April 12, 2022

Movie Review: All the Old Knives (Amazon – 2022)

 


This movie focuses on a CIA investigation into a failed intelligence operation that takes place in Vienna, Austria eight years earlier. The movie is set in 2020, with the botched operation in 2012. The film uses flashbacks mixed in with the contemporary story, and with a few exceptions, flows well.

 

The movie is inspired by actual events. Any of us who have been subjected to either Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency internal investigations of botched intelligence operations – I have been subjected to both – will easily identify with the “witch hunt” mentality present in the movie.

 

As always, I will try not to reveal things that will spoil your enjoyment of the film, which actually requires very little suspension of disbelief. The events depicted in the movie actually happened (for the most part).

 

Most of the action takes place in city of Vienna, particularly at the CIA station in the U.S. Embassy there. I have spent a lot of time in Vienna (wife’s family), and for the most part, the scenes matched the script, with one glaring exception – the Gloriette was badly mismatched.

 

The other venue in the movie, which was beautifully videographed, is the Monterey Peninsula - specifically Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, as well as the stunning vistas of California Highway 1 along the Monterey County coast. To those of us who spent time learning foreign languages at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, it was a trip down memory lane. My wife and I liked it so much, we were married there, and vacation there to this day.

 

The plot: A Turkish passenger jet is hijacked by Islamist terrorists at the airport in Vienna. The CIA station rallies to gather information on who perpetrated the crime, and any possible solutions.

 

Based on an interrogation, an Agency source, now dead – one assumes he died under “enhanced interrogation” (how inconvenient)– claimed that there was a leak (a “mole” in the parlance) from inside the Vienna station that led to the debacle that ensues. I am being vague here so as to not reveal too much.

 

Eight years later (now 2020), “Langley” – “Agency-speak” for CIA headquarters – wants to know what went wrong, or more correctly, if there was a leak at Vienna Station and who the mole was. One of the case officers from that botched operation – well-played by Chris Pine – is assigned to re-investigate the station’s actions and ultimately discover the mole.

 

Of course, there are the unnecessary gratuitous sex scenes and too many personal aspects to the story. Enjoy them – the actors are attractive – and the storylines are not that farfetched.

 

The plot line takes numerous twists and keeps you guessing until the end – well done. Enjoy trying to figure out who the mole was.

 

The four main characters were all played well:

·       Chris Pine as Henry Pelham

·       Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison

·       Laurence Fishburne as Vick Wallinger

·       Jonathan Pryce as Bill Compton

 

Bottom line: Enjoyable film - watch it, immerse yourself in the plot’s twists and turns, and put a bit of money on who you think it is.

 

You can watch it on Amazon.

___________________
Footnote: I was involved in the National Security Agency coverage of the hijacking of a 1984 Kuwaiti Airways flight to Tehran, Iran, and listened live to the murder of an American diplomat. It still haunts me.


 


March 23, 2022

Movie Review: The Operative (Yuval Adler, 2019)


The Operative is an adaptation of the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher-Atir. Reicher-Atir is a former Israeli army commando (he led part of the force during the 1976 raid on Entebbe) and commander of the army’s special operations directorate.

 

Some of the reviews label the author as a former intelligence officer, however, given his long career as a special operations soldier, I believe he has had exposure to many intelligence operations, but is not an intelligence officer himself. That would explain some of the tradecraft missteps in the film.

 

The movie stars Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, and Cas Anvar. I think Kruger and Anvar were quite credible in their roles. Freeman, a skilled actor with a long list of credits, was badly miscast in this role as a British Jew and Mossad case officer. Watching him in that role required quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. (That is what fiction requires – that you are able to enjoy the story even though you know it is not only untrue but sometimes unbelievable.)

 

The film revolves around a Mossad operation to place an operative (Kruger) in Tehran to meet an Iranian electronics dealer (Farhad, played by Anvar), with the goal to eventually recruit him. I’ll not spoil the experience for you if you choose to watch it.

 

Most of the tradecraft is fine, if a bit elementary. The missteps are quite obvious to the trained eye, however. The use of two legends simultaneously is dangerous if not impossible, the clumsy use of easily detectable electronic communications, and the strange side operation to smuggle explosives into Iran via Turkey – puzzling at best, unnecessary at worst.

 

I still wonder how Rachel (Kruger’s character) was supposed to make initial contact with her target, but I guess I will have to find the book and read it – it has recently been translated into English.

 

Bottom line: for all its minor flaws, it’s still a good story. It shows a side of the intelligence business not often seen – the toll of operational life on the people who do this for a living. It can be extremely stressful. Trust me.

 

Watch it on Netflix.


February 12, 2022

Movie Review: Death on the Nile (20th Century, 2022)

 


There have been three movie adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile. The first was in 1978 starring Peter Ustinov as the legendary Hercule Poirot, followed by the gold standard version starring the quintessential Poirot portrayed by David Suchet in 2004. 

