SpyTalk at the Movies: Operation Mincemeat
An astounding World War Two spy caper with a fabulous cast is sunk by a love-story digression
If you’re not inclined toward convoluted tomes on war and espionage, you may not be familiar with the story of Major William Martin, the unlikely hero in one of the most intriguing deception operations of World War II. If so, you have every reason to head over to Netflix to see Operation Mincemeat, a dramatic rendering of Britain’s monumental intelligence triumph in 1943. On the other hand, if you don’t know the story but want a great read, skip the flick and pick up the book by the same name, written by a master of the espionage genre, Ben Macintyre, on which the film is based.
Mincemeat was the code name for a British intelligence operation that successfully convinced Adolf Hitler and the Wehrmacht that the Allies were about to invade Greece, rather than Sicily, as the Nazis and everyone else assumed would happen.
To achieve the improbable, two British officers, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondeley, launched a plan to float a British soldier's corpse ashore in Nazi-friendly Spain that would appear to be carrying secret documents for an Allied invasion of Greece—and thus divert German troops there. The idea sprang from the imagination of the young Ian Fleming, a naval intelligence officer who worked with the two men a decade before he wrote Casino Royale, his first James Bond book.
First, of course, they had to find a suitable corpse, that of an otherwise fit young man who could be seen as having died an untimely death at sea, a body that could allay the suspicions of Nazi intelligence officers who would be on guard for a ruse.
The escapade was a celebrated story when Montagu himself wrote his somewhat distorted and censored first version in 1953, entitled The Man Who Never Was, and especially after it became the basis for a hit film three years later starring Clifton Webb. More than half a century after that, the highly regarded historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, using declassified documents along with his superior investigative and writing skills, improved markedly upon the original. Alas, the acclaimed director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Marigold Hotel) has mysteriously made mincemeat of the story. As rendered now, the rather stiff Montagu, portrayed believably by Clifton Webb in the 1950s, is transformed into a flawed, love deprived romantic, albeit played with persuasive sincerity by Colin Firth. To make that work, the filmmakers dumped all the great Operation Mincemeat source material into their own meat grinder, producing a sometimes tiresome story about a love triangle and overwrought rivalries that interfere with the matter at hand.
In this version, there is a needless, distracting voiceover with Fleming as the narrator, as if the story needed more dramatic umph than it already has, while giving a wink and a nod to the false impression that Fleming had written the story the film is based on, which is not the case. The plot unfolds under Fleming’s narration step by step, and on we plod: The British military team makes sure the decomposing stiff they found at the morgue is kept on ice as they create an extensive back story for him, invented in a letter and photo purportedly from a distraught girlfriend that will be discovered in his pocket. They dub her “Pam” and test out the verisimilitude of her made-up character with an up-and-coming secretary in the military intelligence office, Jean Leslie, played winsomely by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, rightly praised for her roles in Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men and Boardwalk Empire. Assuming that German spies will be on the loose in London, Jean as Pam has to have a full fake identity, which she talks through with Montagu so often they start to fall in love. But the dalliance feels like a needless sideshow and an excuse for Firth and Macdonald to be on camera together.
Finally, the plan is ready. The operatives pull their corpse out of cold storage, fasten a briefcase with the fake invasion document inside to his very limp wrist, taking care that Pam’s love letter, along with “her” photo (actually of Jean), theater tickets and other credible pocket litter, are just as waterlogged and decomposed as is the now-defrosting body. Next, Montagu and Cholmondeley (Succcession’s Matthew Macfadyen) hop into the back of a military hearse with the uniformed corpse and meet up with one very drunk lorry driver, played with very entertaining conviction by Mark Bonnar (Shetland, Catastrophe). He takes them on a careening overnight ride under blackout conditions from London to a naval base on the Scottish coast where a submarine is waiting to take “Major Martin” to Spain.
The body successfully floats ashore, where more British spies are ready. They carefully watch as the fake intelligence cache makes its way through the Spanish bureaucracy toward gullible German spies, then onward to Berlin. To reinforce the ploy, British diplomats and spies insist that the body of the now very ripe Major Martin and his possessions be returned to U.K. hands at once. Hitler’s handling of the momentous caper—a turning point in the war is at hand— might’ve supplied plenty of tingling suspense to the film, but it’s given short shrift.
The focus now returns to London, where Montagu is wasting his time and ours deciding whether to mend relations with his estranged wife, who has decamped to America with the kids. As padding for this digression, Penelope Wilton is added to the script as both a confidante to Montague’s wife and a member of the top-secret team alongside Montague himself. It’s a nice star turn for Wilson, the widowed Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey, but frankly, her character has little reason to be there at all. Subplots about a rivalry between Montagu and Cholmondeley and an counterintelligence investigation of Montague’s brother, Ivor (Mark Gatiss), are unresolved and tedious.
It’s a shame that director Madden and the respected screenwriter Michelle Ashford, so good in her work on The Pacific, the World War Two miniseries on HBO over a decade ago (as well as Masters of Sex), evidently didn’t trust the extraordinary espionage material of Mincemeat enough to carry the film. Although their Mincemeat does have its engaging, even thrilling moments, its adoption of a shopworn love interest as a subplot is an insult to the audience, as well as the very fine cast, and is a choice that just doesn’t really work.
Former Washington Post, Newsday and A.P. reporter and editor Peter Eisner is the author of a series of nonfiction World War Two books, most recently MacArthur’s Spies, The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II.