We recommend more women spy films and realistic espionage thrillers to watch after seeing the new adaptation.
Based on the book of the same name by ex-CIA agent Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence as an ex ballerina turned Russian spy. More specifically, she’s a “sparrow,” trained in a stern program that emphasizes using sexuality as a means to an end. Matthews has talked about real-life “swallow” schools and believes Russians still utilize “honey trap” techniques. Even if “Red Sparrow” didn’t have the inspiration of truth, though, cinema is filled with stories of “sexpionage.” For this week’s Movies to Watch list, I highlight some of the best examples as well as other picks relevant to the adaptation.
This silent film is not one of Fritz Lang’s most well-known or celebrated films, but even lesser Lang is better than almost anything by anyone else. Spies (Spione) was his follow-up to Metropolis (in which a literal machine woman is employed to influence men) and it involves a female Russian spy who is tasked with seducing a secret German agent but winds up falling in love with him. As in Red Sparrow, the romance stuff is neither the most interesting nor most believable part of the plot. Fortunately every other element of the film and its story works perfectly. The only other possible issue as it fits the context here is that in the end, the male characters are given much more to do than the female lead.
Two other essential films about honeypot spies from around the same time, both focused more completely on the women, are 1931’s Dishonored and Mata Hari. The former is one of Joseph von Sternberg’s pairings with the iconically seductive Marlene Dietrich, who plays an Austrian woman recruited to become an agent specializing in sexpionage during World War I. Of course, she falls in love with the Russian officer she’s tasked with manipulating. The latter, also set during World War I, stars Greta Garbo as the real-life (but loosely authentically portrayed) exotic dancer of the title, who was accused of spying for the Germans.
In years after, similar spy stories were done with lesser, pulpier quality, then they became mostly femme fatale villains in James Bond movies and other spy films, and eventually the idea unsurprisingly became the stuff of sexploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s, such as the soft-core-porn Ginger films, particularly the third installment, Girls Are for Loving.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)
Like “Red Sparrow” author Jason Matthews and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) was an actual intelligence operative before turning to a career writing spy novels. His most famous book, written while he was still working for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), is the basis of this movie starring Richard Burton. Like many great spy thrillers, including Red Sparrow, it’s about a double agent. Burton plays a an MI6 operative sent on a mission to feign defection to the East in order to take down a German counter-espionage agent who has managed to kill a number of British spies.
Also similar to Red Sparrow, le Carré adaptations tend to be more focused on characters than action and so attract quality acting talent in the lead roles. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold earned Burton an Oscar nomination, while fellow films based on le Carré books Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardner garnered an Oscar nod for Gary Oldman and an Oscar win for Rachel Weisz, respectively. Performances in The Russia House, A Most Wanted Man, The Deadly Affair, and The Tailor of Panama are particularly stellar, as well. Nobody in Red Sparrow will be receiving much awards recognition, but here’s hoping other Matthews adaptations continue, a la le Carré, to attract the best actors anyway.
The Patriots (1994)
Red Sparrow director Francis Lawrence hasn’t really talked about any film influences or connections to the movie (other than noting some similarities between it and the Hunger Games franchise, for which he helmed three installments). Matthews, on the other hand, recently shared some favorite books and films of a shared sensibility with his own novel. Asked during a Reddit AMA for other films that accurately capture the reality of the spy world, he named this one. “There’s a French/Israeli movie called The Patriots that’s very authentic and gives a feeling for the work we used to do,” he said. “I highly recommend it.” He also recommended reading “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and Fleming’s fifth Bond book, “From Russia, With Love.”
The Patriots fictionalizes two true stories involving the Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA/MI6). The first half, based on a mission that led to the 1981 Israeli air strike on an Iraqi nuclear power plan under construction, follows a young agent originally from Paris who is sent back there following his training to go deep undercover to foil a scientist’s plan to build a nuclear device for one of Israel’s enemies. As it turns out, there’s also a honey trap involved in that mission, as the agent employs a high-class prostitute to seduce the scientist and record him during their tryst. The second part of the movie, in which the agent works with an American providing information to Israel, is based on the case of convicted US intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard. The movie may not be quite as thrilling as a more made-up spy film like those in the action-adventure-filled Bond franchise, but its true historical influences make it indeed feel like we’re watching a more realistic version of that world.
