Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Daniel Zelik Berk
Screenwriter: Daniel Zelik Berk, Samantha Newton, from the novel by Howard Kaplan
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, John Hurt, Jürgen Prochnow, Navid Negahban
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/18
Opens: July 20, 2018
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the role of Ari Ben-sion aka Hans Hoffmann is a stiff, his dialogue stilted, though perhaps the oversimplified
English in Howard Kaplan’s book from which the film is adapted is partly at fault. Literary quality aside, Kaplan himself is no hunched-over author pecking away at a computer but a fellow a great deal more interesting than Ben-Sion. Author Kaplan, a native of L.A., was sent at the age of 21 to the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. He executed a similar plan on a second trip, got arrested in Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow. He has traveled through Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, his experiences giving him lots of background for his five novels, each of which, I would guess, is more interesting than Daniel Zelik Berk’s film.
“Damascus Cover” is Berk’s freshman entry into the full length feature media, one which may have given him enough experience to turn out better stuff in the years to come, though he may have come out ahead if the characters did not all speak English. For example, Hans Hoffmann, the principal character’s spy name, is allegedly German but he speaks English even to a group of Germans who are being hosted in Syria’s capital. Saraj (Navid Negahban), is a brutal head of the Syrian secret police, who bears a contemptuous grin most of the time even when questioning an Israeli spy as the movie opens, then later as a guest in a home that includes Ben-Sion, who is pretending to be a German merchant in Syria to buy that country’s famous carpets.
As in the book, Ben-Sion has a weakness for women, as we see when he is virtually stalked by Kim (Olivia Thirlby) a journalist for USA Today newspaper who may be more than she appears. There are a few standard-issue shoot-outs, a couple of fist fights that are of the usual ridiculously edited type so that you don’t know how is beating whom. Though the Syrian authorities have become aware that Ben-Sion is an Israeli agent, sent by Miki (the late, great John Hurt), but give him a free hand in navigating Damascus because they’re sure he will lead them to a more important agent known as The Angel.
One role that’s more interesting than the others belongs to Igal Naor as General Fuad who believes that you can get more information from a captive by warmth and interest than by torture—a technique that by now some Americans, even Gina Haspel allegedly believe as well. Faud states right out while interrogating a prisoner that he is different from Saraj, that Saraj has been “retired,” and ultimately has something to say about current relations between Syria and Israel that may seem difficult to believe but are probably on the money.
Chloë Tomson filmed this disjointed story in Casablanca, Morocco, which, with its narrow, intriguing alleyways and cobblestone sidewalks make the city a more interesting character than anyone in the picture.
Rated R. 93 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C+
Acting – C-
Technical – B
Overall – C