Serena Frome “Sweet Tooth”

Posted: February 28, 2014 in Britain, Cold War Bunny, MI5
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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)I was very interested in reading this book as the author, Ian McEwan, has a long track record of writing interesting female characters, and 1970s Cold War London seemed an interesting setting for the novel.

“Sweet Tooth” chronicles Serena, a young British woman with a talent for math and a passion for reading, who is really nothing more than a consummate drifter. She drifts along in college, in and out of relationships, into a career with MI5 at the hand of an ex-lover who is really a traitor, drifts along her in her jobs duties, and eventually into a relationship with an asset of an anti-communist propaganda operation, the eponymous “Sweet Tooth”. 

Not unlike the United States at the time, during the 1970s, England’s national securities weren’t particularly great jobs for the ladies who often were little more than secretaries. Serena follows this same path until she is pulled into this operation where security services seeks to anonymously sponsor talented authors, who in turn, hopefully write about the glories of a capitalistic society. 

Serena is chosen for her prolific knowledge of literature and probably because she described as tall, blond, and not bad to look at. She poses as an agent of an arts foundation, nabs an up and coming author, and promptly begins an affair with him.

However, Serena isn’t particularly good at juggling the secret life of her job (yawn) against her personal life (double yawn). Really, this plot device is so played out when it comes to female characters, that if it weren’t for McEwan’s gorgeous writing, I would have stopped reading fairly early on in the novel.

In the end, Serena is found out, loses her job, and seems to have lost the guy. At this point in the story, you realize you don’t really know Serena particularly well. This is either because she comes across as being not very self-aware, which is understandable as she isn’t a very deep character to begin with, or it is just a fault of poor writing. However, this is Ian McEwan, master of the unforeseen ending, which I will not devolve here, but let me just say that it is, technically, a fault of poor writing, just not McEwan’s. …I’ll leave it to you to read and figure it out…

It’s a shame, really. Such a fascinating subject shouldn’t be reduced to a romance novel, which is what has occurred here. Secretaries have enormous potential in this genre, what with the amount of confidential material that passes through their hands, and the tendency men had/have to overlook the intelligence of the woman who fetches their coffee…

Still, it’s beautiful writing but hardly a spynovel. Enjoy. Or not.

I am quite remiss in posting about Sandra Grimes aka spy chaser extraordinaire. I created a draft on her after I posted on the Dames Hunting Ames, and but then instead followed up on her friend and cohort, the late-great Jeanne Vertefeuille after her passing, and then really meant to dig in and finish after Grimes and Vertefeuille published Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed. But alas, my dissertation work  is all consuming.

So here we are with something fresh: ABC TV doing a procedural on Grimes and the CIA in her hunt for the mole in the new show The Assets. Between that and a rather surprising reddit AmA by the illustrious Ms. Grimes, I feel obligate to finally, FINALLY giver her her due.

Grimes (1945 – ) is one of those individuals who is seemingly born to the life. Both of her parents worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (now Oak Ridge National Laboratories) on the Manhattan Project. The amount of secrecy surrounding not only the project, but the town itself due to the large number of people employed by the government there, could certainly influence or make one predisposed to a life of government service and national security in particular. Grimes studied and excelled in Russian during her teens and formally enrolled in Russian Studies at the University of Seattle where she received her degree.

Now this is 1966, the Cold War is well underway, and what is a gal to do with a degree in Russian if not work for the CIA? Starting off in clerical services and working her way up to the division handling  the double agent Dmitri Polyakov, a Russian asset and CIA informant (who was later arrested based on information provided by both Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, and executed for treason in 1988). Through diligence and no small amount of auto-didacticism, Grimes learned every facet of Soviet Intelligence and worked her way in to senior analyst position, then a division officer, a section chief, and later a deputy chief. It was through these experiences that she met her friend and colleague Vertefeuille.

By the late 1980s, it had become clear that CIA communications had been compromised by Soviet intelligence services. Through an extensive mole-hunt, Grimes and her task force had narrowed their gaze to Aldrich Ames, their fellow co-worker who had been taking large bribes from the Soviet Union in exchange for money for years resulting in the second greatest loss of assets in US history.

