In the US: Wednesdays, 10pm ET/PT, Audience
In the UK: Not yet acquired
The 70s was a great era for conspiracy thrillers. Fresh from the Watergate scandal, the second half in particular was littered with paranoid stories about corrupt governments and organisations: The Parallax View, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Capricorn One, Brass Target, The China Syndrome, Futureworld, Marathon Man – the list goes on. Indeed, the genre didn’t really end until halfway through Reagan’s first term with the likes of Blue Thunder and Blow Out.
However, because there are some true classics in that list, the not-quite-so-greats of the genre also tend to get elevated to higher status as a result. Three Days of the Condor is not really a classic. Not really.
Based on James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, it sees Robert Redford playing a somewhat nerdy CIA analyst who analyses the plots of novels for a living. Then one day when he’s supposed to be at work, armed men break in and kill everyone in the office, leaving just Redford alive. Redford goes on the run, but then has to work out whom he can trust and who’s out to get him.
I’ve watched it twice and I’ve still yet to really get why people like it, other than because of Sydney Pollack’s taut direction, a reasonable air of mimesis, Robert Redford’s acting and the genre itself. Because it’s all right, sure. But Redford doesn’t really have much by way of tradecraft, beyond an ability to hack the old analogue phone system, and he doesn’t exactly treat women well. Not a lot happens, either.
Nevertheless, it’s still regarded as a classic and its influence continues to this very day. Indeed, in many ways, the dearly departed Rubicon owes a very obvious debt to Three Days of the Condor.
Now we have Audience’s Condor, which presumably is so-named either to keep the show open-ended or because it’s following a strict arithmetic progression from the original novel. A new adaptation of both the original book and the movie, it marries Three Days of the Condor, Rubicon and 24 into something that if not a classic, is at least a whole lot more exciting than its film source. