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Russia, By Way of Hollywood

What can a recent wave of pop culture—from ‘Red Sparrow’ to ‘The Death of Stalin’ to the sixth season of ‘The Americans’—reveal about our perception of Russia? And can any of it help process the biggest news story of 2018?

FX/20th Century Fox/IFC Films/Ringer illustration

There is a lovely and very strange scene in the sixth-season premiere of The Americans that pushes the show forward, at long last, by pushing the extraneous parts away. The extraneous parts, oddly enough, are the spying parts. “The information I’m about to tell you is known to very few people,” intones a deep-state Soviet operative over coffee at a Mexico City café, and across the table, Keri Russell, as undercover Russian superspy Elizabeth Jennings, in a flowing wig far more glamorous than her usual, braces herself. Here comes this season’s plot. Let’s get this over with.

Long-suffering fans of The Americans, the FX series about KGB spies posing as a nuclear American family in ’80s Washington, D.C., have spent half a decade enduring exposition like this. Oh, shit, there’s a [random significant political event] coming up, so we need to put on [random wig] and go to [random city] and find [random person], who will eventually give us [random piece of intel or technology], which will prevent [random impending calamity]. And then Elizabeth and her superspy husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), go to the place and find the guy and get the thing and usually prevent the calamity, all while looking super sexy and super morose.

The show’s sixth and final season, which premieres Wednesday night, dutifully resets the trap. In Mexico City, the deep-state Soviet operative starts droning on about the new random weapons program, and gives Elizabeth a picture of another random dude, and insists that the new random impending calamity is more calamitous than ever. Meanwhile, Elizabeth—or, at least, the show itself—starts tuning the operative out.

Quite literally, in fact. The soundtrack, Peter Gabriel’s dreamy electro-pop deep cut “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” slowly fades up to the point where the guy’s dialogue is inaudible—he’s talking in Russian and thus subtitled, but something in Elizabeth’s blank expression suggests that you should stop reading, too. She looks exhausted, and seems to be as sick of this joyless song and dance as you are. Who cares why anyone’s doing what they’re doing anymore, this framing suggests. It’s the final season. The time has come to just kick back and let the details blur into nothingness and simply watch beautiful people look sad until their doom is no longer impending.

The Americans premiered in January 2013 as an unshowy period piece, the age of acrimony and subterfuge between the U.S. and the former USSR having long passed. Right? Right. For years it quietly reveled in its Best Show You’re Not Watching status with dismayingly low ratings relative to its fellow peak-TV juggernauts. Season 5, which premiered in March 2017, marked a turning point, thanks to both Rhys and Russell’s long-overdue Emmy nominations and Russia’s shocking reentry into the modern-day news cycle. The show, unfortunately, responded by delivering easily its worst season, painfully slow (even by comparison) and utterly inconsequential. You could’ve cranked up some Peter Gabriel and tuned out the whole thing.

The Mexico City scene alone marks Season 6 as a huge improvement, and just in time. Alleged Russian shenanigans now dominate the real-life nightly news to the point where, incredibly, The Americans’ themes and plotlines lately feel almost overexposed. The show must now compete with other new high-stakes pop-culture explorations of Russian exploits past and present. A recent trio of movies—the vicious Jennifer Lawrence spy vehicle Red Sparrow, the nearly as vicious Armando Iannucci satire The Death of Stalin, and Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning Olympic-cheating 2017 documentary Icarus—offers fresh psychological profiles of an old global adversary that seems to have learned some new tricks. Unlike something like Steven Spielberg’s faithful-throwback 2015 Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, the results feel present-tense even if the events themselves are long past.

The portraits these latest movies paint are nonetheless sometimes as broad and villainous as vintage ’80s Cold War cornball propaganda like Red Dawn or Rocky IV. To describe this as a “know your enemy” situation is blithe and politically not quite accurate, but The Americans joins these films in at least giving us an idea of Hollywood’s idea of who we’re dealing with. For the U.S., Russia is both an old adversary and a new one, and likewise the latest dramatic approaches can be both antiquated and frighteningly modern. You won’t like what you find out. And you might not enjoy the process of finding out, either.