Grimes retired from the CIA in 1991.

So now Hollywood is getting in on the act with a TV series based on this infamous mole hunt. The show chronicles the years of initial loss and discovery of the existence of a mole within the CIA. And Grimes is front and center in the series which is refreshing for it’s under-played action sequences and patient story telling. It is incredibly fascinating in a particularly boring way, but yet still oddly riveting at the same. Maybe because it isn’t a hopped, testosterone soaked clam bake of sexed-up killer fembots indulging in typical Hollywood Spy-Fi? Most certainly.

And while the Grimes “character” in the show experiences the equally boring and typical “issues” facing women, like how to make time for family and career, here’s the kicker: she has an amazingly supportive husband who encourages her in her work. This is new. I have yet seen this kind of portrayal in the media for our Intel gals. Not that she should need male permission in the first place, because really, when are the gender roles ever reversed on that issue? But that said, I would have been just as happy having zero back story on Grimes, knowing nothing of her personal life, and having the story focus just on her doing her job. Sigh – c’est la vie. Maybe next time.

I cannot predict the longevity of such a show. Those in Intel will undoubtedly sink their teeth into the details, but that requires dragging out the narrative, and unfortunately that type of pacing may not last with a general audience – although it would most certainly be good for them.

Slide1I’m fairly certain I understand what it takes to make great entertainment: a well-written narrative, good casting, and compelling characters, but the current trend of the Anti-Heroine in the Spy Dame genre is really starting to tick me off and sends a bad message about women in the biz.

It started with Carrie Mathison, the CIA analyst from the popular TV series Homeland. Carrie is a talented analyst aided by her bipolar disorder, when in full-force, enhances her ability to see patterns where others fail. However, her erratic behavior and general prickliness makes her really unlikable as a person.

Then we are followed up by another CIA analyst, Maya Lambert from the Oscar nominated movie Zero Dark Thirty. No apparent mental health issues, but again, the near combative, and constant bullying behavior was overwhelming throughout the movie, and at times, very much unwarranted and out of place.

Now we have the new TV show The Bridge with Sonia Cross, a detective in the El Paso, Texas police department tracking down a serial killer who also has Asperger’s Syndrome, which limits her ability at times to accomplish her job without ruffling more than a few feathers, and apparently also makes her a pretty bad driver.

Maybe these writers think that making these women exceptionally quirky somehow makes them more exciting, lovable, or endearing. Mostly it just makes them aggressively annoying. I love the “procedural drama” because I like to understand how the proverbial machine of investigation and analysis work, but putting the disfunctional character archetype first and foremost really undermines and even derails that genre as a whole.

Now this is not to say that there are not women out there doing the job with these circumstances. But this twist of character doesn’t even have a base level by which to jump off from. A base level where are just women doing The Job. So here’s my bigger problem: It’s not enough that a woman can be a real and normal human being with all the real and normal issues that accompany that, but that she also has to be decidedly single with a mental illness-disorder-awkwardness-whathaveyou, and in many cases, just plain damn unlikable sends the message that dames can’t get the job done unless they delve just enough into a big bag of crazy, or conversely, any woman successful at her job must somehow be a loon on some level. And frankly, at the end of the play, I think it’s a cop-out to cover the fact that writers can’t develop a strong female character without a plot device.

Plenty of amazing fictional Spy Dames didn’t need this malarky: Kate Burroughs, the illustrious M, hell, even Sidney Bristow – Queen of SpyFi – got along just fine with her overly-developed sense of patriotism that almost always resulted in her being a pretty darn positive person…impending Zombie Apocalypse and mad scientists aside.

So I find myself waiting, patiently, for the Happy-Go-Lucky-type SpyDame to appear on the screen, big or small. They’re out there. And if writers had even some sense of a clue, they would write about her.

