The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
I slipped into the seat early—like normal—and watched the stream of trailers. Almost every trailer noted its film was based on a true story, or was “the” true story, or that it revealed the hidden true story.
Watch, have some laughs, enjoy the ending, and forget it by tomorrow.
I watched three minutes of climbers trying to survive a trip down Everest, 33 miners trapped for 69 days in Chile, and the secret soldiers of Benghazi, who apparently rescued the Americans at the embassy. Being based on a true story seemingly validates the expenditure of making a movie and should motivate us to come to the theater.
I will likely not watch any of those films, since I distrust the romanticized and overly violent machismo, which rewrites history. I was sitting for a feature with the only value being that it was based on a TV show, which I had enjoyed as a young adolescent. I was going for the memories and to enjoy the retro style of action that doesn’t require hundreds of people to be killed, excessive explosions, or a hero who can hang onto the outside of a fast flying airplane.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more like James Bond, with fewer sexual escapades. It is the sixties, the middle of the Cold War. Napoleon Solo, dressed impeccably, crosses into East Germany to rescue Gaby Teller, the daughter of a nuclear scientist who has gone missing. They barely escape Illya Kuryakin, a towering KGB agent. Unbeknownst to them, Napoleon and Illya are about to become partners as the Soviets and the Americans cooperate to stop an international threat that could destabilize the whole world. The threat was tied to secret Nazi money with the intent to reestablish a Nazi world order. The leader, a tall, blonde, delusional Victoria Vinciguerra, provides the visual sixties fashion that hides the evil behind the façade of wealthy partygoers.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. provides the backstory for the TV show, revealing how Napoleon becomes a CIA operative instead of going to jail, while Illya is in the KGB to redeem his family name from shame. Illya’s father was sent to Siberia, so he tries to harness his intense anger into becoming the best KGB agent.
I remember a real woman named Anna, whom I interviewed in Latvia in 2013, talking about what her life was like after her father was sent to prison north of the polar ice cap at the beginning of the Soviet occupation. Suddenly she was avoided and distrusted and often family members faced limited job possibilities, educational opportunities, and the chance for any advancement. The KGB leader uses this threat on the character Illya repeatedly, reminding him of what happened to his father and the possibility of his own trip to Siberia.
The relationship builds as these spies work together, spy on each other, rescue each other, and decide if they should kill each other. Might there be romance? Will the Brits show up? Who will end up with the computer disk? The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stylishly offers entertainment, with minimal adrenaline-building car chases. Yes there are twists and turns, but they never really convinced me to worry about the outcome. The only real question is which of the leading men will Gaby sort of fall for. It couldn’t be a full-blown romance in this style of film.
We get very little of the context that the Cold War offered, and the sudden working together seems strange—although of course they each think they are playing the other one. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not based on a true story and offers little social, moral, or political comment. Watch, have some laughs, enjoy the ending, and forget it by tomorrow.
However, if you want to dive into the Soviet era, I would recommend Iris Dement’s new album, The Trackless Woods. She takes translations of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and sets them to music. The evocative album reveals only snippets of the reality that Akhmatova lived with: her only child sent to the gulag because she was his mother, being named an enemy of the state, living through two world wars. She survived and wrote poetry. Akhmatova died before the fall of the wall, but she said in “Song About Songs”:
Others will reap.
I only sow.
When the triumphant scythers lay the grain low,
Bless them, O Lord.
Dement created a bittersweet recording in her living room, a tribute to a woman and the people who survived and those who didn’t. I have almost forgotten The Man from U.N.C.L.E. already, but this music stays with me like an image of a bird caught in an iron cage but refusing to stop singing.