ICYMI ‘Atomic Blond’ Delivers Female Action without a Hero

I’ve been Terrible about keeping blog followers in sync with my few essays from the summer.  Pardons begged for old news if you caught this on Christianity Today last month but also if you didn’t get word of it until now.  Thanks for following!

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After seeing the new spy thriller, I still don’t know what a female action hero looks like

Many moviegoers turn to the absurdities of comedy or the happy endings of romance when looking for an escape. I’m more of a guns and explosions kind of girl, so I’d been looking forward to Atomic Blonde, the Cold War espionage thriller starring Charlize Theron as MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton.

Atomic Blonde is a highly stylized, spy-versus-spy picture based on a graphic novel. Though shot in color, the film relies on a restrained color palette and boasts carefully blocked frames and noir-inspired lighting. Set in the divided Berlin of 1989, the film also draws on an array of ’80s references, from shoulder-exposing sweatshirts and stiletto ankle boots to a soundtrack so full of beloved ’80s hits that licensing them all ranks as one of the film’s most impressive stunts.

As if in tribute to the Soviet enemies of the Cold War, the film’s plot has taken the form of so many Russian nesting dolls: Each new layer of the tale opens up to reveal another hidden inside. The crisis that sends Agent Broughton to Berlin involves a murdered MI6 agent and a missing list of all the undercover intelligence operatives in the city. Both East and West are willing to kill for the list (and do), as it poses both a security threat to their operations and an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

The list is also believed to reveal the identity of a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated MI6. While the Brits know codename “Satchel” exists, they’ve been unable to find and eliminate the traitor. In addition to the female lead, the characters involved in untangling the plot include Broughton’s fellow British spy, David Percival (played as a charming maniac by James McAvoy), a handful of East German, West German, and Russian spies that become hard to keep straight, and the CIA (embodied by John Goodman).

The cageyness and cunning of spy films is part of their fun, but this film’s number of betrayals stacks up almost as fast as its body count. After one last clever reveal that comes in the final scene, viewers get the answers to all of the story’s riddles, save one: Why should I root for Lorraine Broughton? …

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Paige and the Peril of Coming of Age American

On The Americans‘ season finale,  Paige breaking her parents’ confidence was one of the series’ most damning depictions of the American project in series so far.  And yes, I do remember the episodes on CIA in Central America, but this time the series  opened up space for critically reflecting on what American culture–not just its military industrial complex–yields and what we found is not heartening.

As Paige dialed that phone to call Pastor Tim, the show again played on one of its most interesting features: the tension for viewers about who, after all, we are rooting for.  Initially the show took hits from critics who felt that by making the Jennings our protagonists producers encouraged viewers to root against America in the Cold War.  Fans of the program are likely to find things far more complicated than that, however.  There’s no doubt that we come to care about Philip and Elizabeth, that we root for their marriage and cringe during shoot-outs in hopes of their survival.  But we’re likely to prefer Philip–at least in season one–as it becomes clear that he has come to enjoy and internalize certain parts of America far more than his wife.

Paige’s indiscretion about her parents true vocation is a step toward American victory in the silent war being fought with KGB “Illegals” on American soil.  It is also the sympathetic, literal cry for help of an average teenage girl–perhaps a better than average one–faced with too much adult responsibility, too much moral quandary, and too many lies to handle on her own.  We get it, Paige.  We do.

And yet we don’t.  Or at least I don’t.  Watching Paige pick up that receiver, I felt something in me recoil from her (and a tinge of disappointment that the writers went this slightly more predictable path with her character).  My disgust with Paige wasn’t triggered by any pinko leanings; no amount of Putin Olympic agitprop nor episodes in the confidence of the Jennings has produced sympathy for the Communist cause.   It was activated by the sense that Paige, the born-and-bred American, ultimately operated in a world of thinner choices, of too clean edges, of too much desire for simplicity to handle herself in the high-risk, consequence-laden world her parents brought her into.

Continue reading Paige and the Peril of Coming of Age American

Clancy’s America

While it’s been great to be working on some book chapters, I’ve had woefully little time to write about current pop culture these last few months.  Then Tom Clancy died and I put down the research Continue reading Clancy’s America