ImageIn one of the most original Spy-Dame personas that I have seen in either film, book, or TV, the incredibly nuanced performance by Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, a Russian sleeper-agent on FX’s 1980s themed “The Americans”, is remarkable for the fact that, one, Elizabeth is a rare example of a fully-realized female character, and two, for the fact that the character wrestles with the seemingly mundane and quintessential female problem of trying to have it all – but with a twist.

Elizabeth (actually “Nadezhda”), raised in post-war, Communist Russia by a single mother, is a young KGB agent assigned to pose as part of a suburban couple in America with another KGB agent, husband “Phillip”. Elizabeth and Phillip only know each other by their American names as a method of protection in case they are ever caught. They arrive in America in the late 1970s and the series follows them years later as the live as an established married couple, produce two children, and reside in the suburbs while running a travel agency in Washington DC. The perfect cover as the couple navigate their secret life as deep-cover spies.

And Elizabeth is one tough customer: a master of disguise, a talented wireless radio operator, a skilled tradesman in espionage, pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, and a consistent strategic thinker – and all while also dealing with the appropriate amount of stress of being a mother. But here is where Elizabeth diverges from the norm: however harried Elizabeth may be as a mom, it is not to comedic effect. Elizabeth struggles with the balance of work-home life because first and foremost, Elizabeth is a dedicated Soviet, a loyal servant to the cause. While her husband Phillip often suggests early they either defect or disappear permanently in America as the country is not all that bad and their kids are as American as they come, Elizabeth will not here of it. She is The Job and The Job is not over. If her children are “too American” it is simply because Elizabeth is “not finished with them yet”.

Elizabeth plays the maligned disciplinarian in the eyes of her children while her husband is the “fun parent”, a fairly typical story construct on any level, but there’s an interesting duality in this spy thriller. While she does love her children and has, if not love, but strong affection for Phillip, they are still part of The Job in her mind and that influences much of her actions, as her family life is part of her cover, part of her job. For example, we learn early on that Elizabeth was assaulted by a senior training officer in Russia, and while this is a certain catalyst for events in the pilot episode, it is not something that defines Elizabeth as a character because the only thing that does define her is her commitment to The Soviet Cause. So a predator in the Soviet ranks is almost something she took in stride, as part of the job, until she decides it is not.

So how does a Dame have it all? How does Elizabeth manage marriage, children, and home while trying to champion Mother Russia and maintain a secret identity? Most often through cold reserve, tenacity, big-picture thinking, and the ability to give a good beat-down when warranted.

The bigger question that will face Elizabeth in the series is the constant test of her ideology and whether it will uphold as Elizabeth realizes that her Russian counterparts are not quite the patriots she has held them out to be, and then, what will her actions be?

Bond Girls 3.0

Posted: February 23, 2013 in MI6, Spy Dames We Wish Were Real
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images-1I suppose it should not be surprising that the most popular post on this blog is one I did on the Bond babes back in 2008. At the time, I wrote about the superfluity of these ladies and how Vesper Lynn was a new twist in the martini that is the Bond World Babes, that the franchise’s rethinking the way it saw women is the shaker, and how the reinvention of “M” was a much welcomed spray of dry vermouth.

Well, I am happy to say that the brain trust of this franchise has done it again. I finally, FINALLY got around to seeing Skyfall (such is the life of a PhD student) and all I can say is that this is the best James Bond film not about Bond made to date.

A Bond film not about Bond? Yup, I said it. And I’m sticking by it. Skyfall is a dense film with a lot of themes running amok: parentage, abandonment, redemption, betrayal, revenge, old age, the brevity of youth – they are all shaken and stirred into a lovely and tasty mix, but Bond in this film is somewhat relegated to that of plot device rather than having his issues all front and center as they have been since 2006’s Casino Royal.

No, this film is really about the ladies, more specifically, M and the proverbial “Sins of the Mother”, be they a hedgemonic spy chief or Mother Country. M’s past comes back to haunt her in the form a rogue agent, long presumed to be dead, who comes back with a vengeance to make M pay for her “sins”.

