Movie Curiosities: Operation Mincemeat
It’s no secret that Netflix has seen better days. While the company is still a titan of online streaming, they’ve lost quite a few subscribers in recent months, they’ve laid off numerous employees, and their tumbling stocks have been the subject of much discussion. Predictably, Netflix itself and the media conglomerates were quick to blame password sharing and online piracy for the loss of revenue, but of course we all know it can’t be that simple. No doubt Netflix’s own terrible PR blunders share some of the blame, particularly with regards to how they’ve handled their controversial programming decisions (like a special for Dave Chappelle, for one especially inflammatory instance).
And of course we can’t forget the factors outside of Netflix’s control. The pandemic is the most prominent example — people are stuck inside their houses and Netflix’s fortunes rise, then people feel safer going outside and those same fortunes tumble, all of this is obvious. There’s also the rise of other streaming services (Disney+, HBOMax, Amazon Prime, Apple+, etc.), giving Netflix more competition than it ever had until recently. Additionally, we’ve got historic inflation wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy, likely raising the price of food and rent to the point where Netflix is a luxury some people can no longer afford.
But I’d go out on a limb and hazard another guess: That Netflix has repeatedly and publicly failed to live up to its own promises and potential. Consider the following list.
- Roma: Won three Oscars (Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography) out of ten nominations
- The Irishman: Nine Oscar nominations, no wins
- Marriage Story: Won one Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) out of six nominations
- Mank: Won two Oscars (Best Cinematography and Best Production Design) out of ten nominations
- The Trial of the Chicago 7: Six Oscar nominations, no wins
- Don’t Look Up: Four Oscar nominations, no wins
- The Power of the Dog: One Oscar win (Best Director) out of 11 nominations
That makes seven Oscar wins out of 56 nominations, all in the span of four years.
Now, you might look at that list and think it an impressive total. It’s an honor just to be nominated, after all, and 56 nominations in four years is quite a feat. Plus, we’ve got two Best Directors and a Best Foreign Language film in there, that’s not nothing. All valid points.
But I look at this and see seven Best Picture nominees and not a single Best Picture win. I think of all the money, all the campaigning, all the times Netflix staked their reputation on this one picture to be the Best Picture champion that gives them the prestige to stand amongst the other great studios of Hollywood. And not only did their efforts come up short, but they came up short seven different times in four years. Every single awards season, Netflix gambles big and they lose big, such that with every subsequent massively public loss, they seem to fall just a little bit flatter.
It’s easy to forget that Netflix started out as a movie rental service, but that basic mindset of “pick a show, watch it, send it back, repeat” is hardwired into how Netflix and its customers operate. It was built from the ground up for consuming media quickly, binging one show and moving on to the next. This is likely why so many Netflix television offerings have found great success and lasting cultural impact, while the studio hasn’t really found that same level of success in its film department. With all due respect — and despite Netflix’s best efforts — I don’t see Bright, Red Notice, The Old Guard, or The Adam Project given the same degree of pop culture status given to shows like “Stranger Things”, “Bridgerton”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Squid Game”, “The Queen’s Gambit”, or even “Russian Doll”.
Put it this way: If you had to choose between another season of “GLOW” or a sequel to Enola Holmes…?
(Side note: This isn’t just Netflix, either. Quickly, from memory, list all the original TV shows and miniseries that you can think of on your favorite streaming platform. Now list all the original movies you can think of on that same platform. Not as easy, is it?)
At their worst, Netflix films fail outrageously hard to the point of unforgivable. (Thunder Force, anyone?) And even at their best, Netflix films are good pictures desperately reaching for greatness that’s only a maddening inch beyond their grasp. (Like the aforementioned Best Picture nominees.) But with Operation Mincemeat, we’ve got the rare entry I would put in the same class as The Old Guard: A legitimately great movie that does everything it sets out to do, and it will never get the recognition it so richly deserves.
