Wednesday 2 September 2020

Movie Review: Damascus Cover (2017)

A spy thriller set in the Middle East, Damascus Cover is an old-fashioned intelligence game of shadows riddled with distracting inconsistencies.

It's 1989, and the Berlin Wall is tumbling. In that city, Mossad agent Ari Ben-Sion (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) terminates a double-crossing operative feeding information to the Syrians. An Israeli agent in Damascus falls into the hands of Sarraj (Navid Negahban), the Syrian head of Mukhabarat. Fearful that Israel's entire Syrian spy network has been compromised, Mossad boss Miki (John Hurt, in his final role) dispatches Ari to Damascus to extract Angel, the highest ranking covert agent in the city.

In Damascus Ari adopts the identity of German rug dealer Hans Hoffman and cozies up to ex-Nazi-in-hiding Franz Ludin (J├╝rgen Prochnow), whose housekeeper can help with Angel's extraction. Ari also starts a romance with journalist Kim Johnson (Olivia Thirlby). Syrian military commander General Fouad (Igal Naor) is locked in an internal power struggle with Sarraj, and both men keep close tabs on Ari's movements.

An independent production adapting the book by Howard Kaplan, Damascus Cover dives into the intriguing world of spying and counter-spying in the world's most dangerous neighbourhood. The gimmick-free, human-centred high-tension drama of spies in hostile territory relying on their wits to survive is refreshing, and both the cinematography and locations convey the desired dour mood. But unfortunately too many other elements fall short, compromising the film's quality.

As played by a stiff Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ari Ben-Sion silently screams "I am a Spy!" in every scene. Whether the fault of the actor or director and co-writer Daniel Zelik Berk, Ari's uncomfortable stance, useless narration and unwillingness to blend in erode credibility. Ari's careless bumbling around in Damascus, from romancing a journalist who can expose his identity (they first met in Jerusalem) to clumsily getting caught with Ludin's housekeeper, mark him as far from fit for purpose.

Many other plot points are clunky, including the contrived attempt to humanize Ari by providing him with a bland sob backstory (father died young; child died young). The entire old-Nazis-in-hiding subplot is appended for no useful narrative purpose except perhaps to make the Syrians look bad as ex-Nazi coddlers, and Ari's route to Angel through Ludin's housekeeper is a particularly convoluted mission path.

Of course this being a spy thriller most of the characters are not who they claim to be, and Damascus Cover gets better as more onion layers are peeled. While the exceptionally awkward action climax stumbles as badly as the rest of the film, the denouement is excellent in offering a glimpse into the realpolitik world of puppet masters. Damascus Cover blows its cover early and often, but does leave behind tantalizing shrouds of what could have been.

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