Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Damascus Cover: Syrian Skullduggery

In 1989, almost the entire world was suddenly optimistic, except the Middle East. The New World Order seemed cool and doable then, so it is rather ironic to transfer Howard Kaplan’s cynical 1970s realpolitik espionage novel to the time of post-Wall euphoria, but it sort of works. Of course, the Syrian government remains brutally oppressive, so the immediate dangers faced by burned-out Mossad agent Ari Ben-Sion (cover name Hans Hoffmann) is just as timely and believable as it ever was, if not more so, in Daniel Zelik Berk’s Damascus Cover (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

It is hard to understand why a senior Israeli military intelligence officer would betray his country, but he did. Ben-Sion’s boss Miki sniffed him out before irreparable harm could be done, but the whole affair turned up the heat on a highly placed Israeli source in the Syrian intelligence service (known as “The Angel,” because the Mossad apparently recycles code names for double agents). It will be Ben-Sion’s mission to extract him, or possibly a Jewish-Syrian scientist with a senior position in the Syrian nuclear program. Frankly, his assignment keeps changing, leaving him increasingly exposed.

Under his Hoffmann cover, Ben-Sion is posing as a German businessman looking to import carpets. According to his legend, his father happened to be a SS guard at a concentration camp, which automatically puts him in good stead with the small National Socialist expat community given sanctuary by the Assad regime. They in turn introduce the spy to the feared Sulieman Sarraj, Syria’s newly appointed chief of the secret police. They are quite an unsavory lot, but as a consolation, Ben-Sion will also spend some quality time in the Damascus Sheraton with USA Today photo-journalist Kim Johnson, at least until he has to start bringing his work home with him.

In a line that gets revisited, Johnson argues anything is possible in a world in which the Wall came down. Maybe that even includes the production of a spy movie sympathetic to the State of Israel. Damascus Cover is not exactly the film we have been waiting for, but it certainly portrays Syria in the harshest light. Granted, Ben-Sion and his colleagues play plenty dirty, but they maintain a sense of honor, while the Syrians are exponentially more ruthless.

That starts with Sarraj, played with chilling intensity by Navid Negahban. Ironically, you can tell Negahban is one of the good guys, because of all the bad guys he has been willing to play, thereby helping to tell some very important stories on film, such as The Stoning of Soraya M., American Sniper, and the short Little Brother.

Likewise, it is great fun to watch the late great John Hurt scheme his way through the film as Miki. Frankly, seeing that old sly fox persona one more time is a fitting coda to his legendary career. While the character is underwritten, Olivia Thirlby does her best to make Johnson smart and alluring. Half the time, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is terrific, in a cold and twitchy sort of way, during his scenes of spycraft and agency politics. However, he never really develops a convincing rapport with Thirlby’s Johnson.

Damascus Cover is exactly the sort of film that deserves a reappraisal on DVD. It has several surprises up its sleeve and some nifty work from cinematographer Chloƫ Thomson. Plus, it provides an opportunity to give Negahban credit for his work here and in other films (such as his voice-over for the wonderful Window Horses). Recommended as a pretty good film of intrigue and skulduggery, Damascus Cover is now available on DVD.