A Call to Spy comes to theaters and digital platforms on October 2.
By Palmer Rubin
I’m sort of the worst person to watch historical dramas of this kind unless they really knock it out of the park, which not many of them do. The impulse with historical dramas is to find some sort of way to relate the events of this historical period to the trials and tribulations we’re all experiencing today. That’s not at all a bad idea, but it’s one that has to be handled very carefully, lest you get your wires crossed.
Oftentimes the much better choice to set your story during the time period in question but use made-up characters, because of how easily a biopic can devolve into hagiography that ends up misrepresenting the very people the film is supposed to be about. This ends up being the case with A Call To Spy, which is the story of a genuinely brilliant person, a trailblazer, the exact kind of person a biopic should be made about, which seems to care less about what made her interesting more than a rote series of vignettes of vague assignments, missions, deceits, and a lot of things that should be interesting on paper but turn out not to have much effect in execution.
The real Virginia Hall, played here by the film’s screenwriter, Sarah Megan Thomas, was the most dangerous Allied spy. A few Google searches refreshed my memory of her: having lost her leg at a young age, Hall became a spy and trained soldiers in anti-fascist resistance groups. The sheer size of her accomplishments feels like the placement for an effective spy thriller. This film is not that, even as it becomes incredibly unclear exactly what it intends to do. I’m never one to refuse a film more dedicated to character development than a typical three-act structure, but this film would have benefitted from one. She’s briefly trained to be a spy, arrives in France, and not much else happens after that. It is unclear why the film wanted to be about her at all.
The film has sort of the overly clean and orderly layout of something from a Discovery Channel re-enactment, and every single shot is tinted an unpleasant mouthwash sheen of blue. Despite Hall being a woman with a missing limb, an able-bodied woman takes the part instead, and despite the real Hall walking with a limp because of her disability, Thomas doesn’t bother adding one. There have been plenty of times able-bodied people have taken parts that should have gone to actors with disabilities (looking at you, Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump), but that’s a precedent that shouldn’t have been set here or anywhere else. Hall’s disability becomes nothing more than something for other characters to ruthlessly insult her over and for Hall herself to say she is “stronger than” or that she’s good “in spite of” her disability. It is incredibly patronizing to have this repeatedly come up in this way over the film’s first half hour and have it completely abandoned afterwards. It’s not intentionally ableist, but very tokenizing all the same. It is the sort of bland faux-progressivism purely so that able-bodied characters can congratulate themselves (and by extension, the filmmakers) for deigning to tell a story about a person with a disability at all.
The film does this to its core trio of characters far more interesting as real people than they are as written and performed. The strongest of the three central performances is by far Radhika Apte as Noor Khan, who is constantly contrasted as an Indian woman to her white counterparts and defines herself entirely by her eagerness to serve the Empire. She’s given very little to do, as is Stana Katic as Vera Atkins, who is defined by being Jewish much the same way. That’s the majority of the characterizations, even as it conveniently ignores Britain’s own mass genocide in India, even as Jews being rounded up into concentration camps serves little more as backdrop for Hall to give horrified looks at. Two white women, one Jewish and one with a disability (dehumanized by heritage and able-bodiedness), the other highlighted for being separate from whiteness altogether. I don’t think that’s the intentions of the filmmakers, even as all three are tokenized and given value by their relationship and capacity to do better than men in all things, rather than do good as themselves, the far more genuinely feminist outlook here. Thomas is able-bodied and Katic is a gentile, and when the film has as little substance as it does, being scenes that seem to only exist to provide catchphrases for the trailers (“we’ve got to do this for our country,” what have you), then that’s all you can really focus on. Entire scenes are just the three core cast members wafting nostalgic about vague notions of patriotism and what have you, historical figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill raised almost to godlike status. It is, in a word, nauseating.
The way that this film seems to be more about the vignettes, the aesthetics of the time rather than trying to embody it, it probably would’ve appealed far more towards its intended Downton Abbey crowd by being a limited series. There’s simply far too much stuffed into it to serve a mere two hours. A lot of it seems dedicated more towards stacking tropes in a row without understanding the meaning and usage of each of them. It is not a badly made film, but rather one assembled in a factory, competently made but with nothing distinguishing itself from any other film depicting this time period. If you want to make a Holocaust drama, don’t just film Jews being victimized to motivate a gentile into action. If you want to tell a story about a disabled woman achieving great things, you don’t have her do those things “in spite of” or “because of” her disability, you have her do those things and the disability is simply something that “is,” while casting actors with those experiences in those roles every time. If you want a diverse cast and a story celebrating multiculturalism, don’t cast a single BIPOC actor in the film and pat yourself on the back, it’s got to be found extensively in front of and behind the camera.
It begs the question why the effort was made to make something so aggressively mediocre and generic, which is almost worst than being a Tommy Wiseau-style catastrophe. In a catastrophe, you can find some demented entertainment. A film like Cats is a monstrosity and a war crime on Tom Hooper’s part, but it’s also an unintentional comedic masterpiece in how badly it whiffs it in every single aspect of its production. This is just competently made enough to bore you, which speaks to the talent and ability possessed by most of its crew, but it appeals only to those who want the past to be a nostalgia factory and nothing else while ignoring its injustices. Fans of Downton Abbey and a million insufferable programs like that will salivate over a film like this. It’s very much not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.
I do want to end with this, because I have been incredibly harsh with this film and this is worth saying: the best quote about filmmaking I ever heard is one that I’m going to paraphrase from an old professor: “it takes just as much effort to create a good movie as it takes to make a bad one or a mediocre one.” Now, I have no idea if he made this up himself or if he stole it from someone else, but the Google crystal ball had no insight to offer on this one. I say this because if anyone involved in this film’s creation was to see this, they would feel understandably slighted. I would not say something like this about Artemis Fowl, because once you’re at the level of Disney, you should know better. Someone like Kenneth Branagh should know better. This is a small independent release by IFC Films, this is not on the same level, and my numerous issues with it does not make it more disingenuous than the company that owns 40% of all media. Every time any film is made, the more the terms “above the line” and “below the line” are used, it is more likely that a lot of effort was put in by the latter in comparison to the former. Directors are often unbelievably lazy people, and often very hardworking people. Films are collaborative entities with an authorship often ranging in the hundreds or thousands. My own experiences have led me to conclude that the infamous auteur theory does not exist, even when we know filmmakers through their tendencies and what they go back to, visually and subtextually, every step of the way. I’ll say this much if you were involved with the film in any way: my judgement of the end result is not a judgement of your character or your ability. Movies are insanely difficult things to make. This did not work, but that does not mean you should not try again in whichever pursuit you’re currently pursuing.
Unless you’re a Nazi.