Released in March, Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow is a way grittier take on Americans-style spycraft, with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation, and little current career direction) as a hobbled Russian ex-ballerina forced into state-sponsored servitude and transformed into a steely master of sexual manipulation. (“You sent me to whore school,” she seethes at the person whose idea this was.) Her strategy as a spy is basically to inform everyone in the room that she’s a spy immediately; between her ill-advised frankness, her wobbly accent, and her bangs, whoever she’s talking to is rendered too bewildered to really process this information.

Precedents abound here, from Luc Besson’s stylishly grimy 1990 female-assassin classic La Femme Nikita to 2017’s lively and tawdry Charlize Theron beat-’em-up showcase Atomic Blonde. But Red Sparrow is less an action movie or a spy movie than yet another marvel-worryingly-at–Jennifer Lawrence’s–choices movie. A central theme of The Americans is that even the flashier aspects of espionage—the kinky sex, the shocking violence, the wigs—are both soul-crushing and crushingly mundane. Even the fun parts aren’t fun. Red Sparrow dials down the mundanity and cranks up the soul-crushingness to nearly unbearable levels, a moldy buffet of deliberately queasy sex and lurid torture. The plot, likewise, deploys confusion and discomfort as a strategy, a labyrinth of double- and triple- and quadruple-crosses that doesn’t so much leave you guessing as leave you moaning, exhausted, and irritable. You might come to recognize that feeling: Let’s get this over with.

In terms of depicting Russia as a place, the mood is macabre and almost violently drab: The opulent ballet theater gets the same dim, ominous lighting as “whore school.” This is the sort of movie where stern taskmasters bark things like, “You must inure yourself to what you find repellent,” and within an hour or so, the audience is well and truly inured.

“It took me years to realize I’d been born in a prison,” a high-ranking Russian military dignitary tells J-Law late in the game. (J-Law’s character has a name and a backstory and whatnot, but you will never not think of her as J-Law.) A central conceit is that Lawrence’s character was smart enough to realize she was living in a prison from the beginning. The Americans spent a few seasons showing us life in the Cold War–era USSR, from the secret prisons to the depleted grocery stores, and it spared no offense in its effort to make real-life Americans feel better about themselves. But Red Sparrow has a new, huge, endlessly gradated palette of bleakness at its disposal. This movie is never for one second trying to be pleasant or accommodating. It succeeds all too well.

The Death of Stalin, also released in March, is hardly cheerier despite the fact that it’s a comedy—or maybe because it’s a comedy. As with previous (and far more lovable and beloved) Iannucci projects like In the Loop or Veep, the idea is to watch terrifyingly verbose and profane bureaucrats shout incredibly vicious and profane things at one another, the viciousness so visceral it scans as goofiness. Per the title, the setting is Moscow 1953, the subject the mad, inept scramble for power in the wake of a brutal dictator’s unexpected and pants-soaking demise.

It’s an indictment of modern-day America that the movie about Russia set more than a half-century ago is the one that most accurately reflects modern-day America, or at least is very explicitly trying to. Watching Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and brutal secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) jockey haplessly for power, you are meant to—or at least I could not help but—reflect on the revolving-door of hostility and ineptitude of the Trump administration. You’re also supposed to cringe at the notion that much of the Soviet Union’s citizenry seems to be genuinely mourning the tyrant who terrorized them. “No one’s making them do this, are they?” Stalin’s sister Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) asks, amazed at the silent crowds shuffling respectfully past the coffin. She is the only one even capable of amazement.

An Iannucci joint rises or falls on its one-liners; regrettably, “All of you can kiss my Russian ass” is much funnier in the trailer. (“Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” is equally medium-funny in both the trailer and the movie.) There is an unsettling still-too-soon quality to the gallows humor here, from the silly walk-and-talks through torture chambers to the street-mob scenes that result, as we’re soon informed, in the deaths of 1,500 people. This is black-diamond-level black humor, and the tone is unsustainable. “This is just fucking wordplay,” Khrushchev finally blurts out in the climactic clash with Beria meant to make this allegory explicit. He, too, is eager to get to the point. “You’re just making this shit up as you go along.”

