From “Operation Crossbow” (1965) to “The Enigma” (2002) to “The Imitation Game” (2014) to “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), we’ve seen so many movies shining the spotlight on real-life heroes, many of them not hugely well-known, from World War II. Time and again, just when we think there can’t possibly be a made-for-Hollywood World War II story that’s yet to be told, we learn there are more. Many, many more.
Here’s one for you: Operation Mincemeat. That sounds like the title of a 1980s teen comedy about a school bully who threatens to make “mincemeat” out of our mild-mannered hero, but this was actually the code name for an absolutely insane, totally bonkers, no-chance-this-will-work, Hail Mary pass of a mission concocted by British Intelligence to dupe Hitler’s forces into believing Allied forces were about to invade Greece when in fact they were about to descend upon Sicily and seize it from the Axis powers.
What was the plan, you ask? Simple! The Brits were going to find a recent corpse, give him an elaborate false identity, dress him as a Royal Marine officer, plant phony “Top Secret” papers in the briefcase chained to his wrist, dump the body at sea, riddle it with machine-gun bullets — and hope the information planted on the corpse’s body would eventually make its way into the hands of German intelligence, thereby causing the enemy to neglect Sicily in favor of shoring up its defenses in Greece.
I’ll give you a moment to absorb all that. Took me longer than that to process that not only was this an actual World War II mission, it succeeded, and no, that’s not a spoiler alert because we’re talking about events from more than 70 years ago and do we really think Netflix would be giving us a movie about an outlandish covert mission that went horribly wrong and resulted in a grand triumph for Hitler?
Based on a non-fiction book by Ben Macintyre, directed with period-piece style by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) and filled with impressive production design, “Operation Mincemeat” gives us our second cinematic depiction of this operation (after 1956’s “The Man Who Never Was”) and our second and most welcome dose of Colin Firth this week. Firth stars as a modern American writer in the compelling family crime drama series “The Staircase” — and in “Operation Mincemeat,” he effortlessly turns back the clock to disappear into the role of British Naval Intelligence Officer Ewen Montagu, who by 1943 has seen his career stall and his wife and children leave for the safety of America, perhaps never to return.
When a group of intelligence officers meets to hatch a plan to somehow convince the enemy that Allied Forces are NOT about to invade Sicily, the former RAF lieutenant and unassuming MI5 agent Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, Tom on “Succession”) floats a preposterous plan he has named “Operation Trojan Horse” and is nearly laughed out of the room — but Ewen thinks Charles is onto something, and the two officers team up to put the renamed Operation Mincemeat into motion, even as Director of Naval Intelligence John Godfrey (Jason Issacs) believes the plan is a waste of time and provides the men with just a small staff and few resources.
“Operation Mincemeat” doesn’t shy away from the borderline “Weekend at Bernie’s” machinations that lead to the mission, with Ewen and Charles sifting through corpses in search of someone who could conceivably have been a Royal Marine officer. A Welsh drifter named Glyndwr Michael who killed himself with rat poison is given the posthumous identity of one Captain William “Bill” Martin, complete with a backstory that includes his loving fiancé Pam. A secretary named Jean (Kelly Macdonald) volunteers a photo of herself and thus becomes part of the team — and the center of a love triangle involving Ewen and Charles. Director Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford have no qualms about “Casablanca” type melodrama, with Ewen and Jean speculating on the fictional romance between Bill and Pam while flirting with actually acting out the story. In another made-for-cinema dramatic flourish, our narrator is one Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) — yes, THAT Ian Fleming, who in real life was Godfrey’s personal assistant and is credited by some with being the first to come up with the concept of Operation Mincemeat in a missive he called the Trout Memo. (Fleming compared the deception of the enemy to the art of fly fishing.)
Firth and Macfadyen (hey, they’ve both played Mr. Darcy!) are terrific together as two men who really don’t like each other, don’t trust each other and have different ways of trying to connect with Jean. When Ewen and Charles are onscreen, gravitas is the order of the day and heated exchanges often ensue — but “Operation Mincemeat” takes a decidedly different approach to the material when the mission takes one farcical turn after another. (In fact, this same material is the basis for a hit musical spoof currently in production at Riverside Studios in London.) The shifts in tone work because even though Operation Mincemeat was ultimately a brilliant plan that saved thousands of Allied lives, it was also completely ridiculous — and thank God there was just enough space for ridiculous in certain war rooms.
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