Jul 13, 2010

DVD Review: The Contract (1988)

I’m a sucker for the “wall-crossing” sub-genre of spy stories, and a fan of 80s miniseries, so I was very much looking forward to The Contract, in which a British agent is tasked with contacting an East German missile scientist, convincing him to defect and then escorting him and his daughter across the border. Sadly, despite a game cast and good locations, I ended up a little bit let down. The main problem, I think, is that the story (adapted by Gerald Seymour from his own novel) could have been better told as a two-hour movie, and struggles to sustain the three-hour miniseries format. The result is two languidly paced episodes of build-up that feel padded leading to a gripping finale. The third episode is genuinely exciting spy entertainment (exciting enough to make me rather callously shoo my girlfriend out of the room when she dared to interrupt right at the climactic wall-crossing!), but I’m not sure I would have stuck around for it were I watching this on TV back in the 80s.

The initial set-up is promising. Willi Guttman, a young East German translator, defects to the West with the aid of British Intelligence in order to be with his pregnant fiancé. Why would the SIS put such considerable effort into helping him escape? Because of a case of mistaken identity. The men in charge back in London mistook him on paper for his father, the eminent missile scientist Wilhelm Guttman whose defection would indeed be quite a coup. They are very disappointed, to say the least, when they find that they have instead netted a lowly translator of no particular value. Eager to turn a disaster into a victory, the spymasters hatch a scheme to use the son to lure his father–who believes him to be dead. The junior Guttman isn’t all that eager to go along with the plan, but he’s eventually prodded into reluctantly cooperating–up to a point.

The miniseries alternates between the machinations of the British operatives–the Smiley-esque “good cop” Carter, played by Tinker, Tailor alumnus Bernard Hepton (also one of the better Rivals of Sherlock Holmes) and the younger, career-driven “bad cop,” Mawby, played by James Faulkner, the grieving father preparing for a holiday with his daughter, and several other subplots. The hero of the piece only really comes into the picture toward the end of the first episode, when Hepton recruits Johnny Donoghue, a former SAS operative fluent in German now working as a teacher, to be his agent in the field. Kevin McNally (probably most famous for playing Gibbs, Johnny Depp's first mate in the Pirates of the Caribbean films) does the best that he can with a character wrestling with personal demons so overused that they’ve lost all impact. (While stationed in Northern Ireland, he accidentally shot a child because he thought she had a gun.) Other than being driven by what he sees as a shot at redemption, the character remains fairly cryptic–and consequently not that engaging. Luckily, McNally is charismatic enough to get by on that much, and by the third episode he’d won me over. (I couldn’t help aging him fifteen years in my head, though, receding his hairline and picturing him as Gibbs, which is a disruptively incongruous image!)

The backroom politics desperately want to be Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but they’re not nearly as interesting... until that third episode, that is, when a petty turf war between supposed allies in British and West German intelligence services causes the whole mission to go horribly awry. A subplot involving a young East German border guard who’s gone AWOL in order to escape to the West with his idealistic girlfriend is considerably more compelling and affecting.

By Episode 3, the entire carefully orchestrated plan has been utterly compromised, the Guttman family is fractured, and Donoghue is trapped behind enemy lines, his cover blown, without an escape route. By this point, the narrative has gathered enough steam that the final hour really is tense and effective. The scenery looks like it could really be East Germany (though I suppose that’s unlikely) and the actual escape attempt (involving mines and machine guns and barbed wire and floodlights and all the exciting stuff we expect from a good border crossing) is fraught with tension and never guaranteed to succeed. Director Ian Toynton delivers so much genuine suspense in this final hour that I really wish the whole show could have been so good!

The Contract delivers plenty of the tropes that espionage fans crave on top of good acting, a moody, Eno-ish synth score, interesting locations and a fairly unique setting. (While there were plenty of good East German border-crossing movies and television shows in the Sixties, I don’t know of too many others from the final days of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s.) Unfortunately, there isn’t really enough compelling material to stretch out over the three-hour duration of a miniseries. Therefore, I can’t give it a fully enthusiastic recommendation, but fans of the serious, Le Carré-inspired side of the genre will be rewarded if they stick with it until the end.

The Contract is available along with another (superior) Gerald Seymour miniseries, Glory Boys, in the double-disc box set A Cold War Spy Collection from Acorn Media (currently a real bargain at half price on Amazon!). The picture is somewhat grainy, thanks to the film stock it was shot on, but the DVD looks surprisingly good for 80s television. The skimpy but nonetheless welcome extras amount to a biography of Seymour and cast filmographies.

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