Hollywood on the Evil that Russians Do

The Washington Post reports on yet another wave of Hollywood fare casting Russians as villains.  Nice work, Mr. Putin. Hopefully, Mr. Obama is watching.

It’s 2010, and the Cold War has never been hotter.

Piper Perabo is brushing up on her Russian in the cable series “Covert Affairs.” The movie “Farewell,” a fictionalized version of the career of Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB spy who squirreled state secrets out of Russia in the 1980s, is scheduled to open in Washington next week. The recent sleeper spy story, by turns jaw-dropping and reassuringly benign, wound up providing welcome credibility cover for this week’s summer Cold War throwback: “Salt,” a swift, frenetic action thriller starring Angelina Jolie. In this stylish and absurdly violent kick in the keister, Jolie assumes myriad disguises and punches way above her weight as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian sleeper spy — a notion so alien when Kurt Wimmer first wrote the film that, for years, it languished in studio outboxes.

Even after “Salt” was green-lighted, its producers enlisted no less august a team than former Central Intelligence director R. James Woolsey and former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge to help market the movie and to pre-empt the inevitable criticism that “Salt’s” plot is either hopelessly dated or risibly improbable. (The Washington endorsement suggests another mystery: How does a studio persuade the Justice Department and FBI to prolong a decade-long investigation until a few weeks before your movie comes out?)

It’s true that, without current fortuitous events to back up its premise, “Salt” most likely would have been laughed out of theaters in its first five minutes, with its Russians scheming to spark World War III by giving long-dormant agents in America their cue. It would have seemed so quaint! So retro! So Boris and Natasha!

Instead, that story line gives “Salt” timely zing and arresting realism amid otherwise over-the-top — and utterly enjoyable — whiz-bang action. As the title character, Evelyn Salt, Jolie slips comfortably into her full-contact comfort zone, performing all manner of impossible stunts with the insolent flair and part-glam, part-glowering game face that has come to define her. As channeled by Jolie’s loose-limbed assurance, Salt is a woman who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and, with a few ingredients from the pantry, turn the pan into an armed surface-to-air missile in less than 90 seconds.

Running through Washington in her bare feet, scaling a brick wall and diving on to a semi truck from a highway overpass, Jolie gives even the film’s most outrageous set pieces an air of seriousness and focus. Underneath all the adrenaline lies a performance that, in its layers of deceptions and motivations, may be one of the actress’s most deceptively complex.

“Salt’s” punchy combination of credible tradecraft and “Die Hard” bombast make it that rare summer diversion that delivers lots of escapist whammies without insulting the audience. Credit for this surely belongs to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger,” “The Quiet American”), who knows his way around both pyrotechnics and a smart, taut thriller.

But however timely it’s turned out to be, “Salt’s” portrait of conflicts between Russia and America still feels almost as comfortingly archaic as the low-tech pods in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or Angela Lansbury’s hemlines in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Oddly enough, if the filmmakers really wanted “Salt” to feel of-the-moment, they could have introduced yet another seemingly old-fashioned element: nuclear armageddon.

That plot twist may be more plausible than we think, according to the lucid and compelling documentary “Countdown to Zero.” This lively primer in history, policy, physics and black-market economics offers chillingly persuasive evidence that the nuclear threat is not only still with us, but it’s more volatile than ever — with much of the danger emanating from Russia and its vicinity. Taking John F. Kennedy’s 1961 description of a “nuclear sword of Damocles . . . capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness,” director Lucy Walker proceeds to demonstrate how close we’ve come to all three scenarios from Strangelove-ian near-misses involving a malfunctioning computer chip or an errant flock of geese.

With superb editing and a moody, menacing musical score, Walker infuses “Countdown to Zero” with surprising energy and emotion. True, the filmmaker hews to the well-worn formula of archival material-plus-talking heads. But those talking heads are pretty impressive — Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, James Baker, the late Robert McNamara, to name just a few. And Walker expertly interweaves those sequences with anonymous on-the-street interviews and surveillance footage of public places to raise the issue’s human stakes and to underline just how naive and vulnerable we really are.

But vulnerable to whom? As former CIA operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson explains, there’s no question that al-Qaeda is seeking a nuclear weapon. Even more terrifying, “Countdown to Zero” forecasts the equally probable scenario of a weapon being stolen, built or purchased by way of an invisible, uncoordinated network of freelancers and mercenaries. At one point Walker interviews the imprisoned Oleg Khintsagov, who explains that he sought to sell nuclear material to al-Qaeda not because of ideology but because he needed new kitchen appliances.

The threat, in other words, no longer lies in age-old superpower showdowns, with their ritualized arguments and old-is-new spy-swaps on tarmacs. Instead, the danger lies in a generation brought up, not as young Communists but as aspiring oligarchs — Cold Hard Cash Warriors. Their adversaries, meanwhile, are likely to inhabit a sprawling, privatized security complex — brilliantly deconstructed by Dana Priest and William Arkin in this week’s Post — that has assumed an ever-greater role in intelligence gathering and analysis, with all the redundancy, unaccountability and bloat of any burgeoning bureaucracy. If, as one analyst in “Countdown to Zero” puts it, “complexity is the enemy of reliability,” then ours may be the most unreliable system imaginable.

