Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Operation Mincemeat, on Netflix

Actor M.E. Clifton James helped pull off one of the most famous deceptions of WWII, by serving as Gen. Montgomery’s double. Glyndwr Michael was at the center of an even more audacious counter-intelligence operation, but he was already dead at the time. For the sake of all the young servicemen slated for the invasion of Sicily, the officers and staff at the British Admiralty’s intelligence division launch a desperate mission to convince German the landing will come in Greece. Their efforts are chronicled in John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, which premieres today on Netflix.

The film starts at zero-hour, when the Mincemeat staff can do nothing more but prey, which they solemnly do. It is actually one of the most effective and powerful in media res film openings in recent years. A few short months earlier, Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu and Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondely were assigned to Operation Mincemeat, designed to plant false intelligence to draw Hitler’s forces away from Sicily. Although their commanding officer, Rear Admiral John Godfrey was skeptical, they were convinced they needed to tie their fabricated intel to an actual body, for the Germans to ever believe it. Godfrey’s aide, Ian Fleming happened to agree with them and ultimately so did Churchill.

Although the historically-based characters are rarely directly in harm’s way from the Axis, there is the tension of a ticking clock driving the narrative. It is also surprisingly compelling to watch the two officers and their civilian assistants become emotionally involved in the fictitious lives they create for the invented “Maj. William Martin” and his faithful girlfriend, like authors developing feelings for their fictional characters.

Despite the cerebral nature of the story, Madden builds a good deal of suspense. Ironically, a lot of it
comes from the number of Spanish officials who tried to act in good conscience, in accordance with their ostensive neutrality. It took a lot of sly machinations on the part of the local British consul (nicely played by Alex Jennings) to appeal to their fascist inclinations.

On the other hand, there is a distracting minor subplot ginning up paranoia over suspicion Montagu’s brother Ivor was a Soviet spy, which he was indeed, but apparently only briefly and with little tangible results. The portrayal of Churchill is a bit of a caricature, but it also shows that he was nobody’s fool. However, the film does a great job conveying tactics, strategy, and the general wartime environment.

Colin Firth plays Montagu as a charismatic paragon of duty and decency, but mostly in a “cool dad” kind of way. Jean Leslie, Montagu’s civilian aide, transferred from Bletchley Park (the code-breaking headquarters) is like a lot of Kelly Macdonald’s previous roles, but she still brings an earnestness to her performance that deserves respect. The attraction that builds between them might be a forced device to create drama, but the halting ambiguity and bittersweet chasteness of it all keeps their not-quite-relationship palatable and sometimes even interesting. However, Matthew Macfadyen’s stiff and prickly portrayal of Cholmondely hardly seems to do the officer justice.

It is refreshing to see a film that respects those who respect God and country. This is a great, true story that shows the value of intelligence service. On paper, it would also present challenges for film adaptations, but it is in fact the second film dramatizing the operation, following Ronald Neame’s
The Man Who Never Was. (Remaking I was Monty’s Double would be even harder, because who could ever be more convincing than James, playing Montgomery, and himself?) Highly recommended for fans of war and espionage films, Operation Mincemeat starts streaming today (5/11) on Netflix.