspicion and can more freely move about. This is really the story of three women, all outcasts in some form. American agent Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) is one of the first female spies to go to France. British Muslim Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) is a highly skilled Air Force wireless operator (communications), and Vera Atkins (Stana Katic, “Castle”) is a Jewish Romanian immigrant charged with recruiting women to the program. For those who enjoy trivia, Ms. Atkins also served as Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise.

Greetings again from the darkness. Virginia Hall should be famous. Oh sure, history buffs know her name, but usually she’s a blip in book or article about WWII. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher was Oscar nominated as Producer for the excellent CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013), and here she serves up the first film featuring Virginia Hall and her contributions. Sarah Megan Thomas (EQUITY, 2016) wrote the screenplay and stars as Ms. Hall.

Virginia Hall remarkably overcame her wooden leg … an appendage she named “Cuthbert” … and was rejected in her quest to become a US Diplomat. Noor faced down the stigma of being a dedicated pacifist – a difficult hurdle in the middle of a war. Vera Atkins was never able to be fully trusted by her co-workers due to her Jewish background. While we are exposed to the plights of each of these women, there is actually very little interaction between the three, which creates an unusual story structure. The bulk of the time goes to Virginia Hall, and that’s understandable given her history, participation, and accomplishments. We witness how she excels in enlisting and inspiring citizens and volunteers to join the resistance, and creates multiple networks that impacted some many of the Allied troops.

An excruciating water torture scene occurs pre-opening credits, and then over the opening credits, director Pilcher slyly works in each of the key players. The concern over women during this era as Buckmaster is concerned the recruits “won’t last a week”. It would have been interesting if we were privy to a bit more of the training “in sabotage and subversion”, but it’s likely some of that training still occurs today; although the point is made clear that this was trial and error, with an emphasis on error.

The female spies were nicknamed the “Baker Street Irregulars”, and they definitely accomplished their mission of changing the course of the war. Klaus Barbie (the Butcher of Lyon) is shown trying, and failing, to hunt down Virginia Hall, whose life was always in danger once she became known to the Nazis. And it’s that danger that is the movie’s Achilles. The sense of danger should be suffocating and relentless, and instead only pops up periodically here. The stories of these courageous folks must be told, but with that comes the ever-present danger they experienced. This is just a bit too much to overlook.

watch the trailer

 
 

EQUITY (2016)

August 11, 2016

equity Greetings again from the darkness. A film made by women in a male-dominated profession about women in a (different) male-dominated profession becomes the first female-centric Wall Street movie. Director Meera Menon (Farah Goes Bang) and writers Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner have a lot to say … maybe even more than they intended.

Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) delivers a strong lead performance as Naomi Bishop, a hard-driving and successful investment banker – a self-described “banker chick”. She’s coming off a failed client IPO – her biggest career failure. Naomi basically torments and disrespects her first assistant Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), and she regularly sleeps with a co-worker and hedge fund manager Michael Connor (James Purefoy) for the benefits only. In other words, Naomi is much like the men we have seen in these roles over the years.

While pursuing her next IPO with a hotshot d-bag tech entrepreneur (Samuel Roukin as Ed) who claims to have a revolutionary impenetrable cyberware, Naomi is unwittingly (although it could be argued that she SHOULD have known) being played by multiple parties. One of these is a Justice Department investigator (Alysia Reiner as Samantha) who is trying to use their old college connection as a way to gather intel on Naomi’s firm and Michael Connor. Adding complexity and turmoil are Craig Bierko as an egotistical investor who pressures Michael for insider info, Sophie von Hasselberg (Marin) who is a disgruntled programmer for Ed’s company, and Tracie Thoms as Samantha’s partner and co-parent of their kids.

Fractured relationships abound as all characters are driven by something other than the relationships. We are told “money is not a dirty word”, but it sure seems like motivation for these folks is centered on power, ambition, and yes … money. The social issues and moral dilemmas come across as less important than the challenge of competing (rather than collaborating). Seamless backstabbing is a valued skill in this world, and always present are greed, desperation and paranoia. This is post-2008 Wall Street, but it looks pretty darned familiar.

Previous films have taken us inside this world. Wall Street (1987), Margin Call (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Big Short (2015) each provided some lesson on this corrupt-to-the-core industry and helped us understand the dual meaning of the title, but this is the first to show us the women who fight the same fights. If there is a disappointment here, it’s the apparent conclusion that putting women in the same high-stakes game as men means they will compete in much the same way, rather than finding a better, more graceful way. Gordon Gekko may not have been right when he said “greed is good”, but it seems pretty clear that greed is prevalent. It’s a lesson we evidently must be reminded of on a regular basis … and whatever you do, make sure to count the chocolate chips before giving that cookie to Naomi!

 watch the trailer: