The elements that go into making a successful film are sometimes more art than science. A single performance can elevate a lackluster cast of thousands. A keen art director can make the mundane a mundane picture seem magical. However, without a strong narrative, even the biggest budget movie will come apart at the seems. On the surface, Daniel Zelik Berk’s international spy thriller seems to have all the right ingredients for a good night out at the movies: talented actors in key roles, exotic locations, gorgeous cinematography, costumes to die for, and nefarious double crosses at every juncture. While it looks great on screen, this Jason Bourne wanna-be is an unfortunately underwhelming feature will little emotional resonance that’s all style and little substance.
Based upon the 1977 novel of the same name by Howard Kaplan, this version of Damascus Cover is set in 1989 just as the Soviet Union was falling apart and its influence was waning across the globe. Jonathan Rhys Meyers — who must be a vampire as he’s not aged a day since 1998’s Velvet Goldmine — stars as Ari Ben-Sion, a German-born Mossad agent working under the tutelage of Mossad chief John Hurt. Impeccably coiffed and immaculately dressed in the searing Middle-Eastern heat, we learn that Rhys Meyers has recently separated from his wife after the death of their son, thereby giving his paper-thin character a veneer of gravitas. The gravelly voice Hurt sends Rhys Meyers to Syria to apprehend a rogue Mossad agent who has been passing secrets to the Al Bashir regime. His cover is that of Hans Hoffmann, a German businessman who is in-country to purchase rugs, which is as ridiculous as it sounds. Before going undercover, Ben-Sion/Hoffman has a chance encounter with Kim, an American journalist, whom he saves from a group of ultra-religious Jewish thugs who take umbrage with her act of photographing them during the Jewish Sabbath. They depart but the film telegraphs that they will meet again soon.
“…to Syria to apprehend a rogue Mossad agent who has been passing secrets to the Al Bashir regime.”
The scene then shifts to Syria where a captured Israeli agent is brutally interrogated by a member of the Mukhabarat, the Syrian Secret Service, Then film then whipsaws back to Israel where it seems Ben-Sion/Hoffman’s mission has changed: he must now spirit a Jewish doctor and his family living in Damascus’s Jewish ghetto back to Israel. Once in Syria, Ben-Sion/Hoffman is welcomed by the same Syrian official who had interrogated the Israeli undercover agent earlier and introduced to a group of aging Nazis living in the county. Upon learning that Hoffman’s father was a member of the SS back in the days of the Third Reich, they welcome him with open arms, serve up toasts, and chat — inexplicably in English — about the good old days in Deutschland. At the Nazi’s abode, Ben-Sion/Hoffman coincidently runs into the daughter of the Jewish doctor and informs him of his plan to get the family out of the country.
As expected, Kim reappears and she and Ben-Sion/Hoffman engage in a highly improbable romance under the watchful eyes of the Mossad/Mukhabarat. But, as with most females cast as ancillary characters in spy movies, she is a duplicitous woman with a mission of her own. At the same time, the rogue Mossad agent pops up and blows Ben-Sion/Hoffman’s cover but is tacitly told by Syrian authorities that they knew his true identity all along. Another character, the “Angel,” is introduced into the story who, it turns out, is key to engineering the escape of said family. The film limps on from there to a somewhat expected “love conquers all” criss-cross conclusion that arrived none too early.
“…wondering just how in the dickens he kept his shirts so perfectly, crystalline white…”
Truth be told, about halfway through the picture I found myself (a) focusing upon how much Jonathan Rhys Meyers was the spitting image of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and (b) wondering just how in the dickens he kept his shirts so perfectly, crystalline white and his suit jackets so crisp in the inferno of the Damascus (or an Israeli film set dressed up to look like Damascus.) Furthermore, there was a marked dearth of violent action/stunts in the flick, which one could strongly argue is a coin of the realm for films of the spy genre.
On the surface, Damascus Cover had a lot going for it: from the cast to the art direction to the verisimilitude of long-lived Israeli/Syrian hostilities. But, particularly in the shadow of the incredible humanitarian crisis currently unfolding modern Syria, the film felt both like a series of missed opportunities. More than anything else, I was sad to learn that this was John Hurt final film before his death in 2017. Both he and any paying audience member deserve more than this film delivers.
Damascus Cover (2018) Directed by Daniel Zelik Berk. Written by Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton. Starring Olivia Thirlby, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and John Hurt.
4 out of 10 stars