A modest film tackling a theme of huge import, namely the role of whistleblowers, “Reality” has that title because it describes the FBI interrogation, in her home, of Reality Leigh Winner, an airforce veteran working as translator for the NSA. Fascinatingly, all the dialogue in the film comes verbatim from transcripts, requiring fancy cinematographic effects to blank out the blacked-out redacted segments. The veteran was being grilled because of a report on Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election outcome being leaked to the press. Sydney Sweeney is fabulous in the lead role, conveying the slow buildup of terror as she realizes what she has courted. Josh Hamilton and Marchant Davis are also moment-by-moment brilliant as the FBI investigators. The moral dimensions of a “good” person taunted beyond resistance by evil uncovered but not publicized are subtly drawn out. Reality does strike one as an oddity but a most welcome one.
Season 1 of The Bear was a rambunctious revelation (see my review). What staggers me is that Season 2 surpasses it in every respect and must count as this year’s most outstanding TV show, even ahead of the final season of Succession. You all know the idea behind Season 1: Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (played in transcendent style by Jeremy Allen White) (I’m told young folks think he’s amazingly sexy in his hangdog way) returns from New York, where he was a top chef, to run the family Chicago sandwich joint (“The Beef”) after his brother suicides. Season 1 is profane, relentless chaos. Well, Season 2 uses its ten episodes (two more than Season 1’s) to tell a slightly different story, how Carmy and Syd, that is, Sydney his sou-chef (also wonderfully played by Ayo Edebiri), team up and extract an uncle’s capital to launch a fine dining restaurant, one they hope to be of Michelin star level. The season sees a countdown toward launch night, mostly a series of disasters or obstacles. The food scenes and menus, no doubt heavily influenced the show’s “culinary producer,” Christopher Storer’s sister, Courtney, are presented in loving glory. Christopher Storey is not afraid to slow down and, for example, spend a full hour (most episodes are half that length) on an explosive family flashback scene. Each scene counts down, with screeching tension, toward the climax of opening night, and the final scene … no spoilers, but it shocks and startles and concludes in true fashion. This viewer, who is decidedly unsentimental, began to view Season 2 as a paean to obsessive, magnificent achievement, and my tears flowed throughout but so, so freely in Episode 10. You heard it: The Bear is this year’s go-to season.
Don Watson, a writer of rare clarity and expressiveness, has penned his master work with The Passion of Private White. It relates the story of Neville White, an anthropologist (and mate of Watson), who in 1974 begins working in a non-urban indigenous community in harsh Arnhem Land country. Watson frames the tale as the PTSD-style blowback from White’s Vietnam War combat stints, as a way for the anthropologist to channel his huge energy and perfectionism and his “passion” for his indigenous friends. Over nearly half a century since, the community of Donydji has waxed and waned, and changed, and throughout, White has been there recording their lives, their language, their stories of Country, but also advocating for them and providing assistance. A core step in the narrative is when White assembles teams of his war veteran friends to make annual pilgrimages to Donydji to build and clean and grow, in other words, to be of service to the community. The author lovingly sets out the entire history of colonisation of Arnhem Land, the arc of ups and downs of Neville White’s efforts, amidst a period when Aboriginal/indigenous affairs underwent huge political shifts. We, the reader, get to know Tom, the community’s leader, and Christopher, the wrecker, and Ricky the apprentice mechanic, plus a cast of dozens. We witness the rank incompetence of all forms of oversight, from the missions to the miners to the bureaucrats. Throughout, the author provides cogent, intellectual coverage of the issues, at the same time as building a nuanced portrayal of White, a hero by any other name. Important and brilliant … read The Passion of Private White, please.
The tenth Arkady Renko novel in just over two decades, “Independence Square ” touches on the strengths and creeping weaknesses of this police procedural series that has always been much more than genre. Powered by an eagle-eyed, nimble style that reflects Renko’s persona of a weary, cynical Soviet-then-Russian cop, the pages of Independence Square flash past as we follow the mystery of a missing woman into Soviet-occupied Crimea in Ukraine. The author’s pithy capturing of the sights, sounds, smells, and zeitgeist of Russia remains as strong as ever. The dialogue hums. Yet one can’t help noticing how brusque recent Renko plotlines have been, nor how his jaded life has begun to feel a tad, just a fraction, formulaic. The early Renko novels packed enormous emotional wallops; recent outings fizz and then fizzle out. A must for completists, Independence Square is also an enjoyable, atmospheric dalliance in today’s hot-topic location, but newcomers to Martin Cruz Smith should hunt back to commence with Gorky Park.
