“How does someone with such a tenuous connection to the cause end up in such a sensitive place?” someone asks in The Operative, long after that question has been driving the narrative tension for some time. Diane Kruger plays a German woman named Rachel who has found herself installed inside Iran as a Mossad agent. Martin Freeman, as a British Jew based in Leipzig, is her main contact. “We’re the outsiders,” he says, trying to keep Rachel’s confidence when things get tough.
Based on the novel ‘The English Teacher’ by Yiftach Reicher Atir, Yuval Adler’s film is interesting in the way it flirts with simultaneous insider and outsider status; spy movies often revolve around the question of where loyalties lie, and this one puts an intriguing spin on that prospect.
Kruger’s character is effectively a drifter who became connected to Mossad almost by accident after she dated an Israeli. She winds up in Tehran undercover as a language teacher and gathers incidental information on the comings and goings of the defence ministry. She’s romanced by a local software developer, who Mossad then takes an interest in.
The notion of being torn between love and duty is fairly routine, but Kruger performs it well, looking tense but brave, and inscrutable as to just what is making her tick beyond simple survival. Freeman is similarly strong in an unfamiliar role, although the fact we’re so accustomed to seeing him playing straight men, even in his comedic work, means it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him.
The film was financed in part by the Israeli culture ministry, yet it isn’t a simple propagandistic apologia for the activities of Mossad, one of the most controversial intelligence services in the world, run by one of the most intractable governments. The scenes of Tehran (many of which were shot in Bulgaria, while a secret second unit crew filmed actual Iranian markets and street scenes) show the city as decidedly modern, with a good airport, hip cafés and an underground party. “People in Tehran go out of their way to be nice to you,” says Rachel, reporting back to base. “They want to prove to you they’re not like what Western media makes them out to be.”
Rachel’s Iranian love interest (played by Cas Anvar) notes that, “secrets are second nature,” in Tehran – a big wink at the espionage nature of the plot, intertwined with the idea that life goes on as normal under theocracy. The film also has space to give voice to criticism of its home country. “The world is so hypocritical about these sanctions,” says Anvar. “Israel can blow up children, but we can’t have components for medical equipment.” Granted, this could just be a sophisticated form of propaganda in itself – an Israeli film that concedes some humanity to its enemies to civilise its image while the tactics of war continue. But it’s a welcome shade of moral grey for a country whose image does not always project such.
The Operative also functions as a fairly decent genre film – it has conventional beats, as Rachel gets in too deep, has to betray confidences, and face dangers. But rather than being made with bells and whistles, with big action sequences or thumping music, there’s a banal, generic quality that actually works to the film’s advantage. In its quietness, The Operative plays out like a personal drama as much as an international action potboiler.