You don’t have to be a feminist to not like The November Man. You just have to be someone who likes good movies. Even though I grew up watching sexist James Bonds films with my real-life CIA dad, this movie is worse. Not only does the film specialize in putting women down, but the female characters have zero agency. In fact, weak, incompetent female characters are what the movie does best.
The basic premise is that ex-CIA spy Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan) is lured out of retirement to escort out of Russia an attractive Russian double agent, Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), who possesses damning information against the soon-to-be president of Russia, Arkady Fedorov (Lazar Ristovski). When the double agent botches her own escape, Devereaux jumps in to save her. When he is betrayed and she is killed, he spends the rest of the movie avenging her death and trying to find and save another woman who can expose the Russian politician.
That woman, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) watched the soon-to-be president kill her whole family during a bombing in Chechnya when she was a teen. Then he took her captive and raped her over the course of years. She pretended to be mute, managed to escape and ended up working at a refugee organization under an assumed identity, helping women like her start new lives.
But even a character with what seems like a strong story line has little hope of power in this film. She spends the entire time being escorted and pushed around by Devereaux without ever questioning his instructions or participating in the action. When she finally makes a decision of her own, it gets worse. She dresses as a prostitute, sneaks into Fedorov’s room and fashions a handy weapon out of a broken mirror. Revenge seems on track except that when the perfect moment arrives, when his neck is available, the blade ready, and it’s time for her character to act, her agency evaporates. She can’t do it, and so we’re treated to a series of lines in which Fedorov remembers her and how much she liked the abuse he heaped on her, and she must have liked it too, so maybe he should try raping her again. By the erotic way it is filmed we are actually led to think that maybe she’s having mixed feelings about being raped. Blah, blah, blah. In the end, no power.
And she’s not alone. The other women characters are variously incompetent, powerless, serve men’s sexual needs and/or are called “twat” (yes, it was supposed to be funny!).
Need an antidote to all this spy thriller misogyny? Try alternatives like Homeland or Hunted or Haywire that offer capable, smart, ass-kicking female operatives in the lead.
Showtime’s Homeland, now in its fourth season, features Carrie (Claire Danes) as a CIA agent with bipolar disorder who, in the series’ initial plot line, suspects that a newly elected politician and lauded prisoner of war is actually working for a Middle Eastern terror organization and plans to assassinate the vice president. Throughout the series, Carrie relies on her brains, resourcefulness and ability to connect with others. She is generally respected (if not liked) by her male peers. And when her competence or judgment is questioned, it is usually for a good reason. Although she exists within a relentless masculine paradigm of war and violence, she rarely resorts to it herself. Hers is a realistic take on spying as having less to do with killing and more to do with the skills of traditional spycraft: developing relationships and gathering information. Her bipolar disorder, although occasionally used by other characters to discredit her, adds a dimension of vulnerability and realism. In the regressive spy tropes of yesteryear, of which The November Man is a shining example, relationships are a spy’s weakness, something to be avoided; in Homeland, Carrie does have many awkward relationships, but it’s her relationship with herself that is her biggest challenge.
Hunted, a recently cancelled British series that was picked up for a spinoff by Cinemax, offers another alternative to old-school sexism. In it, Sam Hunter (Melissa George), a gutsy private spy on the run from her past and an ex-lover who betrayed her, uses compassion and intuition (rather than seduction) to infiltrate a villain’s fortress. She’s an efficient martial arts practitioner and, although she gets shot in the first episode, does most of the shooting and killing as the series goes on. It’s a violent series, but if you want to see women kick butt, this one’s for you. No “save me!” refrain here.
Another alternative is Haywire. Made in 2011 by Steven Soderbergh, it’s about black-operative-for-hire Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) who learns she’s been played by her employer on a mission in Barcelona. When the dissident she was hired to save was later killed and his murder pinned on her, she sets out to clear her name. Carano is a real-life mixed martial arts champion and it’s satisfying to see her physical capabilities on display as she creatively leverages walls, hallways and tables in order to overtake her male opponents, many of whom are significantly larger. She’s strong and hits hard; the fact that Carano does her own fight scenes and stunts makes Haywire that much more exciting to watch.
Although a movie with little dialogue, one of the most memorable lines is when the hit man being hired to kill Mallory says, “I’ve never done a woman before.” To which his employer says, “Don’t think of her as a woman. That’s a mistake.” The message is clear: Being physically effective and lethal disqualifies one as being female, but if the hitman is going to apply typical sexist terms–thus limiting his sense of the kind of opponent she can be–he’ll be sorely disappointed. Fatally disappointed. Also, the fact that Mallory isn’t rail thin and never plays the part of the alluring sex kitten adds strength to her non-sexist character. Sex is controlled by her and is for her own pleasure.
The biggest pleasure for viewers may be that whenever she picks up a gun or kicks some smug, sexist villain’s butt, it feels like payback for all the real-world violence women endure on a daily basis. It is a cinematic corrective, if you will, and yeah, it can be very satisfying to watch.
But do these female leads offer a paradigm shift within the spy genre? Sadly, no. Many of the storylines deal with a world slipped down the rabbit hole of perpetual war. At the end of the day, even Carrie, who uses her acumen more than any other weapon, is still a cog in the war machine. With season four about to start and set in Kabul, where the story started, we’ll probably see a magnification of the United States’ perpetual war in the Middle East. It may be satisfying to have women’s stories front and center, and be further satisfying to see them punish arrogant male abusers, but the system keeps going regardless of who’s in charge.