Our stage is set in 1943, just before the Allied powers invade Sicily on their way to attacking Rome, deposing Mussolini, and wresting Italy away from the fascist Axis powers. Trouble is, Sicily is a blindingly obvious target to anyone with an atlas and a functional knowledge of military strategy. Thus Mussolini and his good buddy Hitler will know an invasion is coming and fortify Sicily against any hope of invasion.
The solution: Admiral John Godfrey (here played by Jason Isaacs), director of British naval intelligence, will run radio traffic, marching orders, and other false paper trails indicating to the Nazis that a non-existent battalion is on its way to Greece. To make it more convincing, Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) will forge some classified documents about the phony Greece invasion, plant the documents on a corpse dressed up to look like a Royal Marine who tragically died in a make-believe plane crash, and then dump the corpse into the ocean for the Nazis to find.
(Side note: Yes, this movie is based on a true story. And so far as I can find, it’s reasonably accurate.)
To be clear, Godfrey is adamantly opposed to Montagu’s hare-brained idea, reasoning that the Nazis will see right through such a bold-faced lie and put the Sicily invasion — thus tens of thousands of Allied troops, not to mention the entire war — in jeopardy. Even so, Godfrey is willing to let Montagu carry on with “Operation Mincemeat” until the last possible minute so he can smoke out a possible traitor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, the point stands that the Nazis will thoroughly examine every inch of this gift horse, inside and out. It’s not enough to be bulletproof or watertight, the ruse has to be utterly seamless. And this is where things get interesting.
Let’s take a roll call of the operatives we’ve got taking part in Operation Mincemeat.
- Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu recently sent his wife and children away to the relative safety of the USA. And there’s a distinct possibility that this separation may be permanent, given all the strain his classified military work is putting on his marriage.
- Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) is an MI5 agent, single and living at home with his invalid mother. Charles’ brother is a war hero KIA at Dunkirk, while Charles himself is an RAF lieutenant who will never fly again because of his bad eyesight and ungainly height.
- Lt. Commander Ian Fleming (yes, that Ian Fleming, here immortalized by Johnny Flynn) is the personal assistant to Godfrey, liaising between Montagu and the admiral. He’s got aspirations of being a novelist, and yes, the film is loaded with cheeky nods and winks toward Fleming’s most famous creation.
- Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilson) is Montagu’s loyal secretary. Her past and her private life are opaque, but it’s made implicitly clear that a woman of Hester’s age and wisdom has seen a lot of shit.
- Rounding out the crew is Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), a widowed office secretary who quickly establishes herself as a love interest for both Montagu and Cholmondeley.
These are the people who take it upon themselves to invent Captain William Martin of the Royal Marines out of whole cloth. They come up with his personality, his backstory, his habits, his ambitions, his greatest fears, every last facet of his make-believe psychology. They write letters, manufacture photographs, and put together all sorts of other things that poor Bill would have in his pockets during the “plane crash”. And of course Bill has to have a sweetheart back home, so they all have to repeat the process with “Pam” and invent a minutely detailed romantic history between the two.
The central objective is to make a fictional person so impeccably detailed that the entire world — even Montagu and company themselves! — believe that he’s real. They succeed all too well.
Operation Mincemeat becomes deeply personal as the operatives pour their hopes, their dreams, their regrets, their crippling flaws, and the memories of their fallen loved ones into Bill and Pam. It’s a fascinating instance of artistic collaboration bringing so many disparate authors together, each one possessive and territorial over some aspect of the story that means something deeply personal to them. To say nothing of Godfrey and the other Powers That Be, those without any personal stake in the project yet have the power to cancel the project outright unless their notes and input are taken into consideration.
