Movie Review: “The Operative” (2019)

Stories of undercover agents not following their handler’s orders are rather de rigueur.  Stories of undercover agents following in love with someone they shouldn’t are none too fresh.  Seeing the two types of issues crop up for an agent in a single movie is, again, something that has been portrayed more than once.  Consequently, these things appearing in the Yuval Adler written and directed “The Operative” feels neither exciting nor new. The only thing the movie has which might put it over the top is the cast – Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, and Cas Anvar. They are certainly good, but they do not make the movie anything special.

That said, the opening of the movie, with Freeman’s Thomas being called back to duty for the Mossad when he gets a phone call from Kruger’s Rachel, the agent he used to run, is wonderful.  “The Operative” unquestionably opens with a tremendous sense of tension and intrigue.  As the audience begins to learn about Thomas and his work with Rachel, we grow more and more invested in the goings-on.

It is when the answers start coming that it all falls apart.

Adler has organized the film largely within the frame of Thomas having to explain in detail to his former superiors the way his relationship with Rachel played out.  He has to offer up facts that later seem—when his relationship with her goes sour—that he probably wouldn’t know. But, beyond that, the entire thing becomes much more a love story between Rachel and Anvar’s Farhad, an Iranian national whom the Mossad is trying to work to their own ends than anything else.

The love story isn’t particularly clever either.  These are just two people who fall for each other.  Did it start as an operation for Rachel?  Yes, but she seems to have little to no problem whatsoever stepping over the line.  The couple then just explore a little bit of—but not too much and never in excessive depth—Iranian culture together and that’s that.  That’s the relationship.

“The Operative” doesn’t go anywhere new, that is certainly true, but it doesn’t even go very far down the well worn path which it means to travel.  The love story has few complications (save the secret agent stuff), the mission is simplistic, the Mossad  is never explored.

This is made worse by the fact that the movie isn’t a short one, running 117 minutes.  Even if scenes do not repeat, they all too often feel unnecessary, offering elements of events or relationships that add nothing.

The most successful aspect of the film is Freeman.  He is wonderfully intense as Thomas – angry and perplexed and sad and torn.  His scenes with Kruger are full of energy and the two actors play off each other well.  As engaging as Anvar might be, Farhad’s relationship with Rachel is less vibrant.  It isn’t that one doesn’t believe in the relationship, it’s that while the movie seems to want to develop the difficulties that are inherent between the relationship between the Rachel, as a foreign national, and Farhad, it never really does.  There are feints towards such exploration, but they are never developed.

There is a reason why we see plots rehashed in spy movies and love stories – it is because they work; they get the audience involved.  “The Operative” appears, at one level, to understand this, using the well trod paths in order to engage the audience.  The problem is that it has nowhere interesting to go after that.

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photo credit:  Vertical Entertainment

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