Archive for the ‘Spy Dames We Wish Were Real’ Category

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?

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Bond Girls 3.0

Posted: February 23, 2013 in MI6, Spy Dames We Wish Were Real
Tags: ,

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….

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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.

I’m not sure I have fully processed this movie about a genetically engineered super-soldier in the form of a teenage girl locked inside one damn twisted fairy-tale-esque nightmare, but here we go…

The movie opens with a young girl in the Arctic tundra stalking an elk (or was it caribou?). She nabs her prey only to then be attacked by an older man, whereby an fantastic fight sequence ensues. Of course, we learn this older man is dear-old “Papa” and we begin to wonder what kind of home life this child leads.

Well, it’s one of languages, and encyclopedic knowledge, and living off the land, and mastery of both martial arts and any object you can get your hands on to kill another human being.

Hanna is on lam, born on the lam actually, and her home life has been crafted by Papa to prepare her for her enemies because Hanna, as we come to discover, is a highly prized asset by a certain American spy-outfit. Hanna was genetically altered as an embryo in a reverse-twist on the Bionic Woman, where Hanna wasn’t re-built as a super-human hybrid but constructed as one.

Long story short: Hanna ends up back on the radar where CIA baddie, Marissa Veigerly, a link to Hanna’s conception, is trying to track her down. Hanna must realize the truth of her beginnings and protect herself from those who would destroy her.

So what does it bring to the table? There’s your usual Spy-Fi stuff about experimental science, assassins, and rogue agents chasing each other around the globe, and while I thought this movie would go down the path of nepotism (a subject I loathe: supposed inherited greatness), it actually brings up a rather interesting debate on nature versus nurture.

Sure, Hanna is genetic engineering marvel. She was created to be great, stellar genetic material that also makes her a liability, but the irony of the movie is that it is only by relentess training and realizing her true and full potential that she can protect herself. Hence, growing up isolated in the woods in the Arctic circle, learning as many languages as she can master, and becoming the ultimate survivalist.

But the fly in the ointment is actually two-flies: one, Hanna’s isolation makes her susceptible to over-stimulation where a TV, a fan, and a light switch is enough to drive her bonkers; and two, Hanna is an adolescent girl with enough pubescent hormones to power a small city.

There’s no resolution to Hanna. I rather enjoyed that as I don’t care much for pat endings. But two things I have found really fascinating about this film: the first, the director, is re-knowned for English romance films; and two, the that in an all-United-Kingdom-and-Commonwealth acting troupe, the baddie, Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett, has a Southern accent, thus keeping alive a tradition where Americans represent the baddies as Brits but the Brits represent our American-evilness as somehow being Southern.

I cannot believe I am about to blog about Lana Kane, aka sex-bomb super-agent of Archer‘s fictional spy-outfit “Isis”, but here we go…

If you haven’t seen the anachronistic FX animated Series “Archer”, then you’re in for a treat. The show is snappy, dirty, raucous (great word – don’t get to use it very often), and abso-freakin-lutlely hilarious. Of course, I can see where it would offend someone with more “delicate sensibilities”, so if you’re one of those, you best skip it altogether.

Lana Kane, voiced by the highly-nuanced Aisha Tyler, plays a constant second-fiddle to the slightly dumb and misogynistic Sterling Archer, spy extraordinaire!, of Isis, a security agency run by Archer’s fabulously wicked mother.

Lana is mostly a consummate pro when on the clock. She’s regimented, disciplined, and not above shooting Archer in the foot when he’s being an ass, which is pretty often. And the running joke on her monster paws is amusing. However, Lana does introduce a great point of contention in the co-ed workforce and that is the difficulties of “inter-office dating”.

Lana’s dating fiasco with Archer is followed up by her equally disastrous relationship with Cyril, agency comptroller, and further muddied by a fling with an agent from a rival outfit. Lana’s not about to let a bad-man get her down, but it does frustrate the beejeebers out of her when she can’t escape the idiocy that are her former flames.

Tune in for name drops on tradecraft and obscure pop-culture references, but mostly just tune in because it’s so damn funny.

“YUP!”

A pint-sized hacker with a photographic memory and a dark past is the standout character is Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and fills out a trio of books called The Millenium Trilogy (in the US anyway, in Sweden it is referred to as The Men Who Hate Women trilogy).

Salander copes daily with her troubled childhood or, as she refers to it, as the time When All The Evil Happened. According t0 Swedish society, she is labeled mentally incompetent and is officially a ward of the state. In the novels it is hinted that she may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome, but personally, if I experienced this girl’s childhood, I might be more than a little anti-social myself.

Lisbeth uses her super-computer powers to facilitate her job as a freelance private investigator.  She works when she wants, with whom she wants, on what she wants, and at her own leisure. She is surly, taciturn, and disappears for weeks, sometimes months, on end but turns in such brilliant work that her exasperated employer can not help but keep her on. Why? Simple, because Lisbeth is the best.

Salander is a problem solver. But what’s interesting is that she doesn’t get a thrill so much from solving a problem as much she does from the process. Her approach is what really snags the reader. The tougher the problem, the happier and more engaged Salander is. And believe me, her solutions are not for the weak. Burn her once and she’ll burn you back with an attack that makes Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like a water balloon fight.

Lisbeth is described in the book as an “information junkie with a child’s play on moral and ethics”. I couldn’t disagree more with the assessment. Lisbeth has an agenda and while her agenda does not necessarily meld with polite society, it is often effective and for the best of everyone involved. She is a highly rational actor with perceived unreasonable reactions.

If there is any complaint I would have about the character is that I would love to see more of her inner dialogue when it comes to methodology. Lisbeth is so utterly fascinating I find myself hanging on every word to see what she does next.

Josephine Hart once wrote that “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” No truer words could ever be written  as it applies to Lisbeth Salander. She is no one’s fool and certainly no one’s victim. This girl has taken shots that would take down an elephant, but she refuses to acknowledge that fact. Not acknowledging keeps her going and decidedly drives her work and her thought process as exemplified in her constant mantra Analyze the Consequences.  However, at the end of the day, this also prevents Lisbeth from making real connections with people, particularly those who wish to help her.

And Lisbeth doesn’t want those connections. She enjoys her anonymity and the peace it brings her by living on the fringe of society where she can be left alone to do her work. I wonder if she could be quite so effective at her job, blending in, sneaking about, observing, if she were more connected to this so-called “polite society”?

imagesOkay, I’m sooo late to the game on this one, but after a recent weekend spent on the couch with a lame back, a friend loaned me seasons 1-4 of NCIS, and now, I hate to admit, I’m hooked. The upside is that I feel like I have gotten my proverbial blogging mojo back. And it’s mostly because of Abby…and my theory about her parentage…

I know Abby, forensic technician extraordinaire!, is supposed to be the hearing child of deaf parents, but I think it’s a cover. I think Abby is the quirky, overachieving love-child-gone-wrong of X-Files residents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully…who also got kicked out of reform school…and single handedly supports the local tattoo parlor…

See, while Abby’s hard science tradecraft is truly superb, like mama Scully, just like old papa Mulder she too wants to believe. The chick digs crop circles! And unabashedly believes in aliens! But despite all her science, Abby brings a dash art and a heaping tablespoon of philosophy to her dishes. She is a creative thinker and willing to use that occasionally big bag of crazy between her ears to explore alternative theories.

I liken Abby to the revolution that has been going on in industrial design for the last ten years. Companies have been hiring not only the very best engineers but artists as well. Artists who may not remember a thing about high school trig class, but that doesn’t mean they can not dream up a truly new and innovative way to make a stapler.

Sure the character lacks boundaries, and her who hero-worship of Gibbs is slightly odd (although I totally dug the whole Gibbs-Shrine thing as a coping mechanism at the beginning of season 4), and so is her devotion to Catholicism while she plays with voodoo dolls and parties in cemeteries, but darn it if the girl doesn’t get the job done each and every time.

Abby’s interest in, well, everything makes her the perfect poster child for the 21st century knowledge worker. And the fact that she is allowed her public weirdness makes her that much more effective. Personally, I could wouldn’t want to share lab space with person that into Death Metal, but I think Abby, for her stellar quirkiness, does all us adorable, tattooed freaks proud.