Well, mama M is well aware of her sins, she knows she constantly chooses between bad and worse options, the lesser of many evils, she just made a deal with herself long ago to never regret them because it isn’t “professional”. Be that as it may, and because a British NOC list has come into play under her watch, she is now facing down forced retirement and inquiry while her MI6 agents are being killed, so she enacts Bond to come back from his own presumed death to go to battle for Mama M and Mother Country, whether he is up to the challenge or not. It speaks to the bond (pun) between M and James, in that they can have this ambivalence towards each other laced with a fondness like that of parent and child, and respect like that of comrades in arms. M beckons and Bond responds. It’s a truly interesting love affair if you think about it, only with bombs, and guns, and assassins…

007eveWhat is also fascinating is that the first 40 minutes of the film truly are about M and her mess, and that is worthy to note because ancillary characters have never gotten this much play before. M is shown as mentor, mother, manager, and bureaucrat all rolled up into one really damn tiny package. Add a dash of Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny 2.0, and we see a who new mythology being written here. Moneypenny in this film is no longer the earnest, love-struck secretary, but a suspended field operative who has the dime on Bond, but made a bad shot after an arguably bad call by M. While suspended, she’s still neck deep in things and considering her options: return to the field full time or settle down with a rather nice desk?

So yadda, yadda, yadda, there’s a Bond villain (he’s fabulous but not the point of this post), mayhem ensues, M gets questioned by a lady Minister (a wonderfully prim Helen McCrory, too bad there wasn’t more of her in this film), things go boom, and chugga, chugga, chugga, Bond absconds with M to his childhood home of Skyfall where M is to be used as bait to draw out the baddie. Bond may be battling another rat, but he does so in M’s maze because this is clearly her film.

I won’t disclosed the end, except to say M moves on and the excellent Dame Judi Dench is effectively retired from the series. But, as M is replaced by yet another M in the form of Ralph Fiennes‘ Mallory, I couldn’t help but think, like a little tickle in the back of my brain, how now that Moneypenny has been re-invented, it occurred to me that her last name begins with M as well…

Hmmmm, a girl can dream….

tumblr_lwjey98RlV1qz9qooo1_1280_thumbHuzzah! The ban barring women from combat positions has been lifted! This is a good thing, especially considering that women have served on the front lines in unofficial combat and intelligence positions for over a decade now, but in the immortal words a one Eddie Izzard: “Ein minuten bitte…”

The story is that in the same week that Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, ended his tenure by lifting the ban preventing women from serving on the front lines if they are qualified to do so, an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency celebrated this progress in equality by presenting a briefing about “How to Dress for Success”. Now this is a perfectly acceptable presentation if it suggests sensible shoes, clothes that travel easily, and how to adjust a flak jacket to accommodate female anatomy, but – sigh – such was not the case. Invaluable bon mots such as suggesting makeup, high heels, and color! seem to be the message of the day, which is all fine and good if that day were in the 1960s, but apparently the DIA is a little slow on the upswing.

In a time where women are finally being realized as the proverbial smart-bombs that they are, it seems it is still not enough to be competent and smart if you are not first and foremost a sex bomb. The worst part of this whole debacle is that this nonsense is coming from a woman, which further goes to show that women are equally capable of not only firing a weapon, but firing said weapon into their own feet, thus proving, that at the end of the day, women are their own worst enemies.

To its credit, the DIA officially announced their “regret” over the briefing, clarifying that it was “unapproved” with the Director Lt. Gen Michael Flynn going as far as calling it ” highly offensive”.

So at least there is that…

Jennifer Matthews

Posted: January 30, 2013 in Blame a Dame, CIA

ImageIn my previous post, I discussed the increase of coverage of women in Intelligence in 2012. Increased coverage is good, but improper reporting of the facts is bad, so all in all, it ends up being a mixed blessing at best. The year kicked-off with renewed coverage of slain CIA agent, Jennifer Matthews, and her family speaking out on her behest due to what they felt was a misrepresentation of the facts surrounding her death, or as we refer to it in this blog, they are calling BS on what they feel is yet another round of “Blame a Dame”.