“Don’t be hysterical,” Beria replies. “We’re in a new reality.” (The fact that Beria looks not a little like Dick Cheney adds another layer to the on-the-nose-ness.)

“So you want the public to love you, is that it?” Khrushchev soon cries. “Bending and cracking the truth like a human body.” Their fight limply ends, a little more wackiness ensues, and then someone gets shot in the head and lit on fire. This is tragedy repeating itself as farce in advance; Look how far we haven’t come, is the thesis.

The most unbelievable recent depiction of Russian deceit might be the one rooted in fact—the most watchable, too. Bryan Fogel’s Netflix documentary Icarus, which exhaustingly details a decades-long, currently Vladimir Putin–led effort to help Russian athletes cheat Olympics drug tests, took Best Documentary at the Oscars in early March, likely due to its proximity to both Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation and February’s Pyeongchang Olympics. It’s the clearest and truest sense of What We’re Dealing With, and it presents us with the most vivid and lovable Russian hero/villain to appear onscreen in ages: Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blowing mastermind behind Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. Which is to say, the guy behind Russia’s pervasive and ruthlessly efficient doping strategy.

There’s a lot going on here: Icarus starts with Fogel trying to dope his way to victory in a grueling amateur race, even if it means giving himself shots in the ass on camera. And it peaks with a hilariously detailed, almost-American Vandal–style depiction of how shadowy Russian forces swapped out their athletes’ dirty urine for clean urine despite the mandated presence of ostensibly foolproof bottles. The use of George Orwell’s 1984 as a framing device, detailed explanations of “doublethink” and all, somehow simultaneously takes this situation way too seriously and, given how knee-jerk 1984 references can be these days, not seriously enough. But Rodchenkov holds it all together with his bushy mustache and various brightly colored shorts, whether he’s appearing in the flesh or via Skype. “So, you see, like me, I am a very dangerous person,” he says, and he’s not joking, and it’s weirdly hilarious.

Rodchenkov is a compelling riot whether he’s giving advice (“You can inject into your thigh muscle, but it’s better to the ass”) or describing his first encounter with the FBI. (“Two strong men knocked on my door and appeared from darkness.”) He is cuddly and calculating; he admits to all manner of nefarious deeds but doesn’t get around to guilt until Russian athletes win big at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Putin celebrates by triggering the bloody conflict in Ukraine. But even then, Rodchenkov is penitent about the outcome but unambiguously proud of the methodology. “Because you know, we are top-level cheaters,” he tells Fogel—his documentarian, his friend, and his representative at various tense meetings with galled Olympics officials. “To over-cheat us, you should be much such experienced. But how it comes, such experience?’

We’re learning. The Death of Stalin suggests that the old “comedy equals tragedy + time” equation doesn’t work so well if even the more mundane and bureaucratic aspects of that tragedy are still repeating themselves in the present. Red Sparrow argues that war is even more hellish when it’s masquerading as peace. Icarus underscores the sophistication of the deception some world leaders are willing to apply to even non-life-or-death issues (like bobsledding), which leaves you wondering how sophisticated the deceptions applied to actual life-or-death issues might be. And all three movies paint Russia, past and present, as an unknowable place that, at its worst, can mix towering ingenuity with cartoon villainy. And if that perception is still mostly all in Americans’ heads, it’s still an awfully frightening thing to have in our heads.

As for The Americans, the show started life as a time capsule, rehashing a fraught and hostile period in history with a definitive victor and a definitive end. With Season 6, it will end its run as a grim explanation of how “such experience” comes and a reminder that the battle never truly ends. No victory, and no defeat, is definitive. As stately and slow-moving as the show can be, it’s still most likely a stylized and tarted-up embellishment of the truth. What’s worrisome about this American moment is the way the truth has suddenly become a stylized and tarted-up embellishment of fiction. There is nothing any deep-state Soviet operative can say to Keri Russell that will much surprise or even interest her anymore. But there might not be much more that any character on any screen, fictional or otherwise, can do to surprise us.

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