The Cold War has become an unwieldy metaphor. Particularly it’s notional finale: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This is the setting for Daniel Zelik Berk’s Damascus Cover – a relocation for the Howard Kaplan popular book, upon which the film is based. It’s a neat shift, offering an enticing premise, but delivers nothing of note. Berk can see the promise of his link but it hovers just out of reach.
The film’s lead is Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing undercover Mossad spy Ari Ben-Sion, yet The Tudors’ actor is more stumbling block than star. Damascus Cover is most notable for boasting the final screen role of John Hurt but even he plays second fiddle to a charismatic Olivia Thirlby. In spite of her reductionist role in the film, Thirlby achieves something that neither Meyers nor Hurt are ever quite able to: some illusion of depth. That this is an illusion is problematic – Thirlby’s US photojournalist is the pitiful propagator of a weak romantic sub-strand – but it represents the difference between engagement and disengagement. For the most part, Damascus Cover errs to the latter.
With double agents and crosses left, right and centre, the film is largely a duplicate enterprise, picking elements from Bond and Bourne alike. Ari is a troubled soul. He’s one part terrific spy, the other a man with a ‘past’ involving an implausible dead child. After Israeli agents in Syria find their covers blown, Mossad director Miki (Hurt) sends Ari in to pull out their key player in the field, a doctor, whilst working in parallel with some mysterious figure known as ‘the angel’.
There’s a point midway through the story in which Ari’s mission objective inexplicably shifts. It’s odd. The result is a film which feels disjointed, uneven and less than the sum of its parts. Jolty action sequences do little to alter the perception that Berk has himself in a muddle. No single strand hereafter is executed with enough room for development and yet the whole thing seems to plod along innocuously.
Certainly, the plot’s complexities are not so clustered that there is not enough room for half baked subplots. The worst being that of Thirlby’s journo, a character who never rings true. The actor’s strong and genuine performance can’t stop her character feeling unreasonably weak for a woman at work in Damascus in the eighties. On multiple occasions, Kim must be rescued by Ari from various scrapes. When she goes against her stock characterisation, she is punished accordingly. Meyers, meanwhile, is bland, delivering stodgy lines via a garbled and largely graceless accent. His voiceovers are dire.
If the score by British composer Harry Escott (Dark River, Journeyman) is appropriately plucked for a thriller, it sings the notes of a film juxtaposed with that on screen. Berk’s principle contribution to cinematic history remains his introduction of Quentin Tarantino to John Travolta prior to Pulp Fiction.