And yes, while you may not know me, I am visibly in-your-face-tattooed, and quite adorable, and I am known to perform some damn fine analysis…but I prefer late 1970’s punk to Death Metal. That’s where Abby and I part ways.

burnnotice-s1Because we’ve now got two seasons of Burn Notice under our belts and because, also, I am devoting this month’s entries to ladies of the trade of Irish descent, I think it’s time to re-visit our old friend Fiona Glenanne.

As I mentioned before, I like this character because there is a focus on trade-craft, but there’s an aspect to Fiona the show does not capitalize on and that is her past in the IRA. Americans in general are pretty forgiving of the IRA, but St. Patty’s Day and rebel drinking songs aside, there’s a pretty serious background to Fiona that isn’t explored on the show.

The character of Fiona is in her late 30s. This would well place her into some of the nastiness of “The Troubles” of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Northern Ireland. As a “Provo” (Provisional IRA, the truer name of the organization Fiona worked under), she would have been well-versed in weaponry, gunrunning, and bomb making, all of which has carried over into the show. She also wouldn’t be averse to the well planned execution from time to time. Sure, we laugh when Fiona talks about shooting the FBI men trailing Michael simply because they annoy her, but believe me, the Fiona of real life would be pretty darn serious.

The story of modern Ireland is vastly complicated. This isn’t simply a matter of reunification as much as it is fear, institutional prejudice, and classism. There are many reasons Northern Ireland was such a mess for so long.

But if you are up on your modern history, great inroads were made in the Anglo-Irish peace process under President Clinton and the real nail in the coffin of domestic terrorism on the Old Sod really came after 9/11. Gun money dried up like you wouldn’t believe and popular support seriously declined as people re-thought the idea of terrorism.

The reality is that since 2001, the IRA has devolved into a criminal organization. We’re talking Godfather type mob action. Not to say that there aren’t some die-hards in the IRA who still believe in armed insurrection as a means to reunifying Ireland. However, as history has taught us, insurgency is a profitable business. Many people stay in long after The Cause ceases to matter for no other reason than the person knows of no other life.

We’ve seen elements of this in Fiona as she continues to deal in illegal gun sales (particularly in the season 2 finale). Whether this is because Fee is a thug at heart or because being an ex-IRA operative isn’t exactly great resume material we don’t know. But the question itself certainly brings a whole new element to the character of trigger-happy-make-things-go-boom Fiona.

If the show is smart, a little back story on our buddy Fee would be in order for next season. I for one would be terribly curious to know what exactly Fiona is: True Believer or Irish Gangster?

Since the new 007 film, Quantum of Solace, opened during finals it took me sometime to properly recover to see the movie in my right mind. Having seen the latest installment, it’s time to re-visit an old topic: Bond Girls.

camilleOh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy, where to begin? Let’s start with Camille, the supposed Bolivian beauty seeking revenge on the man who killed her parents. Do I really need to comment on the fact that a very obvious looking Eastern European actress with a visible Russian accent bleeding through her obviously tortured Bolivian accent was a little much at times? After 2006’s Casino Royale, I thought that Bond films had taken a turn and would at least attempt to flesh-out (pardon the pun) the female characters a bit more. But alas, tis not meant to be. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the idea of unrequited revenge as a theme, but without sufficient build-up of a back story, the character rings hollow.

sfThat’s Bond Babe #1, dare I venture an opinion on Bond Babe #2? “Strawberry Fields”? Consular agent? Are you kidding me? This saucy 1960’s throw-back of monikers is overdone and, frankly that character doesn’t even deserve a critique, so I’m moving on. Enough said.

imagesDame Judi Dench, however, ever deepens my undying loyalty in the role of ‘M’. love. her. I want this broad masterminding my intel agency once I become Dictator of my own nation (small country, manageable, an island preferably, benevolent of course).

The general movie revolves around Bond going rogue which is some fun stuff to gab about, but that discussion will unfortunately be left to another blog.

We only discuss the dames here.