Jennifer Matthews (1964-2009), a 22-year CIA agent, an al Qaeda specialist (before there was such a thing), wife, and mother of three, was serving as the CIA base chief in Khost, Afghanistan when an asset, Jordanian doctor and double agent, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, visited the Camp Chapman base and detonated a suicide vest, thus killing not only Matthews, but six other CIA agents and a Jordanian Intelligence operative.

This is where the righteous pointing fingers rose up in indignation en masse. Now this is very normal human behavior, the need to make sense of tragedy, however, another common trait falls under Attribution Theory, where people, in trying to make sense of tragedy, will often arrive at conclusions that may be more a matter of convenience as opposed to fact in effort to assign blame. And this is where Jennifer Matthews comes in, as Chief of Base, her family feels she is being scapegoated for the entire ordeal when there is plenty of culpability go around.

The facts of the day are fairly straightforward: the doctor was transported to the base, and due to his previous visits, he was deemed trustworthy enough not to be searched. Matthews gathered her colleagues outside to greet the doctor where he then detonated the bomb he had concealed on his person. The mistakes are also straightforward: the doctor was not searched prior to transport, not searched at entry, and Matthews, apparently, had disregarded an internal security protocol by gathering her colleagues together in that manner. Official reports seemingly agree that many error across the board were made.

Where it gets mucky is that as Chief of Base, criticism leveled at Matthews was incredibly fierce. The fall-out of the event resulted in some people digging up Matthews name in connection to a scathing post-9/11 report that named Matthews and others partially responsible for Intelligence failures by not alerting the FBI to their information about a pending al Qaeda attack. Neither Matthews or others named in the report were disciplined because, frankly, a slew of people throughout the Intelligence Community have their own proverbial cross to bear when it comes to 9/11. Matthews can hardly be blamed for 70 years of non-cooperation between the CIA and the FBI. And post-attack, with more puzzle pieces in place, Matthews was a key figure in the capture of Abu Zubaida, a top al Qaeda leader, in March 2002, a mere six months after. Further, it is key to note that the doctor was a CIA asset before Matthews took the role as Base Chief. There would have been an assumption that he was properly vetted before Matthews ever knew him.

Other accusations that were leveled at Matthews was that she was not qualified to be in her position. Naturally, this gets spun in such a way to say that she was incompetent, especially given that she made the error of bringing her colleagues outside to meet the doctor, and super-especially given that her uncle, Dan Matthews, himself a noted CIA veteran, makes the ill-advised comments that she “was in over her head”. Jerky-move and family disloyalty aside, the elder Matthews’ comments reinforce the idea that she was not capable of handling the assignment.

Now here’s where I get “fussy” about wordage. Just because someone has not worked in a position before, does not mean they are unqualified. The CIA does acknowledge that of all of the applicants for the job, Matthews was the most qualified applicant. The assumption goes that you would receive a certain amount on-the-job-training in areas where you may need instruction. A sentiment voiced by Matthews’ husband, Gary Anderson, who clarifies that his wife had not received the proper training for the post.

But let me be clear: questioning Matthews’ action as Base Chief is fair play. Questioning her entire career, and certainly not in proper context, is not fair play. That, and I somehow don’t see this becoming the story it has become if Matthews were a man.

The truth in this case is a mixed bag. Yes, the good doctor should have been more thoroughly vetted, but the doctor was also an asset prior to Matthews working with him. Should she have performed her own vetting? No, you want and need to trust those you work with in that they have competently performed their own job. Should Matthews have followed strict protocols during the doctor’s arrival to the base? Definitely, but then the doctor should also have received a pat-down prior to entrance to the base. As with all things military and para-military, as the Chief of Base, the buck stops with Matthews. However, even with a pat-down prior to base entrance, the doctor would likely have detonated his vest anyway still incurring a body count. The problem here is that by gaining entrance, the doctor killed 8 high-level operatives inside a base instead of just those nameless schmoes transporting him.

The fact is, in the end, that should not matter. Anyone who dies in conflict, no matter who or where specifically, is a great loss and it should not be qualified according to rank and location. And Matthews is hardly responsible for the whole shebang, whatever her past, whatever her qualifications. This is a case where many small mistakes spread across many people culminated into a big disaster.

