In movie land, all is not well. COVID is proving Hollywood’s eggs-in-one-basket strategy (i.e. a steady pipeline of mega-expensive, spectacle-based blockbusters) for the foolishness it was. Almost every day I’m reading news stories in which cinema chains from various countries, hit by screen closures or tight restrictions on audience numbers, express their fear of permanent shutdowns as soon as next year and call for government bailouts.
Meanwhile the new, big titles on which the industry was depending have hit roadblocks. Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan bypassed cinema release and went straight to its TV streaming channel. Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s time-twist thriller, did get cinema release but to underwhelming box office. And no sooner than the trailer and then the theme tune for the latest 007 movie been released this month than the studio announced for the second time it was pushing the release date back, this time to April 2021.
No matter how many times I’m disappointed by the Bond series, there’s always a chance another cracker will turn up. Daniel Craig helped reinvigorate the series in Casino Royale and Skyfall – sadly balanced by two duds in Quantum of Solace and Spectre.
The trailer makes the upcoming No Time to Die look worth seeing – or perhaps that should read “experiencing”. Of course, the 007 movies (and novels) have only ever nominally been about the world of espionage. They’re really tongue-in-cheek exercises in fantasy, suspense and action.
For the real world of spying – or something at least closer to it – you usually need to turn to TV. I’ll leave aside John Le Carre adaptations for another time and note that the US series Homeland (Binge and Google Play) has had its rewards, and the second season of teleseries Three Days of the Condor, inspired by the 1975 CIA-themed movie thriller, starts streaming on Stan from 31 October.
I haven’t seen Condor yet but I’ll be surprised and delighted if it gets anywhere near the standard of France’s The Bureau (SBS On Demand), about undercover operatives in France’s DGSE (equivalent to MI6), or Israel’s Fauda (Netflix), about an anti-terrorism unit in Israel/Palestine.
In terms of their command of character, narrative complexity and themes of moral ambiguity, both series are as good as long-form streaming television gets, and while they have distinct personalities reflecting their different countries of origin, they share some intriguing similarities. Both concern undercover operatives working mainly in the Middle East (though with side excursions to Russia and Cambodia in the French series). And both their protagonists are male operatives who become romantically entangled with Arab women to the ultimate cost of their own side and the women they love.
While Fauda features at least one brisk action sequence per episode, and The Bureau maintains a more consistently cerebral approach, both series are densely plotted, requiring close concentration. The worlds they depict are complex ones where characters have multiple identities. Suspense and danger are inherent in the act of just walking down the street. Operatives can be shot or kidnapped at any moment – in the French case, sometimes by their own side, just to see if they can hold up under interrogation.
The safety of the operatives and their contacts depends upon their false identities being as watertight as possible, which can mean knowing the name of the street where the barbershop is in the village where they claim to have been raised. These details – such as how to tell if an intruder has touched anything on your hotel bedside table – give the French series a feeling of being closely researched.
Fauda’s originators and executive producers meanwhile have direct experience of the world they portray. Executive producer, series co-creator and lead actor, Lior Raz, is a former Israeli undercover operative, his producing and writing partner Avi Issacharoff an ex-political journalist. Whether it’s possible to depict this conflict from one side without displeasing the other is a moot point so it’s unsurprising that political criticisms have been raised against the series. That goes with the territory.
However, from a dramatic perspective, if Fauda were simple propaganda that soft-soaped one side of this bitter conflict and caricatured the other, then it would hardly be worth viewing. The members of the Israeli anti-terror unit are frequently portrayed behaving abominably, sometimes kidnapping and assassinating their opponents and endangering people they’re meant to protect. Palestinian characters have a major slice of the running time; their characterisations are multi-faceted, and they are often the victims of circumstance. This may or may not amount to a totally balanced view of complex politics (probably impossible) but as Raz told one interviewer, a Palestinian team can always make their own series. He has a point.