One Thing, Then Another
If you had to break it down, and we’re going to do just that, there are really two kinds of spy movies. The first are action movies with spies.* If you were in the mood to see Matt Damon whip seventeen kinds of ass, Colin Firth slaughter an entire church, or Charlize Theron kick a guy down a flight of stairs, movies like The Bourne Identity, Kingsman, and Atomic Blonde would fit the bill nicely.
Perhaps you’re in the mood for something more cerebral. That brings us to the second kind of spy movie, which are the films that take the craft of espionage seriously. Movies like Spy Game or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy exist in a world of gray areas. They would never portray something as gauche as jumping off a cliff whilst riding a motorcycle. Instead, they focus on process, deception, and the wearing-down of morality.
Are we good with that? We certainly are, but here’s the thing…there are certain immutable laws when it comes to genre movies. They must either show us something new or adhere to the genre’s conventions with a high degree of quality. If neither of those things happens, the Meh Cannon is fired. That’s the problem with the new espionage drama Diary of a Spy. Despite a powerhouse lead performance and moody direction, the film never quite operates at the level it should.
Anna (Tamara Taylor) used to be good at her job. Was she the best? No, and we get the sense that the elite heights of espionage were never in the cards for her. Nevertheless, Anna did good work for twenty years. That is until her team was killed while on assignment. Now, Anna isn’t simply washed up. She’s damaged goods, looked upon as a walking bad luck charm. That’s why she spends her days knocking back watered-down booze and staying in lousy motels.
So why does the CIA give Anna one more shot? Do they see a path to redemption for her? Unlikely, and the odds are that they look upon her as a tool, one good for one more job. The fixer she partners with, James (Fred Melamed), believes in her. Well, as much as an intelligence professional can believe in anyone. Anna’s handler S (Susan Sullivan) feels differently, yet she’s wise enough to know that sometimes you can only do the job with the tools you have.
That’s why Camden (Reese Noi) comes onto Anna’s radar. A character says to his face, “I don’t like you, Camden. You’re odd.” As cruel a statement as this is, it’s true that he’s a young man with a high level of intelligence and extremely limited social skills. Nobody takes him seriously, least of all Fahda (Pauline Leija), a young and spoiled woman who’s part of the Saudi royal family. Camden’s job is to act as Fahda’s tutor, but she treats him as more of a glorified gofer.
The CIA sees an angle ripe for exploitation, and Anna’s job is to seduce Camden and gain access into a highly impenetrable world. Is she playing Camden? Is she developing feelings for him, and him for her? Is there even a mission to complete or will Anna be strung along until she outlives her usefulness?
Director Adam Christian Clark has seemingly set out to make a Very Serious film about espionage. Numerous shadowy sequences exist to show us that the characters live in a world beyond morality, and gritty locations also show us that Anna doesn’t operate in the glitzy universe of James Bond. Clark is taking espionage seriously, and we see how the various players operate and what it costs them. That’s good, and yet the pacing drags more than I’d like. As a result, what should be a slow burn often just feels slow. I understand the feeling that Clark is after, and I think his instincts were spot-on; it’s that the execution is somewhat lacking.
The same goes for Clark’s screenplay. He clearly takes spycraft seriously, as well as he should. He also does a solid job of sketching out who the characters are, what they want, and the lengths they’re willing to go to get them. There are two big problems keeping a good screenplay from being great. The first is that these characters seem to live in a world where humor either doesn’t exist or it’s been beaten to within an inch of its life. While we don’t need an MCU quip fest here, humor is a natural human reaction to a wide variety of experiences. The characters don’t seem to have that reaction. The second issue is that, at its core, Diary of a Spy is a genre film. It’s a spy film showing us situations and people we’ve seen before, and that’s pretty much it. I never got the sense of either new ground being broken or of high-level screenwriting craft at play. Clark’s script neither hits hard nor strikes out in an interesting direction.
The script also hamstrings a cast that does good work. I liked Paulina Leija as the casually cruel and selfish Fahda, though I wished we could have seen more layers to the character. As Camden, Reese Noi gives a solid performance as a young man who seems like he’s never felt at ease in his entire life. He’s playing one of those people who expects the world to crap on him and can’t believe it when that doesn’t happen. Along similar lines, I thought Tamara Taylor did an excellent job as the desperate Anna. It’s a great change of pace to see an antagonist who isn’t the cream of the crop. Anna is a perpetual screwup, someone who just manages to complete her tasks by the skin of her teeth. That’s a nice touch. Unfortunately, Taylor and Noi are two strong performers who have a kind of anti-chemistry. There’s no existing universe where these two would be together, and I found it impossible to believe otherwise.
Diary of a Spy is okay. I didn’t hate it, didn’t love it, and in fact, I don’t really have strong feelings about it. Perhaps it could have been better, and I’m positive everyone involved will go on to do more distinguished work elsewhere. This film doesn’t damage the spy genre, but it doesn’t burnish it.
*Apologies for being pedantic, but James Bond movies aren’t spy movies. They’re their own genre and play by their own rules. To quote my kid about Bond, “He’s the worst spy ever. A good spy doesn’t usually drive through a city in a tank. That’s not helpful for any spy.” Touche.