There have been several superb Cold War novels and almost as many great film adaptations of those same novels. Starting in earnest in the early 1960s, Cold War movies have rarely become box office blockbusters (one notable exception being two of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” installments), but that could all change on March 2 with the release of “Red Sparrow.”
Arriving at the near perfect moment, the (20th Century Fox distributed) film could also reap huge rewards because of the unrelenting, misinformed, misguided, swing-and-a-miss attempts from the deep state to create imagined, clandestine connections between the current president of the U.S. and Russia.
The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence as the title character, a.k.a. Dominika Egorova, a.k.a. DIVA, a Russian woman who, years earlier, was unwillingly enrolled in a covert “spy school” by a family member where students are taught how to seduce the enemy. If this sounds more like a seedy, possibly still-born, “Harlequin” romance than hard-boiled espionage thriller, you’re not alone but that’s just the appetizer.
The “Red Sparrow” novel was written by Jason Matthews, a 33-year C.I.A vet who during his career participated in covert operations in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the Middle and Far East and the Caribbean as a counter proliferation and counterterrorism specialist. Before “Red Sparrow” even hit the book store and online shelves, Matthews sold the movie rights for an unknown seven-figure price — an amount virtually unheard of for a commercially unproven provider of source material — truth or fiction. It didn’t hurt that the novel won both the prestigious Edgar (Allen Poe) and ITT Awards for Best First Novel.
Matthews isn’t the first former spy to profit from his experience as an undercover agent and it should be made clear that “Red Sparrow” is fiction, not a tell-all type of cash-in, sell-out affair. Matthews follows in the footsteps of several other spy-turned-writers such as Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carre and Ian Fleming — the man who created James Bond. Another writer that technically fits this bill would be the trailblazing children’s book author Roald Dahl who could rightfully be considered a non-conformist juvenile author who transcended the medium. These men were/are all British and the American Matthews isn’t which puts him in a class all by himself.
Another facet that added to the novel’s appeal is Dominika’s unique ability to discern or interpret people’s emotions and motives through visual color perception (a variation of Synesthesia). This would be the ultimate spy lie-detector and a science-fiction element rooted in actual proven science.
How this might be translated to a screen adaptation will be interesting to see and will almost certainly rope-in the fanboy/geek demographic not generally keen on political espionage movies. The same might be said for the mostly snooty (largely left-leaning female) foodie crowd as each chapter in the novel includes a reference to a prepared food and ends with a recipe for the same dish. If for no other reason, Matthews deserves major points for striking out beyond the typical content of spy novels.
Back to the “Harlequin” angle. At the heart of the story is the possible romantic entanglement between Dominika and Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), the C.I.A. agent whom she meets, maybe falls in love with, and might be the man who possibly prods her into becoming a double agent. Oh, the intrigue and possible appeal to soap opera fans (seriously — yet another untapped demographic for this genre).
The plausibility of any (good) political thriller is rooted in what’s happening at the time it is released. The genius Stanley Kubrick made “Dr. Strangelove” (based on the very serious “Red Alert” by Peter George) as a black comedy (originally meant for 1963 but ultimately released in 1964) and it remains a timeless (non-partisan) classic. It was scheduled to be previewed for the press on November 22, 1963, but was cancelled because of a real-life event that forever shook our country to its core.
From what can be discerned from the trailer, “Red Sparrow” is low on action, high on suggestive innuendo, heavy on mind games, sexual chess, double and triple dealing, and deep peeks into the human condition. If it succeeds commercially — and given Lawrence’s profile as the most bankable actress on the planet there’s no reason to think it won’t — you can expect at least two sequels.
Part of Matthews’ movie deal included sequel rights and since then he has finished his trilogy: “Palace of Treason” and “The Kremlin’s Candidate.” This could end up being Lawrence’s best choice of roles in her impressive young career. She’s already starred in a trilogy (“The Hunger Games”) which appealed to the masses in a fantasy/dystopian sort of way but “Red Sparrow” is far more rooted in plausible reality. If she’s in view of the bigger picture, Lawrence will insist on signing on for two more.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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