Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Shadow Lines, on Sundance Now

Finland has the dubious legacy of the term “Finlandization,” describing their formal neutrality, while falling ambiguously within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. This cloak-and-dagger miniseries depicts the secret (partially fictional) history of how it happened. The strategic decisions made by the Finish Security Intelligence Service are questionable, but least they try to avert a Cuban Missile Crisis-style threat to global stability in Kirsti & Katri Manninen’s ten-part Shadow Lines, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

Helena Korhonen pursues her studies in America as best she can, despite still suffering post-traumatic stress from WWII, until she is targeted by an act of not so random street crime. Calling the panic number her godfather, FIST-division spymaster Yrjo Ylitalo gave her, Korhonen is whisked backed to Finland by real-life socialite Tabe Slioor. Cleaning up the incident, Slioor discovers the attacker wore Soviet-manufactured shoes (a plot thread that is left hanging in season one.)

Maybe not so coincidentally, the women share a flight to Helsinki with Donald Walker, the replacement CIA agent for the one killed during FIST’s bungled U.S. Embassy break-in. It was an operation Julius Boije conducted with his partner and fiancée, but regrettably, he was forced to kill her shortly thereafter, when Ylitalo’s agency busybody Aune Lyytinen discovered she had been turned by the KGB. Soon, Ylitalo manipulates Korhonen into taking her place, to exploit Walker’s obvious interest.

They are concerned about CIA attempts to bolster the presidential campaign of the pro-Western candidate, whereas Ylitalo favors the candidacy of Urho Kekkonen, believing the Soviets will return their Naval base “leased” on Porkkala to reward his overtures to the USSR. However, a cabal of KGB and Red Army officers hoping to depose Khrushchev, in favor of Molotov, have developed a potential ICBM that could reach DC, if launched from Porkkala, so they are determined to keep it. Meanwhile. the deeper Ylitalo draws Korhonen into his web, the more she suspects he has lied to her about her own origins.

It is a shame John le Carré just passed, because he would have appreciated the complexity and moral ambiguity of the Manninen mother-daughter tandem’s tale of historical espionage. Ylitalo and FIST engage in all sorts of dirty deals and double-crosses, but in their case, they do it all in the name of neutrality. If anything, they cost their nation a degree of autonomy, given the censorship exercised on the USSR’s behalf during the Finlandization era (for instance, Billy Wilder’s
One, Two, Three was banned for twenty-five years). It is also worth noting all the American characters who die in Shadow Lines are killed by Finns (albeit in one case, by a KGB turncoat).

Frankly, things get exponentially more complicated than a brief thumbnail can convey, especially when Lisa Salmen (codename: Lynx) shows up. The Finnish-émigré-turned CIA agent is supposed to be one of the show’s villains, but she is too much fun to root against when she rolls her eyes at traditional rustic Finnish delicacies.

All of which makes
Shadow Lines a fascinating but somewhat ambivalent viewing experience. Given how Kekkonen problematically dominated Finnish politics for almost thirty years, during which time the intelligence service was frequently criticized for acting as his “personal police,” many non-Finnish viewers might feel like they are watching history going wrong. Be that as it may, Janne Reinkainen is definitely a spooky dead-ringer for the president-nearly-for-life. (In contrast, whoever briefly plays Khrushchev does not bear such a strong resemblance, but it is a decidedly unflattering portrayal for other reasons.)

When it comes to the leads, Emmi Parviainen pays Korhonen with a neurotic mousiness that is weird, but not compelling. Olavi Uusivirta is much more so as the closeted and conflicted Boije (whose cover as a jazz musician sneaks some nice music into the series). Hannu-Pekka Bjorkman chews all kinds of scenery as Ylitalo, the puppet-master, but Jonna Jarnefelt constantly outdoes him as flamboyant and sarcastic Salmen. Honestly, she deserves a spin-off series.

There are no heroes in
Shadow Lines and the conclusion largely strips away any remaining faith in FIST and Kekkonen’s professed principles (in a stone-cold bracing kind of way). The takeaway is as murky as the clandestine machinations, but it is fascinating to revisit this crucial but little understood corner of the Cold War. The truth is we should be studying the 20th Century Cold War now, because China is already waging a new Cold War against us and sooner or later, we’re going to have to start fighting back. Recommended for the intrigue and historical detail, Shadow Lines starts streaming tomorrow (12/24) on Sundance Now.