J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

DWF ’17: Espionage Tonight

Reality television has become so toxic, the idea of weaponizing it sort of makes sense. However, the CIA has more of an exercise in soft power in mind. The plan is to show how transparent we are at being covert and dirty. Thomas Devlin, “the Swamp Fox,” is just the likable wet works operative to win back the trust of the American people in Rob Gordon Bralver’s broad satire, Espionage Tonight (clip here), which had its world premiere at the 2017 Dances with Films.

Obviously, the Swamp Fox will have to retire into witness protection with a new identity after the first season, but that is just fine with him. He is not crazy about the new focus-grouped “Swamp Fox” nick-name, but whatever. He will work reasonably well with Sebastian Young, the field producer and cameraman. He also still trusts his long-time handler, Sydney Greenstreet (let’s dearly hope they know they are making a reference). However, showrunner Sam Jacobson and network marketing liaison Elizabeth Geary are a different matter.

The show is on regardless, both for Devlin and Amanda Artemova, the Russian actress who will be playing French journalist Isabelle Fremaux, deliberately chosen for her resemblance to the pretty Russian woman executed for helping Swampy during his last mission. Like Devlin, she will also be improving. Supposedly, everyone else is who they are presented to be, but we know better. In any event, Mainland China is making a power play, proposing a transcontinental bullet train through Colombia to compete with the Panama Canal (of course, they would have to first permanently rout those pesky Communist terrorists first, but it would still be bad from a sphere of influence perspective).

Granted, spoofs are not typically what you would call narrative-driven, but the way ET careens from plot point to plot point, you would think it was scripted during a Mad Libs party. It would be a real challenge reverse engineering an outline from this movie. At least, there was some colorful casting at the front end.

Frankly, Joe Hursley is pretty good as the sad-eyed but still pretty crazy Devlin. He and Greg Davis Jr. also wisely refrain from over-playing the subject-cameraman buddy bromance. Lynn Whitfield has the right gravitas for Greenstreet, while Alexie Gilmore is drolly catty as Geary. Unfortunately, Saïd Taghamaoui and Chasty Ballesteros are grossly under-employed as the arms-dealing kingpin Iskandar Yasin and his lover Fei Song, but they certainly are a photogenic couple.

There are some amusing gags in ET, but the constant cynicism gets to be a drag. Even John le Carré finds more inherent honor in the western intelligence services than Bralver’s screenplay allows. The truth is, the more you like spy films, the less likely you are to enjoy this one. Mostly a misfire, Espionage Tonight premiered at the 2017 Dances With Films, which concludes tonight in Hollywood, CA.

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