In the end, who do we “attribute” to this tragedy to? We attribute this tragedy where it belongs: to the abstract concept of War. As one anonymous person commented in a Washington Post story covering the Matthews story so eloquently stated:

“As a person who has gone to war “unprepared,” and by that I mean anyone who has been in a war zone has absolutely no idea what it will be like, let me tell you the instructions I have both my parents and spouse: Do not speak to the press, do not comment on my service or what I did if I am killed; I was killed because I was in harms’ way, not for any other reason. Remember that I love all of you but you are not in a position to judge what I do every day for a living. Sometimes, in war, tragic errors are made–they might be my errors or they might be others’; it’s war and the blame lies there and not with the people who had to make split-second decisions with bad information.”

Good advice.

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I did not post much last year, and while I feel massively guilty over this fact, it is tempered with the reality that such is the life of the PhD student. However, given that is is January, I resolve to be a better blogger…we’ll see if this holds…because I am due to defend my dissertation this year…

But despite my bad blogger-ing, I did notice a heartening trend, particularly in the closing of the year. I noticed that the media was actually giving credit to the women of the trade in ways that did not involve perceived princess-ness, beauty, or even sex.

Wha-wa-wah!? you say? Women actually being noted for their competence? Skill? Tenacity? Dedication? Talent? Is this Backwards Land? Did I slip into a wormhole? Did the media actual wake up in 2012 and not the Groundhog Day existence of the 1960s that reporting on women in Intelligence has been perpetually waking up to since, well, forever?

Let’s run it down:

It began last September when a former Navy Seal, Matt Bissonnette, who took part in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden (yeah, I know, Usama-Osama, tomayto-tomahto, whatever – dead), reported the existence of “Jen”, a CIA agent whom he credited with tracking down the infamous OBL. Though I didn’t much care the descriptions of her being “feisty”, I certainly appreciated the use of the term “wicked smart”.

So, while terrific and all, a gal getting her due, what was more interesting was in what followed this initial reporting; reports of not only the existence of wicked-smart “Jen”, but of other women, equally talented, who work among the ranks of the typical white-male patriarchy that has plagued the Intelligence filed for so long.

Quickly on the heels of this reporting, follows the film “Zero Dark Thirty” a film about the hunt for OBL featuring the said-same “Jen” in the form of “Maya” (more on her in another post), a CIA agent working tirelessly for years in the hunt of the world’s most famous terrorist. The story of Maya is not about her being a broad in the field, but a tough, frustrated and determined agent who is often pretty difficult to like, especially when she is right, a trait which is normally heralded in a man and disparaged in women.

And of course, given the awards-circuit dominance of the Claire Danes playing Carrie Mathison on the TV show “Homeland” (more on her in another post – yes, I know, I’m behind), we start to see a trend – the portrayal and reporting of complicated, tough women doing the job, doing it right.

All of this makes for great fodder in the media particularly when there is a new spin to put on the story. Women are no longer just preternatural bombshells practicing “sexpionage”, but are a “new breed of agent” described as “secret weapons“. Something new. Something innovative. Something not ever seen before.

And here’s where I call shenanigans.

It is again a case where men and media fail to learn their history. In the said same reporting it is discussed how women served as the best “targeters” for capturing senior al Qaeda leaders immediately following 9/11, especially Jennifer Matthews, an agent key to the capture of Abu Zubaydah in 2002 (although later scapegoated for larger Agency failures). And, ahem, let the record show this article is written in 2012 – a full decade later the fact. So these women are hardly new to the scene.

And of course, this again denies the existence of women who have served in Intelligence all along as engineers, mathematicians, cryptographers, agents, operatives, etc – all dedicated, tough, talented, and relentless in their pursuit of a more secure nation.

So it is during this time that we note the passing of Jeanne Vertefeuille, a long-time CIA analyst largely responsible for uncovering the country’s most dangerous mole, Aldrich Ames, in 1994. Of course, Jeanne worked alongside a team of talented women, who have come to be known as The Sisterhood, that despite being hired in the CIA during a time when women were not exactly appreciated, still performed brilliantly, establishing careers and performing feats that anyone – men or women – should aspire to achieve.