That’s not even getting started on the interpersonal friction that comes about by way of the Montagu/Cholmondeley/Jean love triangle. From the outset, Pam was conceived as a fictionalized version of Jean (Literally, they’re using a photograph of Jean to embody Pam.), so who — if anyone — is the Bill analogue in this steamy romance getting invented for these two characters? Oh, and let’s not forget that these characters are spies by profession and nature. We can never completely discount the possibility that the characters are actively trying to undermine or manipulate each other for some ulterior purpose.
Perhaps most importantly, Bill and Pam are fictional people made to represent real ones. They are a heartfelt reminder that every soldier sent out to war is so much more than cannon fodder. Every single one of them has a life and a history, with dreams and flaws and loved ones waiting back home. And lest we forget, Bill is already dead before he’s ever sent out into the battlefield. His ending has already been written, and it’s predestined that he will give his life for his country. There’s a deeply tragic symbolism in that.
What makes all of this even more heartwrenching is the knowledge that Bill’s story is built on a very real corpse. Even if Glyndwr Michael (Lorne MacFayden) died alone of a drug overdose, the fact remains that he had a very real life and a very real history with very real loved ones. In fact, we do eventually meet Glyndwr’s sister (Doris, played by Gabrielle Creevy) who finally hears of her brother’s passing and comes out of the woodwork to claim the corpse. Alas, this turns out to be a better idea in theory than in execution.
(Side note: To the best of my knowledge, there’s no word one way or the other as to whether or not Lorne and Matthew MacFayden are related.)
Yes, it was absolutely essential in keeping with the themes of the film to bring up this reminder that Glyndwr Michael’s corpse is indeed more than a prop for the UK military to use and discard as they please. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that anyone ever actually came forward to claim Michael’s body, and there’s no way Operation Mincemeat could’ve gone so smoothly if it did. But as presented in the film, one imagines that Doris would have gone to the press or filed lawsuits or done something else fanatically desperate to get some straight answers. But no, we only get one scene that goes nowhere and the matter is immediately dropped. Damn shame the filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner like that.
Anyway, the bottom line here is that the film works as a tribute to fiction. From the elaborate story of Bill and Pam to the unwritten spy novels bouncing around in Sir Ian Fleming’s head, the point is acutely made that stories have power. Stories can inform or entertain, they can misdirect or seduce, they can even save lives and change the world. Even a fictional story can be mistaken for the real truth or honestly convey real truths if they’re elaborate and well-crafted enough. It’s a complex and universal theme, deftly handled in the most unthinkable setting possible. Beautifully done.
But what’s even crazier, this is only the first hour of the film. The first half is all about constructing the life of Cpt. William Martin, and the second half is all about getting the body and the documents where they need to be. That second hour is all about watching Montagu and associates pulling strings and verifying sources, working tirelessly from the shadows to make sure the Nazis are deceived and the Sicily invasion can safely proceed.
The shift shouldn’t work as well as it does. But through elaborate set-ups and payoffs, and consistency in themes and stakes, along with masterful editing and pacing, the second hour is every bit as intelligent and enthralling as the first hour. Incredible.
Kudos are due to everyone in the main cast — Firth, MacFadyen (both of them), Macdonald, Isaacs, Wilton, Flynn, all wonderful actors turning in solid performances. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Simon Russell Beale, here turning in an uncanny and charismatic portrayal of Winston Churchill himself. We’ve also got Mark Gatiss on hand, gamely playing Montagu’s black sheep brother as a bit of comic relief. Damn shame he was so underutilized, though.
Operation Mincemeat is a wonderful espionage thriller, blending small intimate character drama with huge global stakes like only the best war dramas can do. The cast is amazing, the premise is fantastic, and the themes are simply ingenious. Even for my nitpicks about characters and subplots given short shrift, this is still an efficient two-hour film that stumbles yet never falls.
Such a damn shame that between the awkward title and the flood of content on Netflix, not to mention the highly competitive May release window with so many blockbusters hitting multiplexes, this one is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let it pass you by. If you’ve got a Netflix account and you can watch this at no additional cost, you’re going to get such a great film for your time and money.
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