In 2022, we have Kenneth Branagh attempting to salvage his disastrous portrayal of the Belgian sleuth in his adaptation and remake of Murder on the Orient Express. When I saw the publicity surrounding the release of his adaptation of the novel, I was skeptical. 

 

So when I saw that Branagh remade one of my favorite movies, I was skeptical – given his past, I was not in the mood to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then, I thought, “Okay, I have personally been to all of the venues of this novel – let’s see how he interprets this.”

 

Flashback: In 1987, I was in war-torn southern Iraq (don’t ask) driving north of al-Basrah when I can across an old airfield. There was a vintage tri-motor aircraft parked on the side of the hangar bay and I thought to myself, “This is an Agatha Christie moment.” It haunts me to this day.

 

Years later, I was in Egypt (again, don’t ask), and took the opportunity to visit the historical sites in Aswan and Abu Simbel. Agatha Christie wrote her novel in 1937 while staying at the First Cataract hotel in Aswan. I stayed at the same hotel, which by then had become the Pullman Hotel, and visited Philae Island as seen in the movie – what great venues. I understand these were recreated in a movie studio in England, but the producers did an excellent job. (See my photos of Aswan from the late-1990s)

 



 To the critics that will claim that the scenes what is purported to be Abu Simbel are not accurate, remember that prior to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, these archeological treasures were rescued from the resultant rise of the water level and the creation of Lake Nasser.

 



What most of us have visited are the relocated actual monuments. (See my photos of Abu Simbul from the late 1990’s)


I watched the Branagh version on an XD screen, then came home and watched the 2004 David Suchet version to make a comparison. Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express and this adaptation of Murder on the Nile was like night and day – Branagh has completely changed his portrayal of Hercule Poirot from a rigid automaton to an actual likeable character with flaws and personal introspections.

 

I like the updating of a 1937 period novel to the 21st Century – the adaptation is well done, with maybe the exception of the gay couple (no spoiler alert here). It works well for a story told in the 1920s.

 

Go see it – immerse yourself in the minimal suspension of disbelief. Kenneth Branagh is totally believable as Hercule Poirot. He may not be the quintessential Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet, but it’s a fast-moving and enjoyable two hours.

 


January 23, 2022

Movie Review: Munich – The Edge of War (Netflix, 2021)

 


Yes, I know this is not about the Middle East. I am reviewing this because of the intelligence aspects of the movie.

 

As with all good fiction, the reader must exercise what authors refer to as “the suspension of disbelief” - avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something unlikely or impossible in reality. Watch it, and go along with it for the sake of enjoyment. This movie does a fair job in blurring that line between belief and disbelief, although there are a few scenes of various meetings that are pretty far-fetched.

 

The movie, an adaptation of British author Robert Harris’s novel Munich, is set in 1938 as Adolph Hitler threatens to seize the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, claiming it to be rightfully German territory. Of course, as anyone remotely familiar with modern history knows, there were negotiations between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Yes, the Italians and French were there as well, but this was basically London versus Berlin. This is where “appeasement diplomacy” began.

 

The talks took place in Munich. The two lead characters who walk us through these events turn out to be a British civil servant (Hugh Legat) and a German diplomat (Paul von Hartmann), both of whom attended Oxford for a period of two years in the early 1930’s, and struck up a friendship.

 

At some point in the preparations for the talks, Legat is summoned to a meeting with a colonel from MI-6 (British Military Intelligence, now the Secret Intelligence Service, although the MI-6 moniker is still heard). At that meeting, a plan is set in motion that utilizes the untrained Legat as an intelligence operative.

 

I will leave the political and other aspects of the movie to others, and don’t want to provide any more spoilers that I may have inadvertently done. I will focus on the intelligence aspects of the movie.

 

First, dispatching a completely untrained civil servant on a dangerous intelligence operation into "unfriendly" territory without any preparations whatsoever is a recipe for disaster. At the very minimum, Legat should have been given some rudimentary counterintelligence training – basic do’s and don’t, some simple surveillance detection concepts (there was no time for real training), some sort of concealment device for documents, a communications plan, and emergency/distress signals. He got none of that.

 

It gets worse – he is tasked by the MI-6 colonel to carry out this operation without notifying his superiors. Not a good idea, when you are working at the level of the prime minister and his most senior adviser Sir Horace Wilson. What might be sound operational procedure could very appear to be to working at odds with your own government.  At least the colonel provided some clandestine support, but I’ll stop there.

 

It becomes obvious that there has been an MI-6 penetration of the German government at the highest levels – that’s a real intelligence success. I suspect there was a "walk-in" to the defense attache office at the British Embassy, but that's just speculation. It rarely gets any better than what we deduce is happening, but in this case, it could have been just that. Unfortunately, they never take it to the next level.

 

In any operation, the overriding concern is collection of the intelligence. I remember having that drilled into me at intelligence operations school – get the intelligence, get the intelligence, get the intelligence. That’s why you are there, that’s why we spend the money, that’s why we take the risks. You’ll see that Legat never got that admonition.