I mention Jeanne in this post, not because she stands out above a few centuries of women in Intelligence, but because in light of the reporting of “Jen”, and “Zero Dark Thirty”, and the not-so-new-breed of female agents and analysts, Jeanne Vertefeuille received her full due in the national media, and is hailed as a hero for her service to her country.

Just as a lot of other women should be.

For me, 2012 ended on a high note: Women being recognized for their great work in national security. Granted the facts are hardly right and the historical interpretation is not exactly sound, but still, all said – I’ll take it.

Here’s hoping the men folk and the media keep it up.

I will be perfectly honest in saying that I had zero interest in Haywire and potentially seeing yet another film exploiting the sexed-up-killer-fembot stereotype that plagues modern Spy-Fi; but with the illustrious Steven Soderbergh at the helm, and not to mention an absolutely killer (pardon the pun) cast, there was no way not to see it. Result? Color me impressed.

Mallory Kane, former marine and private operations specialist, is at a cross-roads. She hates her boss/former lover, wants to quit her job, and move on with her life. However, when an op goes south, and by south I mean she is set-up to be taken out, she decides to put on her whoop-ass pants and open her big bag of tricks on those who have transgressed her.

Of course, this being a Soderbergh film, you have no sense of the plot until about 2/3 into the film; whereby the narrative starts somewhere in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and revisits the middle before plowing through to the end.

So here’s what to love about the character Mallory: she isn’t an angsty, girly, conflicted woman. She is an operative who contemplates her life goals and career, makes highly calculated decisions, and then goes about her business of assassinations and generally kicking ass in some of the best and most realistic fight scenes I have ever seen on film.

Here’s what’s to love about the actress, Gia Carano, who plays Mallory: she’s a champion mixed-martial artist with a body, and muscles, and who not only knows how to take a hit, but gives it back in spades. There’s a reality in that if you take a hit from a 6’5 guy, chances are you’re gonna feel it. This movie doesn’t shy away from Mallory taking an ass kicking. There’s also the reality that Mallory isn’t  a 90lbs fembot in stilettos with jutting ribs taking out guys 4 times her size and weight with a roundhouse kick (which by the way Hollywood – ISN’T. REMOTELY. POSSIBLE). But all that being said, I could have done without the Rambo-style make-up job at the end of the film.

Here’s what to love about the film: the back story. Covert Ops is a business. There are contract negotiations. Clauses. Addendums. Payment plans. Attempted poaching of employees. Jerky co-workers and territorial bosses. Operation specialists are not lone wolves. There’s a tedium to wet-work that necessitates team work and these teams come with a messy web of infrastructure supporting their every move. Mallory is keen on this end and makes sure to conduct some back door dealings of her own, not just running amok killing everyone who ruined her day.

This is a film about loose ends. Normally, loose ends are the bits of fluff in our life we mere mortals need to tie-off, but this being the movies, and one about assassins, means that loose ends are not tied-off as much as they are macheted. Mallory has to make a clean and permanent break with her past which invariably comes with quite the body count.

The first thing you need to know about Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd (1844-1900) is that she refused to be ignored. After that, you need to know that the first thing about her informs the second thing about her, which was that she was one of the most successful Confederate spies, if not one of the top, during the American Civil War. An original wild child and l’enfant terrible, Ms. Boyd worked her mojo on many an unsuspecting male resulting in the one of the most interesting espionage careers this country has seen, from either man or woman.

Born into a prosperous, socially prominent, and slave owning family, Belle made her way into the world back when West Virginia was sans “West”. Already a bit of a renegade and agent provacateur, there’s an amusing story of Belle showing up to a party she was forbidden to attend on a horse. Horseback riding is not so unusual in those parts and in those days, but when you show up to a party on a horse and ride the horse into the house where the soiree is being held, well…you get the picture.  Belle, despite her notoriety for being a bit of a problem, managed to be  educated at Mount Washington College in Baltimore, Maryland and after graduation, made the rounds as a Washington DC debutante.

