Posts Tagged ‘Espionage’

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?


You’ve heard it, admit it, you have. Any dame involved in anything the least bit manipulative in nature or related to espionage and she instantly and incorrectly merits the name a “Mata Hari”.

Double Agent or naive floozy? The world may never know the true story of Margarethe Zelle (1876-1917), a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, that has captured popular imagination as an international woman of mystery during WWI.

Not a great dancer nor a great beauty, divorcee “Mata Hari”, took great advantage of being a first: an Asian Exotic Dancer. This was something new and novel to taunt the European public. All fine and good when the world is at peace and you are viewed as “seductive” and “erotic”, not so good when war comes to town and people get religion because then you become “promiscuous” and a “trollop”.

Mata Hari’s legion of high ranking, military lovers took her back and forth across country lines and kept in her the lavish lifestyle to which she was accustomed. It also garnered some unfortunate attention when Mata Hari claimed she was working for the French government, a claim that could not be verified. Was she the real deal or just reinventing her image ala Madonna?

Mata Hari’s shenanigans eventually caught up to her when French authorities intercepted a German radio massage regarding the activities of spy H-21. The French decoded the message, attributed it to Mata Hari, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The rumors fly that she was a spy, not a spy, a scapegoat, and/or a victim of a set-up and/or unfortunate circumstance. If she was duped, then who did it? It could have been the French or it could have been the Germans, no one really knows, but the general thought amongst scholars leans towards her being a pawn and nothing more.

Margarethe Zelle was tried, convicted and executed in 1917 for treason. And in the grand tradition of outrageous executioner tales, Mata Hari may, or may not, have blown a kiss to the firing squad, flashed her naked bod and claimed “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!”

I guess we’ll know in another 9 years when the 100 seal on French records is finally broken.

Yowser, did Annette Benning rock in “The Siege” or what? I always liked her as an actress, she’s terribly ballsy in everything she does, but this move kicked some serious butt.

Benning plays Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger, a government agent of unknown origin. She’s either CIA or NSA, we’re never quite sure because she’s excellent at playing everyone against the middle. What we do know is that she is a counterterrorism expert, grew up in Middle East, has assets all over the damn place, obviously is pretty good at interrogation, and is damn fine at pushing the FBI’s buttons. Her character highlights a terrifically important problem in the US Intelligence Community and that is the inability of certain agencies to share information.

Side note on the film: the original title was “Blowback” which I wish they would have kept because the plot aptly describes a possible consequence of a covert operation gone horribly wrong and coming back to haunt us on our own shores. Another interesting note on this film: after 9/11 it was the most rented film in America. Interesting that back in 1998, a screenwriter had the strategic imagination of a worst case scenario (see Red Team) and the film does a decent job, I think, of showing how foreign policy can come back and bite you on the ass.

Special bonus: while Annette Benning certainly has played her share of sex-pots (see “Bugsy” and the “The Grifters”), in this film she does a Plain Jane interpretation of the character that is all smarts and certainly keeps you guessing all the way to the tragic end. The key to this film is Elise/Sharon’s juggling act and keeping all the balls in the air. It’s done admirably. And I love that Elise/Sharon seem to get all the best lines:

“We’re the CIA, something always goes wrong.”

“I tend to be suspicious of all true believers. Present company included.”

and my favorite…

“It’s easy to tell the difference between right wrong. What’s hard is choosing the wrong that is more right.”