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Red Sparrow: A Spy Thriller, Without The Thrills

The film, Red Sparrow, capitalizes on America’s renewed Russo-phobia. Central to the film is the fact that many in the west believe we won the Cold War, while many in Russia believe the Cold War never ended. While I agree with the sentiment completely, I do feel that the film simplifies decades of U.S. -Russian international relations into terms which can easily be digested by those who pre-November 2016, could scarcely find Russia on the map. While simplified it is does introduce to the masses three monumental facts of national security: (1) there are more Russian spies in the United States now than during the height of the Cold War, (2) Russian intelligence collection programs are built around long-term goals, and (3) the Cold War never ended, despite the fact that too many westerns believe it did.

Spoilers Throughout.

The film tries to present itself as a realistic spy thriller grounded in reality unlike the gadget driver, action-explosion spy thrillers that are the Mission Impossible and James Bond films. While it is correct in demonstrating the importance intelligence agencies place upon source cultivation and asset management; the film feels very, very long. The pacing is incorrect, and the film places too much emphasis on the sex and torture elements of the story, instead of the characterization or story elements. The art of spy-craft is degraded into something which can be seemingly taught – and perfected – in a matter of months. Not to mention the story gives the impression that these elements are largely rooted not in skill, but in luck.

As an audience we really feel no attachment towards Jennifer Lawrence’s character Dominika, and it’s not just her poor Russian accent. At the start of the film she is a Prima Ballerina who after injury, is on the verge of losing everything. Unable to keep a roof over her head and pay the medical treatments for her ailing mother, she reluctantly agrees to help her Uncle – a Russian Intelligence officer in a State sponsored assassination on a Russian politician. By doing so, her life becomes property of the Russian Federation. She is sent to a secret academy to become a Sparrow, a Russian intelligence agent schooled in the art of seduction and manipulation. She is sent to Budapest to track a CIA agent with blown cover, in hopes of uncovering his source within the Russian Government.

This would have been an interesting film. This would have been a movie I would have loved to see. But Red Sparrow is not the film of a Russian agent trained in seduction trying to pull information from a CIA operative – partially because early on in the film, it becomes very clear that Dominkia has no interest in working for the Russian Government. Early on she expresses her interest in trading information with the CIA, and she never demonstrates any loyalty to the mission or her homeland.

While she repeatedly “tells” us that she is doing this not out of patriotism but out of her own survival; she never shows us this fact either. She does not portray a haunted and hunted amateur spy – living in the cross hairs of both America’s CIA and the Russia’s SVR. She tells us she cares about her mother, she tells us she cares about fleeing the Russian sphere, but the character never acts like it. The paranoia seems never to get to her. The stresses of life as a spy never truly wear her down. In some ways she appears almost numb to the new-found horrors of the world of espionage. While characters didactically express their admiration for Dominika’s ability to read people and think a few moves ahead of others; we never truly see this skill in action. Just because the other characters “acknowledge” that this exists, doesn’t mean that it is truly earned. You find yourself watching the movie wondering why we should be interested in such a disinterested spy.

The best character, by far, is Jeremy Iron’s General Korchnoi. A higher up in the Russian Intelligence apparatus who we learn at the end of the film, is the very mole Dominkia has been tracking. We learn that though he has been part of the Russian machine, he sees the flaws in it and dreams of a better life, inspired by the death of his wife (indirectly caused the by Russian societal hierarchy). After meeting Dominika, he offers to sacrifice himself if it means replacing him with her, as mole deeper within the Russian political machine. He is one of the few characters in the film, who truly has layers to him beyond the role he is expected to play in the story.

The filmmaking is fine. The technical aspects – sounds, scoring, art direction, and cinematography are all good. As I mentioned above, the film is long and some parts feel drawn out. Part of the reason is that the film is about a Russian spy, but a significant portion of the story is allocated to the CIA agents in the story. It would have seemed stronger and more focused had we spent less time with the Americans. There is also a disproportional amount of screen time allocated to sex and violence. I will mention though, the torture scene with the skin-graph knife is suspenseful and well executed. You cannot help but share the characters pain. While the end of the film does provide some twists and surprises for the audience; in some ways, it feels too late in the film to provide the redemption that is needed.

This is not the traditional spy v. spy film that you have come to expect from Hollywood, but at the same time this is not the intellectual espionage thriller that we have come to expect from spy novels. Instead the film lives somewhere in the middle, disappointing enthusiasts of both extremes, and for that, the film is doomed to live in a state of forgettability.