After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Boyd family firmly planted themselves on the Confederate side of the squabble. Union troops occupying the ShenandoahValley, upon encountered the Boyd home in Martinsburg, found nothing short of a big ole’ Stars and Bars was flying out front, courtesy of our dear Belle. This instigated a row over which, long story short, Belle shot a Union soldier dead in cold blood. Since Belle was just a girl, she exonerated of the charge but more or less kept under house arrest.

Belle made use of her time by romancing a one Captain Daniel Kelly into revealing Union military secrets and attempted to smuggle them to Confederate camps via a house slave. When caught, Belle was threatened with death should her shenanigans continue. And let’s just say this would be enough for any sane young woman to cease said shenanigans, however, our dear Belle, saw this as merely wake-up call to improve her super-secret communication skills. Her parents saw this as a ripe opportunity to ship Belle off to the relatives in Front Royal, Virginia in the vain hope that Belle might actually behave herself.

No such luck.

By Fall of 1861, Belle had begun work as a courier between generals Jackson and Beauregard. She used her greatest weapon, her charm, to gather information and talk her way out of some pretty tight spots. It’s interesting to note here that Belle (evident by photographs of her) was not particularly pretty. It really was her personality and her way with men that made her so succedssful. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the men involved didn’t think enough of women at the time to view her as a credible threat.

Her charm was not foolproof, however, as Belle did manage to get herself arrested in 1862, but was then released in 1863 during a prisoner exchange when the prison warden became smitten with her. She was arrested again in 1864 when after volunteering to deliver Confederate papers to contacts in London, England when the ship she was sailing on was captured by a Union blockade.

It was here that we really discover learn what makes Belle tick.  Somehow, she was released from custody where Belle then escaped to Canada. But here’s where it gets interesting: she eventually arrives in London a few short months later, but then marries Union naval officer, Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the officers who seized the ship she was on.

So, you have to start questioning Belle’s motives at this point. On one hand, she has gone through a terrific amount of effort to spy for the Confederacy, so naturally, you assume Belle to be a true believer in the Confederate cause. But then to marry a Union officer? This doesn’t jive.

Hardinge has to return to the United States where he is quickly charged with aiding and abetting a Confederate spy. Belle is so well known to Union troops that she is referred to as the “Siren of the Shenandoah” or the more accurate “Cleopatra of the Secession”. Hardinge is soon released but then keels over dead. Meanwhile, Belle is in London, broke, and pregnant. A journalist persuades Belle to write her autobiography in effort to make some cash. Belle does and in 1865, Belle Boyd: in Camp and Prison, a two volume set no less, comes into being.

But let’s get back to Belle her motives. She is seemingly passionate for the Confederate cause but marries a Union officer. She is 21 years old and somehow thinks her life story merits a two volume chronicle of her exploits? Oh, she also becomes an actress, marries yet another Union officer, and later, an actor from Ohio. Belle supports herself by touring around the United States lecturing on her war time escapades which are often questioned by historians.

This is a chick that likes to be in the spotlight. She likes attention. If you read the introduction to her memoir, it compares her to Joan of Arc. I don’t know about you, this makes someone like Belle all the more dangerous. For a small woman, she had an ego the size of Virginia. For her, this was all one big game centered around one Miss Boyd. Had the Union officers been smarter, I have no doubt they could have very easily persuaded her into switching sides.

There’s something to admire about Belle though. She isn’t beautiful but she is plenty smart and pretty damn fearless. She understands her targets  – men – and knows how to work a situation to her advantage. This is a far cry from the modern era where spy-dames are nothing more than sexed-up killer femmebots, so you have give Belle her due even you don’t agree with which side of the war she placed herself.

Belle Boyd continued on, making money on her former notoriety. She died of a heart attack in the Wisconsin Dells in 1900 after giving what was no doubt another rousing recollection of her exploits to, oddly enough, a Union Veterans association.

Belle is buried in Wisconsin.