Saying that the Americans and the Russians do not always see eye-to-eye on global matters would be an understatement. The political rivalry between the USA and the old USSR – and then the subsequent Russia – is many decades old. It has to a large extent also influenced the villains in Hollywood, who during the Cold War, started having Russian identities more often than not. That notion has continued for long in Hollywood, but as North Koreans and Muslim jihadis start to figure in the antagonist roles nowadays, the erstwhile Russian villain with his placid but callous nature has taken a backseat. In this year itself, I have noticed a few Russian characters crop up in Hollywood movies that were far off from the caricatures made in the previous decades, having more diverse personalities that made them as interesting to watch as their American counterparts.
Rudolf Abel played by Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was based on a true story that took place during the Cold War when a KBG Agent, Rudolf Abel, was apprehended by the American authorities, and was subsequently part of an exchange to get back a young American pilot who had been captured by USSR. In the olden days, I would have been surprised if Abel’s nature had been shown to be as gentle and charming as shown in Bridge of Spies, irrespective of it being close to his true self or not. Spielberg did not reduce Abel to an agent bent on destroying America; instead, Abel was shown as someone who was a patriot and a loyalist to his country though not a zealot, doing what had been asked of him. He was also a painter, a very good one in fact, and worthy of having as a friend. Mark Rylance was absolutely brilliant in this role, even taking the limelight away from Tom Hanks in some scenes. While USSR may still have been showcased as the same authoritarian regime with a cold heart, its agent this time was more endearing.
Boris Spassky played by Liev Schreiber in Pawn Sacrifice
Boris Spassky is a legend in the world of chess and thus any attempt to taint his personality would not have gone down well. But director Edward Zwick cannot be accused of even remotely attempting such a stunt. The hero and the villain of Pawn Sacrifice remains the American chess genius Bobby Fischer played so effortlessly by Tobey Maguire. But Boris Spassky brings in an interesting personality that makes the chess match-up so exciting. The 1972 World Chess Championship is the main event of the movie, a chess match that held so much more importance because of the Cold War. But the movie shows Spassky to be fully devoted to his game, sidelining the need to beat the American for any other reason than to hold on to his Champion status. Liev Schreiber shows the toughness of Spassky’s nature, a man who believes in his abilities and is unafraid of his opponents. He agrees to Fischer’s outlandish demand to play in a table tennis room without the audience as he does not want to win through forfeit. And when Fischer makes a move on the board that outwits Spassky, he stands up and applauds, gracious in defeat, acknowledging the brilliance of his opponent. It’s a moment in the movie when you love Spassky more than Fischer, a far cry from the ill-manner and obnoxious Russian sportsmen that Hollywood has shown in the past.
Illya Kuryakin played by Armie Hammer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The idea of a KGB agent working and bonding with a CIA agent does not stem from Guy Ritchie’s fertile mind but was the premise of the MGM TV show that ran from 1964 to 1968 on which the movie is based. The movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. acts as a sort of prequel to the show, bringing up a story as to how the two agents got paired. Illya Kuryakin is very much a KGB agent, the kind us Hollywood buffs would understand. He talks less, acts more, is well-built, quick with his guns, and has an anger always seething inside him. He is clumsy when it comes to socialising, in contrast to the suave and charming CIA agent. That depiction has not changed even after so many years. But Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is as much the hero of Guy Ritchie’s movie as is Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo. During the course of the movie, part of his exterior melts as he starts to bond with Solo on their common mission. The scene where he comes to save Solo from the mad scientist who has the CIA agent strapped on an electric chair was met with as much cheer from the audience as if Solo was seated amongst us. The movie did not do well financially which shuts the door for a sequel, otherwise it would have been interesting to see how much further Kuryakin’s character could have been developed.
Leo Demidov played by Tom Hardy in Child 44
Child 44 is a rare instance of a Hollywood movie which takes place entirely in Russia, featuring mainly Russian characters. It is based on the Tom Rob Smith novel of the same name. A fictionalised story based in the early 1950s Stalin era, Child 44 has two stories taking shape side-by-side; one is the difficulties Leo Demidov is facing in his military career, while the second is the mysterious killings of children which Demidov believes to be the work of a serial killer. Child 44 does showcase a post-war USSR as being a regime driven with ironclad rules where a contrasting opinion can make life very difficult. But it also has a Russian hero, if you can forgive Tom Hardy’s accent for the movie, who is willing to defy the system in order to catch a murderer. Having a Russian character as the protagonist is rare for a English speaking movie, and so Child 44 gives that opportunity where we can see the Russians more as humans rather than the outputs of a system. Demidov takes us through a range of emotions, which include love for his wife, compassion for the victims and their kin, fear for his job and his life, determination to bring out the truth. Now we cannot remember James Bond’s Russian villains to ever have so many conflicts, can we?