 

The other overriding concern is the security and safety of your asset. Both of the main characters, mostly through no fault of their own, repeatedly put each other at risk. It’s so obvious, there is no need to belabor it.

 

One more comment about the historical and political aspect of the movie. At the end, in what appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain and his legacy as the prime minister who appeased Hitler. The producers put forth the supposition that Chamberlain knew Hitler would not be satisfied, but sacrificed the Sudetenland to buy time to allow the Allies (which at that time did not include the United States) to prepare for inevitable war. Interesting, but not accurate.

 

BOTTOM LINE: As far as historical fiction goes, it takes a lot of liberties, but with enough suspension of disbelief, it’s a good story. It’s not The Hunt for Red October, but it will keep you entertained.

 

It should also provide a badly-needed reminder that appeasement does not work.


Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81144852

 

January 7, 2022

Miniseries Review: "The Girl from Oslo" (Netflix 2021)

My initial observation: this is the worst title the producers could have chosen for the English-language version of this miniseries. The Hebrew title, Azharat Masa ("Travel Advisory") is not much better. The Norwegian title, Bortført ("Abducted") is probably the best of the lot.

 

The show tells the story of two Israeli siblings and the daughter of a Norwegian diplomat visiting Israel and Egypt when the three are abducted by Islamist terrorists and held as hostages to be used in a prisoner exchange for convicted terrorists being held by Israel and Norway.

 

The Norwegian title at least hints at the actual subject – the Hebrew and English, not so much. Something called “The Girl from Oslo” could be a romantic comedy, a travel show, a musical – anything but a show about international intrigue and transnational terrorism. What caught my eye was the one phrase, “When her daughter is abducted, a Norwegian diplomat travels to the Middle East….”

 

Without that one phrase, I would have ignored the series entirely.

 

The series is filmed in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Norwegian – I am sure that posed a variety of problems. As I listened to the English-dubbed soundtrack, it appears to be well-done. Some personal comments – some of the actors portraying Arabs were in reality native Hebrew-speaking Israelis. It is a hard accent to disguise, but overall was fairly good. Of course, the Arabic-speaking actors were perfect, but…

 

…and this is a small nit, but if I had to describe the Arabic in the series, I would call it closer to the Palestinian Arabic spoken on the West Bank than that spoken in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, where the series is set. Like I said, a minor thing.

 

The subtitling was well-done, but for those who understand the underlying Arabic, you will note that these are more interpretations than actual translations, which if fine. I often interpreted rather than directly translated when I served as an Arabic translator. It’s an art….

 

There have been some complaints about the final editing, which by contract agreement was done by the Norwegians. The Israelis believe that the editing removed a lot of the subtle nuances about the geopolitical situation. Maybe – but the story remains tightly produced and tense throughout. Though, a little more   “attention to details” would have made a number of scenes more credible.

 

Some background for those of you who decide to watch it – and I do recommend it.

 

- This is a work of fiction. Although there was a kidnapping of a Norwegian and Israeli while on vacation in the Sinai, they were later released. There was no relation to designated terrorist groups Hamas or ISIS.

 

- As with all fiction, it does require some of what is called “suspension of disbelief,” in other words, this is a story, so go along with some of the things you might think are unrealistic.

 

- Much of the action on the Israeli side occurs in the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence. The ministry is a relatively new organization, loosely modeled on the American Office of the Director of National Intelligence, established to coordinate and oversee the various Israeli intelligence and security organizations. As in the United States, it is more an administrative organization than an operations agency. (See paragraph immediately above.)

 

- The three main organizations in the series are the Israelis, Hamas, and ISIS. For those who don’t follow Middle East events closely, it can be confusing. Hamas is an Arabic acronym for harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Palestinian Islamist political and quasi-military organization whose goal is to eliminate the State of Israel. It controls virtually all aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. Its military arm, known as the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is responsible for a variety of attacks on Israel. It is supported by Iran and possesses a huge arsenal of rockets and missiles.

- ISIS (also referred to in the series as “Da’ish”) is an acronym for the English translation of its name, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Da’ish is an acronym of the Arabic name, al-dawlat al-islamiyah fi al-‘iraq wal-sham. ISIS and Hamas, although both Sunni organizations, are often at odds with each other. While Hamas is the principal power in the Gaza Strip, ISIS has a presence in the Sinai Peninsula, and maintains a state of hostility with the Egyptian government. Israel and Egypt, as seen in the series, cooperate on efforts against ISIS.

 

- I was surprised at some of the Hamas versus ISIS interactions in Norway, including Hamas’s use of a female operative. I find that a bit hard to believe, but maybe they’ve moved out of the 7th Century.

 

My bottom line: It’s a good story, moves fast, and requires only minimum suspension of disbelief. It will entertain you, but it’s not Fauda.  

 

Watch it on Netflix