Fortunately, “Countdown to Zero” doesn’t end on that dour note. Indeed, it offers a bracing solution to the many troubling questions it raises by inviting viewers to sign on to the Global Zero campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons — much like “An Inconvenient Truth” prodded audiences to support efforts to end climate change. (Both films come from activist film company Participant Media.)

“Countdown to Zero” may have a political agenda, but by the film’s moving conclusion, that agenda seems not only supremely logical and refreshingly bipartisan but actually within reach. As this cinematic call to action makes clear, contemplating the alternative is enough to keep even the soundest sleeper up at night.

10 responses to “Hollywood on the Evil that Russians Do

  1. Speaking of Hollywood, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0816433/ is not going out of the development hell anytime soon if ever (it was announced several years ago, and still nothing at all). My guess it’s after the executives realized such film would be either unrealistic (and something what th Russian “government” would be eager to co-produce) or it would make the said “government” (and the associated usual “patriots”) very angry, so why stir a hornet’s nest?

    • Maybe they just got a call saying they’d be killed if they released it.

      • No, it is/was to be an American and not a Russian film.

        • But speaking of death threats:


          Many doubts still surround Beslan, while public opinion is increasingly dubious regarding the results of the official investigation into events, which condemned only one man, the Chechen N. Kulaev and threw all responsibility at the feet of corrupt local officials. On September 1st the Committee for the “Beslan Mothers” held a demonstration in Moscow with over 300 people, accusing Putin’s administration of being responsible for the dramatic epilogue of the siege. In an open letter to the head of state the Mothers invited the president, in the last year of his mandate, to “visit Beslan and tell the truth”. The Mothers of Beslan maintain and are backed by eye witness accounts, that Russian security forces were the first to resort to tanks and flame throwers against the terrorists barricaded in the school, resulting in the massacre. The rebels, the exact number of whom remains unclear, were demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

          However hopes of arriving at the truth are fading. The lawyer for the Mothers, Taimuraz Chedzhemov, announced the withdrawal of charges against some Russian officials a few days ago [in March 2007], after having received death threats.

  2. Also, no matter what solid evidence comes to public attention,..i.e.. that Putin’s Russia is NOT a friend of America and is still bent on world-domination, etc. ,the left here, will continue to attack America as the villain of the world, and Russia as, (as also all the America-hating extremist Moslems too), as mistreated by us. Those poor people, have the RIGHT to attack us, and even to nuke us, afterall. To the left’s tiresome monotonous themesong, America always stinks, and ALL our foes always come up smelling like roses (!)
    It’s all so logical, isn’t it-???
    And yet, these mindless leftists, still seem to want to live…here! Would they fit in, in Putin’s Russia or in those fanatical Moslem countries?
    Thus, it is OUR evil government which makes, false, provocations, which then cause those poor angelic foreigners, (as Russia) to be forced, to react and to …defend themselves. What a tiresome old sour anthem.

    • Laszlo Tooth Jr.

      I second the view that Russia is bent on world-domination and on illegally denying us, the Americans, our god-given right to rule over Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. Russia refuses to recognize the American need to control world oil and gas and has refused to allow BP and other western oil conglomerates to expropriate Russian and Central Asian oil and gas.

      We, Americans, are busier and better at spreading peace, democracy and Exxon interests around the World than the rats are at spreading plague, and we get no respect and submission form the Russians. I call on all peace and democracy loving countries to condemn Russia’s refusal to recognize America’s exclusivity and to wear the BP emblem in their lapel tomorrow as a sign of support for our noble oil companies.

      Laszlo Tooth, Jr

  3. To ‘Laszlo Tooth, Jr’, a fellow American (?)…ha!, ha!
    What a total idiot you are, comrade, whether you are indeed ‘an American’ (which is doubtfull), …who hates ‘your’ country, or just another Russian-Putler internet trolling goon? But, I guess your message is, what?: Russia is wonderful and America stinks -?
    That is the old sour commie propaganda line for a long long time now. It is really quite stale and has lost it’s bubbles.
    I say, hurray for America and her normal trade and business and political , and military interests world-wide, and down with the Dark-Empire of KGB-Russia!…the curse of the whole world.
    The world needs America, but it doesn’t need your present corrupt ‘Russia’.
    The sooner that that version of ‘Russia’ comes apart and totally collapses, the better for the world, and for the impoverished/suffering/oppressed Russian people, now enslaved by your super-rich ruling class of neo-soviet KGB gangsters in the Kremlin.
    So, if you don’t already live in Russia, why not go there now?…on an old falling apart Aeroflot plane-?, with a drunken Russian pilot-?
    But, best to learn Chinese, to be ready for their take-over of Russia, especially of the entire ‘Russian’-East.
    That is coming, comrade.

    • Laszlo Tooth Jr.

      Dear Psalomschick,

      I can see that you are a fellow American patriot like myself. Would your personal hero and role model be Sarah Palin, like mine? But I am a bit suspicious of the fact that she watches Russia from her window. She can learn a lot of terrible habits from them. like those patriotic songs about winding roads that Putin likes to sing. I think she should move to New Mexico, where she can watch Old Mexicans from her window and have tea parties with her best friend John McCain. Do they hunt deer from helicopters in New Mexico? If not – maybe she can go after illegal immigrants? With the new law there, she can shoot anybody who looks suspiciously too Hispanic-American.

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