Of course we were pining for our next hit of Jackson Lamb ruling over his band of misfits at Slough House, but no, “The Secret Hours” is billed as a standalone spy thriller. That is not exactly true, even though The Secret Hours does not mention the Slow Horses, for this novel is a hefty (nearly 400 pages) “origins of” backstory, dressed up within a startlingly up-to-date internal investigation by the secret service. After an opening action scene that is the most pulse-pounding bravura stretch of writing I have read for years, the novel devolves into a wishy-washy inquiry run by two hapless desk jockeys, saturated with the author’s trademark wisecrack, cynical take on the modern world, into which explodes ancient spy tales from 1994 Berlin (Berlin being, of course, the heart of all spy thrillers, ever since the advent of George Smiley). Herron’s plotting is as devious and brilliant as any he has deployed and the spook atmospherics are superb. From the start, I sensed a deep homage to some of John Le Carre’s classics, the ones where innocents and not-so-innocents intertwine into a tapestry of grand beauty, horror, and yes, love. All of the above words add up to a verdict that surprised when it dawned on me: The Secret Hours is Mick Herron’s masterpiece, a grand drama written so well it will survive the eons. It is a compulsory read but, I regret to say, one that should properly follow the eight Slough House novels (and please, don’t omit the four interposing novellas!). Grace yourself with those books and The Secret Hours, and you too shall be redeemed.
Dreamed up by a Ted Lasso front runner and one of that show’s stars, Shrinking is a jiggly comedy about a grieving therapist’s attempts to radically reinvent his psychological methods. Chaos ensues and a chaotic social circle around the therapist provides drama and fun. Jason Segel is wonderful as Jimmy the therapist, and the supporting cast is fine, including a fine turn by Harrison Ford as Jimmy’s grouchy therapist boss. The comedy flows endlessly and while not all of it is laugh-out-aloud hilarious, one scene in particular, a barfing one, had me shaking with laughter. The quality of the first nine episodes varies a little, a couple falling rather flat, but overall Shrinking, with its half an hour per episode, is an engaging concoction with loads of intelligence. Until, that is, the tenth and final episode that wraps it all up, which is a disaster of lame unoriginality. It is rare these days to see otherwise savvy scriptwriters fall down so badly, but this is not a fall but a plummet. So feel free to watch Shrinking for a mostly engaging tale; just don’t expect to leave the show delighted.
I have come late to British crime writer Tim Sullivan’s series featuring Detective Sergeant George Cross, a dogged homicide detective diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. His fifth, The Monk, sees Cross tackling the savage murder of a seemingly charismatic monk. Befitting his personality, Cross patiently assembles a twisted skein of clues from the past, ably assisted by his fellow sergeant (who at one point wonders if she is the Watson to a Holmes). The plot is deliciously complex and patient, and Cross is a different, sympathetic protagonist with his own personal issues. I enjoyed the overnight read even though the author does overly belabour Cross’s autistic aspects.
A long, long drive across Paris, with tightly wound, troubled Charles a taxi driver ferrying old, ill Madeleine to a nursing home, gives “Driving Madeleine” license to softly, softly explore two different characters from different eras. An easy conceit that plays out like a theatre play, the film also indirectly shines a light on Paris itself. Dany Boon and Line Renaud are perfectly cast and slot into their roles with happy ease. As the journey progresses, the ice breaks and Madeleine relates (via acted-out flashbacks) the central tragic early highlights of her life. The pair gradually bonds over traffic, ice creams, and a bang-up dinner. Filmmaker Christian Carion is unafraid of drenching the climax in a sappy, predictable glow that blunts any edge the movie could have had, but even that sentimentality seems like a conscious filmic decision rather than poor scripting. Nothing much happens in Driving Madeleine and that in itself drapes it with a cozy warmth that engulfs the viewer.
An accomplished spy thriller, with a time-honored plotline, Moscow X makes for a splendid weekend of reading. The second complex, realistic outing by David McCloskey, it kicks off with a propulsive scene in an eastern European jail and then ricochets between Putin’s Moscow, London, and Texas. Three main characters drive the action: the wife of a Moscow bank executive and racehorse owner; a lawyer working for a London firm laundering dirty money; and a racehorse breeder. A battle between two antagonistic henchmen of Putin catalyzes the Moscow woman to intersect with the other two, tasked with running a covert operation deep within Russia. Double crosses lead to triple crosses, the action ratchets up with high tension, and the plot twists, twists, and twists. The author provides great verisimilitude concerning modern espionage and money shenanigans. Very much a plot-driven novel, the three main characters nonetheless acquire solidity and gravitas. The author is a robust stylist. All of these elements combine in Moscow X for a satisfying, classical espionage diversion.
The thriller genre is a crowded one and there are always “best seller” authors in it pumping out seemingly “thrilling” books. Unless you specialise exclusively in the genre, you are never going to stay fully on top of it. I had noticed Ruth Ware for a few years but until now had not tackled any of her seven thrillers, until I blitzed Zero Days in two evenings. The title refers to a nefarious “exploit” that hackers use to take over remote computers and systems, and the plot is straight out of Robert Ludlum’s playbook: when Gabe’s husband and fellow “computer security penetration consultant” is killed, with Gabe the inevitable suspect, she goes on the run and, using her “white knight” hacking skills, desperately seeks answers. Propulsive and artfully plotted, with well delineated characters, Zero Days is a top-notch thriller. If the style, a breathless “in the character’s head” one, weighed me down a tad, that was a reflection of my druthers, and you may well appreciate every page. Recommended.