As Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, time-travelling espionage extravaganza Tenet finally makes it to British cinemas (America, amusingly, has to wait a while longer) and with the much-delayed release of the new James Bond film No Time To Die apparently just a few months away now, big-budget films dealing with glossy espionage in all its forms are very much in demand. Yet cinema of the past couple of decades has found numerous different ways to portray spying, from the banal to the glossily explosive. It has encompassed literary adaptations, unrecognisable resurrections of Sixties television shows, deconstructed Cold War sagas and even sly updates of classic Seventies films. Here are half a dozen of the very best.
The list begins and ends with films by the late, great Tony Scott, both of which tip their hat to much-loved masterpieces in the genre decades before. The oddly underrated Spy Game is, on the surface, a straightforward enough caper, dealing with CIA veteran Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) and his attempts to extricate his young protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) from captivity and potential execution in China, combined with comprehensive flashbacks showing their working relationship throughout the Seventies and Eighties.
Yet it is filled with witty meta-allusions to everything from the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor, in which Redford starred, to the oft-remarked similarities between Redford and Pitt as both actors and men. There’s even the entertainment of watching Stephen Dillane, as Muir’s interrogating officer, doing a pitch-perfect imitation of David Frost. It’s unusual in Scott’s filmography in that it’s more concerned with plot and character than explosions and action, but there are still plenty of the latter, too.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré’s espionage novel, revolving around the presence of a mole in the so-called ‘Circus’, had already been brought to unforgettable life in the Alec Guinness-starring Seventies television series, which is justly regarded as a classic. Gary Oldman, who played le Carré’s master operative George Smiley, was thus faced with a dual challenge: how could he interpret Smiley afresh, and banish memories of Guinness into the bargain?
He chose to give a beautifully understated performance that was deservedly Oscar-nominated, and stands in contrast to the far bigger and more OTT characters that he is known for. He is assisted by the excellence of Tomas Alfredson’s direction, a once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast that contains everyone from Colin Firth and John Hurt to Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy and a beautifully observed sense of the wet, miserable atmosphere that Seventies England seemed so redolent of. A sequel, adapting the subsequent Smiley novels The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People, has been much-anticipated but has yet to appear.
The Man from UNCLE
Guy Ritchie is a curious director. At his worst, as with his dire film of King Arthur and his incomprehensible crime film Revolver, he seems to be a regrettable figure in cinema, churning out dreadful pictures with no apparent craftsmanship or care. But at his best, as in his debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and his giddily enjoyable latest The Gentlemen, he combines energetic filmmaking with wit and invention. His 2015 film The Man From Uncle is, happily, firmly in the latter category.
An adaptation of the Sixties TV series with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, it combines a splendid cast (led by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and his Russian frenemy Illya Kuryakin) with a hugely enjoyable, twist-laden storyline. Ritchie rises splendidly to the occasion, at one point nonchalantly staging a major action scene in the background, and the interplay between a suave Cavill and an angry Hammer is so much fun that one can only regret that the film’s commercial failure means that a sequel is extremely unlikely.
Bridge of Spies
The English theatre actor Mark Rylance established himself as a major international film star – and an Oscar winner, too – with his beautifully nuanced performance as the Russian spy Rudolf Abel, convicted of anti-American espionage in 1957 and then kept in reserve in case the Americans and Russians should ever wish for a prisoner exchange.
Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film is an atypical picture from him, avoiding bombast and sentiment in favour of a wry, witty look at the complexities of Cold War international relations, and aided superbly by Spielberg regular collaborator Tom Hanks’s lead performance as Abel’s lawyer James Donovan, who finds himself drawn into the byzantine realities of espionage. The script, co-written by the Coen brothers, is full of irony and black humour, and the wry, fatalistic tone is best expressed by Abel’s oft-repeated remark, when asked ‘Aren’t you worried’, ‘Would it help?’
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Tom Cruise was originally supposed to star in the film of The Man from UNCLE but may have decided that he had his hands full of remakes of Sixties television series with his rip-roaring Mission Impossible series, currently moving into its seventh and eighth instalments. They will have a job to top the 2018 sixth instalment in the series, Fallout, which represents one of the finest examples of action filmmaking ever made, courtesy of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie.
The convoluted plot, revolving around a hunt for a missing plutonium core, is merely an excuse to stage set-pieces of breathtaking and dizzying brilliance, ranging from the finest, nastiest punch-up ever staged in a men’s loo to a car chase through Paris that leaves one’s jaw hanging agape at disbelief at the speed and death-defying nature of the stunts on screen. Cruise famously broke his ankle when a jump across two buildings went awry; ever the professional, he insisted that the take in which he injures himself was retained in the film, meaning that the actual moment at which a superstar reveals himself to be all too human is immortalised.
Enemy of the State
As Spy Game is to Three Days of the Condor so Scott’s previous film Enemy of the State bears a wry resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation, not least in the casting of Gene Hackman as ‘surveillance specialist’ Brill, all but reprising his role from the earlier picture.
On one level, this is an entertainingly convoluted adventure, starring Will Smith as befuddled lawyer who finds himself pursued by the awesome powers of the state and the NSA due to an accidental encounter with an old friend. On another, it is a gift to any paranoid conspiracy theorist who has believed that ‘they’ are out to get them, given that it has acquired an uncanny afterlife in recent years as a totemic representation of the Big State’s abilities to pry into people’s lives, and has been cited by none other than Edward Snowden as a reasonably accurate representation of the NSA’s notorious PRISM surveillance programme. If every big-budget action film is shown to be this prophetic, we’re surely in even more trouble as a society than we think we are.