The best spy novels are often written by spies themselves (John le Carre, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Joe Weisberg, and so on). This is more than just a case of the old adage ‘write what you know,’ because the life of a spy is inevitably intertwined with the creation of fiction itself. The best spy novelists were undoubtedly good spies because they could create false but believable schemes and stories, convincing the enemy of a meticulously crafted deception, drawing on their imagination for the use of subterfuge.
Operation Mincemeat, a new film from Netflix, is at its best when exploring this fascinating dynamic. The movie certainly concerns itself with the titular spy operation developed by British intelligence during World War 2, along with a touch of romance, and does so with great acting, beautiful production design, and some careful plotting. Nonetheless, Operation Mincemeat is actually about the relationship between fiction and the reality of war, the spy and the person beneath him.
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Operation Mincemeat is Fiction About Reality and Vice Versa
Its very opening informs viewers of this, identifying that Operation Mincemeat is in many ways a meditation on storytelling itself, and about the fiction beneath reality (and vice versa). “In any story, if it’s a good story, there is that which is seen and that which is hidden. This is especially true in stories of war. There is the war we see, a contest of bomb and bullets,” the sparingly used but important voiceover narration begins. “But alongside this war, another war is waged, a battleground of shades of gray played out in seduction, deception, and bad faith. The participants are strange; they are seldom what they seem, and fiction and reality blur.”
It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that these words are narrated (as they’re birthed by the click-clack of a typewriter) by Ian Fleming, the author behind agent 007 and responsible for the many James Bond movies. Fleming was a part of the actual Operation Mincemeat in 1943, and the film finds him watching on curiously, the wheels within the author’s mind visibly turning. He isn’t the only master of fiction amongst the array of spies, secretaries, and secret agents in Operation Mincemeat. In fact, the main characters spend the film essentially creating fiction, except this storytelling will save thousands of lives.
An early scene in Operation Mincemeat finds intelligence officer Ewen Montagu reading aloud to his son from one of the great spy novels (and Alfred Hitchcock films), The 39 Steps, which arguably birthed the modern espionage thriller. Montagu is developing a deception operation alongside Charles Cholmondeley at the same time that Allied forces were planning to attack the Nazis through Sicily, which was heavily reinforced by the German military at the time. Montagu and his team hoped to create a ruse which would convince the Nazi military that the Allied forces were instead planning to attack through Greece and Sardinia, in order to draw the Germans away from Sicily to make safe space for the proper invasion.
The ‘True’ Story of Operation Mincemeat and WW2
To do this, a plan was developed which depended on a carefully formulated fiction, as much as it did on the dumb luck of happenstance and cunning spy-work. The deception involved having the corpse of a military officer with confidential intelligence wash up on the shores of neutral Spain and be intercepted by the Nazis; the corpse would carry information pertaining to the Allied invasion through Greece. Of course, this was all a feint – everything was staged, from the false documents to the actual British officer. Instead, the intelligence officers found a drowned body and constructed a detailed fictional backstory for the man to make him seem like a legitimate officer with accurate information.
To do this, the British team basically formed a writers room, pitching ideas and speculating as to who this fictional officer was. The best parts of Operation Mincemeat are the extended scenes in which Montagu and Jean Leslie, a woman on his team, tap into their extensive knowledge of and passion for spy fiction to workshop ideas together. They huddle together in the bars of wartime England and walk the streets darkened by curfews and blackouts, discussing who this fictional soldier they’re inventing for espionage is — who his family is, what his mission was, and who he fell in love with.
The most romantic aspects of the film find Montagu and Leslie combining their shared intelligence (of spying and spy fiction) to concoct this story, almost flirtatiously inserting themselves as the fictional characters they’re creating. Operation Mincemeat does this without being a meta movie, remaining a traditionally scripted film throughout, but it’s a unique delight to see fictional characters so invested and interested in fictional characters of their own making. This is a spy film that loves spy fiction.
The Cast and Crew of Operation Mincemeat
Outside this neat approach, Operation Mincemeat is a rather by-the-numbers film. It’s efficiently scripted by Michelle Ashford, who specializes in period dramas (writing for The Pacific and developing Masters of Sex) and directed with the typical (but rather bland) polish of John Madden. Madden’s films could benefit from a bit of the excitement of his namesake in the NFL, the ebullient and boisterous late coach John Madden; while his Exotic Marigold Hotel films, The Debt, Miss Sloane, and Shakespeare in Love are all good enough films, his work is often somewhat dull in its strict adherence to conventional filmmaking, and nothing is different here.
The acting is excellent throughout, though, with Kelly Macdonald and Colin Firth’s performances (as Leslie and Montagu, respectively) standing out despite a somewhat cloistered, stiff-upper-lip British setting. Matthew Macfayden is also very good as Charles, excellent in his displays of both wounded pride and barely containable passion. It should be really fun seeing him play John Stonehouse in the upcoming espionage miniseries.
Operation Mincemeat is a very polished production, with everything looking great — the film somehow seems bigger than it actually is, feeling like an epic British war movie when it in actuality takes place in mostly small, cramped spaces. The story itself is one of those stranger-than-fiction moments in espionage and military history, akin to Argo, where it’d be largely unbelievable if it wasn’t true.
This itself proves part of the point of Operation Mincemeat, that fiction is utterly necessary. It’s important not just for individuals to find hope and thrive in a painful world, but for military victory and for history itself. They say that ‘life imitates art,’ but it’s really a lot more symbiotic than that; life imitates art imitating life imitating art, and reality depends upon fiction as much as the inverse is true. That’s the best thing about Operation Mincemeat, and might give audiences a better appreciation for the fiction (such as James Bond) that they consume so regularly. Operation Mincemeat is now streaming on Netflix.
Netflix’s Operation Mincemeat Trailer Has British Soldiers Using Trickery to Fool Nazi Forces
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