I’ll just come out and admit it: I can’t get enough of the Cold War. Part of this is nostalgia, of course. I make no secret of the fact that I consider the culture of the latter half of the 20th century to be far superior to what the 21st century has produced so far. And if you lived in the United States, the Cold War was the dominant geopolitical reality of the late 20th century.
Or maybe I’m fascinated with that old enemy, the Ruskies. Islamic terrorists I simply want to see annihilated. Kill ’em all, and let Allah sort ’em out. But the Russians are intelligent and innovative enough to be interesting, even if they aren’t always likable and almost never trustworthy.
My Cold War fascination undoubtedly played a role in my enthusiasm for The Americans, the Cold War spy drama that ran on FX from 2013 to 2018. I suppose, too, that I was a naturally receptive audience for Red Sparrow (2018) , a movie about a Russian ex-ballarina who is recruited into “sparrow school”, where the comely are trained to be ruthless, to use their sexuality in the service of the Russian state.
Note that I said “Russian” and not “Soviet”. Red Sparrow is set in the Putin era. Russia’s new leader-for-life isn’t directly portrayed in the film, but he is constantly referred to as “the president” (the same disingenuous title used for Saddam Hussein during his long, dictatorial reign in Iraq).
The Russia depicted in Red Sparrow is appropriately cold, snowy, grim, and brutal. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, you will be tempted to turn up your house’s thermostat. You’ll also be thankful that you live in the United States (or in some other Western democracy)–and not there.
(Another personal aside here: My grandfather spent a year in the USSR during WWII. His U.S. Navy duties also took him to Syria, Egypt, and a host of other places that most Americans wouldn’t eagerly visit in 2018. The only place he described in negative terms was Russia. As he put it, “the asshole of the world”. Not only did he hate the weather, but the Soviet soldiers were uniformly unfriendly, and ordinary citizens were afraid to even look at Americans, lest they be accused of treason. But to be fair, this was during the Stalin era.)
Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who supports her mother on her dancing income, until her career is ended by an injury. Dominika is then approached by her uncle, Ivan, who heads the Russian SVR. Ivan has a job for her.
I don’t want to summarize the whole plot for you. But suffice it to say that Ivan is creepy and evil. He also has incestuous designs on his niece. Through a series of carefully orchestrated circumstances, Ivan closes off Dominika’s options until her only real choice is to dedicate her life (and her body) to the service of the Russian state.
There’s much more to the movie, of course; and the real fun begins when Dominika starts interacting with her American CIA adversary, Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton). Nash and Dominika have an affair. (Of course: If a Cold War-era spy movie has a pretty female Russian operative and a CIA male agent, they must have a sexual liaison.)
Speaking of sex: There is a lot of it in Red Sparrow. In this case, however, it really is integral to the plot, as Dominika has been trained to use sex as a weapon of espionage.
A word about Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those Hollywood types with whom I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, she is a complete idiot when she opens her mouth about political matters–something she’s been doing increasingly in recent years.
On the other hand, she is a brilliant actress. I became aware of her years ago, when I saw one of her first movies, Winter’s Bone. In that movie, Lawrence convincingly became an impoverished Missouri teenager. She is just as convincing as a Russian ex-ballerina-turned-secret-agent. You don’t have to like Jennifer Lawrence’s off-screen behavior (and I for one, don’t), but you have to admire her mastery of her craft. (Now–if she would only just stick to that craft, and spare us the moonbat political activism.)
Dominika is understandably bitter about her mistreatment at the hands of her uncle and her native country. She is therefore ripe to be turned by Nash, who recruits her as a double agent. But has Dominika truly turned? The viewer can’t be sure. As the plot of Red Sparrow evolves, you aren’t sure if you’re watching a movie about doomed Russian patriotism, an espionage double-cross tale, or a classic revenge story. It’s worth the two hours and twenty minutes it takes to watch Red Sparrow in order to find out.