Also known as Sexpionage: The Honey Trap, this documentary is pretty self-evident. Produced for A&E, the report-style mid-length documentary looks specifically at the KGB’s employment of women to exploit men’s weakness for sex. According to the program, the agents in charge of instructing the women recruits are actually called “uncles” (compared to the literal uncle in Red Sparrow) and the recruits themselves are called “swallows.” While not a great “movie,” I think this is the most fitting documentary pick of the week to show the real historical context of the plot of Red Sparrow.
Black Book (2006)
The movie that made it cool to love Paul Verhoeven again, Black Book (Zwartboek) is also responsible for giving future Game of Thrones actress Carice van Houten her international breakout role. She plays a Dutch-Jewish woman who becomes a Resistance spy towards the end of World War II, dying her hair (everywhere) to go undercover as a Nazi-supporting gentile. She gets a job as a secretary with the Nazi’s intelligence service and, of course, winds up falling in love with one of the enemy. But it’s okay because he’s working with the Resistance. Both of them wind up in trouble with both sides, though, due to their apparent mixed allegiances.
Like Red Sparrow, this movie allows women to take back the honey trap trope. Sure, both feature a ton of female nudity, but it’s never exploitative in the way sexpionage movies had been in previous decades. The women are portrayed as wielding great power and showing acceptance of what they’re doing with their bodies and sexuality on their own terms. Both movies also put their protagonists through humiliating abuse, mostly involving them being forcibly disrobed, but they maintain their dignity and come out stronger in the end.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Why has Red Sparrow been called the fake Black Widow movie? Mostly because fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly those anxiously awaiting a real Black Widow movie, saw too much base similarity between Jennifer Lawrence’s character and Scarlett Johansson’s in the MCU solely through clips from the trailer looking similar to scenes from Black Widow’s back story as depicted in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Both women are Russians trained in ballet — because that’s Russia’s thing, right? — and are as taught the deadly skills needed to be a top-notch spy and assassin. And their secret spy schools were torturous, physically and psychologically.
So you should watch at least Black Widow’s flashbacks in the Avengers sequel in order to show how simplistic and really just plain wrong it is to believe Red Sparrow now makes the finally-supposedly-being-produced solo Black Widow obsolete or redundant. Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff was recruited by the KGB as a child, while Lawrence’s Dominika is brought in to the job as a desperate adult. Black Widow was basically created to have no other life, like a machine working for the USSR, and she’s even sterilized to keep her from being wooed into making a family and children to care for. They just both happen to be Russian women spies, and the idea of lumping them together just goes to show how much we need more female-led movies even within the same genre. If you want to see more of the MCU’s “Red Room” Russian spy school, it also figures into the plot of the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
If there’s one scene in Red Sparrow that doesn’t feel totally authentic, especially given the realistic touches Matthews puts in the story from experience, it’s the prisoner exchange. The tension is off because you know Matthias Schoenaerts’s character is going to be eliminated. That’s Dominika’s whole plan. The Americans seem to know it, too, and either really don’t care or are too sloppy to secure the safety of the man, whom at first they believe to be their actual collaborator. And the way the film has to cut back to reminder and explainer scenes cuts the drama even more.
The scene plays particularly poorly if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s version of a similar but real-life exchange in this Best Picture nominee. And if you’re one of those convinced that Bridge of Spies is lesser Spielberg or a lesser Oscar nominee or anything other than a perfect historical thriller, definitely watch it back to back with Red Sparrow. The exchange in the movie is that of an American student and an American U-2 pilot for Russian spy Rudolf Abel, who is portrayed splendidly by Mark Rylance in an Oscar-winning performance.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
I probably enjoyed Red Sparrow too much, while I probably didn’t enjoy Atomic Blonde enough. I kept thinking about the latter and my dislike for it throughout Red Sparrow superficially because they’re both spy thrillers starring Oscar-winning actresses as double agents. What I do like about Atomic Blonde — the stylishness and the action sequences mostly — also kept coming to mind as what is lacking in Red Sparrow. Maybe I like and dislike them both the same, yet I favored the clarity and authenticity of the new movie.
Put them together, with the stupidly literal soundtrack and the convoluted storytelling of the earlier movie eliminated and the over-stressed way of presenting the simpler plot in the later film being remedied, for a sexy feminist spy action movie that’s as stimulating for the eyes as it is for the brain. Or put them together as Hollywood and mainstream audiences would prefer: Atomic Blonde vs. Red Sparrow. Theron’s Lorraine could definitely kick Lawrence’s Dominka’s ass in a physical fight, but how fun it would be for them to keep trying to pull off a twist ending against the other. It would be like trying to watch an allegorical adaptation of a shell game.
And after you watch Atomic Blonde, I’ve got more movies for you to see.