AMC’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ Spins a Seductive Thriller Where No Identity Can Be Trusted
Few things are as raw and passionate as heated ideals. In “The Little Drummer Girl” an actress and double agent must absorb the two points of view in the Middle East conflict, while playing a role to catch a terrorist. This AMC miniseries, airing for three consecutive nights, is a stylish, highly intelligent and suspenseful adaptation of a novel by John le Carré. The master spy novelist is known to many viewers for titles like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” but when “The Little Drummer Girl” was first published in 1983 it caused quite the controversy. Le Carré had written a challenging and complex novel about the many faces of an ongoing battle. Here director Chan-wook Park, one of South Korea’s great modern filmmakers, keeps the political intelligence of the novel intact, while transforming it into a beautiful, dark and romantic work of television.
It is 1979 in the West German city of Bad Godesberg. At an Israeli diplomatic residence young militants leave a suitcase bomb which kills a Talmudic scholar and 8-year-old boy. An Israeli intelligence agent, Kurtz (Michael Shannon) arrives to lead the investigation. Kurtz already knows who was behind the attack, a Palestinian militant named Khalil, a mysterious figure who is known to employ attractive women to carry out attacks. In this case such an asset was used to distract a young Jewish scholar to get the bomb into the residence. Determined to finally catch Khalil, Kurtz has devised a plan to infiltrate his organization by using a young actress named Charlie (Florence Pugh). Known to hang out with bohemians and radicals at leftist meetings, Charlie is the perfect candidate with which to create a reuse. The operation begins when she’s approached by an enigmatic man named Becker (Alexander Skarsgård) while traveling in Greece. His detached yet alluring demeanor pull Charlie in, and when he takes her to Athens and they kiss by the Acropolis the deal is sealed. He takes her to a secret location where Kurtz and his team will begin her initiation into an underworld she scarcely imagined ever coming in contact with.
“The Little Drummer Girl” combines politics and espionage into an immersive experience where a running theme is the way reality can be distorted. This story was originally turned into a poorly received movie in 1984 starring Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski. Given the breadth of episodic television, le Carré’s story is given adequate space to weave its spell. The first episode sets up the crime, the players and the beginnings of the scheme. Then with each new episode new layers are revealed and the plot advances. Park is famous for his Korean cinema based on mystery and atmosphere, such as the brutally violent “Oldboy” and the more elegant “The Handmaiden.” There isn’t much graphic violence in “The Little Drummer Girl,” instead Park likes to depend on roleplaying and seduction to generate tension. The novel itself is a masterpiece of prose, in the use of language to create an environment. Becker approaches Charlie by the sea like a challenge. He is attractive but doesn’t act as if he wants her. She being an actress plays the role of annoyance and disinterest, until he gets close and takes her to Athens. The scene where they wander the ancient ruins of the Acropolis at night, playing with their shadows against a high wall, is a masterfully done moment which captures how just that one evening or gesture can win someone over.
The politics of this story are unavoidable, as was also the case when the novel was first published. But because Park is not Palestinian or Israeli, he is approaching the story as an outsider telling a spy tale about the nature of truth. The writing succeeds in challenging the viewer by giving both sides a say. Kurtz is driven by a need to stop terrorism, he himself is a Holocaust survivor. Yet he’s not a political militant, he has a job to do. The Palestinian characters are also written as both militants in a cause for self-determination, while having to answer for the consequences of utilizing terror. There are no easy answers and Park would rather stick to the details of Kurtz’s plan, how he trains Charlie and interrogates her about her past history, so he and Becker can then use this information to build a character. “A fiction” is what Kurtz calls what he is trying to accomplish, a story created to capture his prey. And what if Charlie then begins to sympathize with the Palestinians once she’s in their circle? It’s a tense mind game the show proposes that works thrillingly. We never even know what to trust. Kurtz hints that his real name is something else, lost long ago amid the many identities of his line of work. In the first episode Charlie tells a grand story to her friends about getting into a brawl at a bar, then Park cuts to what really happened, she got drunk and puked over the pool table. In another story element, Khalil’s brother Salim (Amir Khoury) is captured by Kurtz’s team by using one of his agents, Rachel (Simona Brown) as bait. Once sealed off letters from his family are faked and sent into his cell. Set in 1979, this is probably how some aspects of espionage still work in 2018.
Of course fans of Chan-wook Park will be delirious at how much of his visual presence abounds in this series. Park’s rich combination of colors, wide angles, the use of music to generate emotion are all here. Park also doesn’t treat his audience like idiots and enriches the material with references to the period both small and subtle, like Becker sitting by the ocean reading Regis Debray’s interviews with Salvador Allende as a way to bait Charlie’s leftist friends. The performances are also great in themselves. Shannon is a convincing spymaster, fiercely focused and direct. Florence Pugh is insecure and sharp, like these aspiring young actresses you meet in L.A. who love a challenge even if they’re nervous. Alexander Skarsgård has so much atmospheric presence as a secret agent that not casting him in the next Bond would be a crime.
“The Little Drummer Girl” brings a classic 70s thriller sensibility to a modern TV miniseries. It is the kind of engagingly sharp suspense story you don’t even get much of at the movies these days. It is worth tuning in for the craft, while the politics are like a fulfilling extra touch.
“The Little Drummer Girl” premieres Nov. 19 on at 9 p.m. ET on AMC with new chapters airing nightly through Nov. 21.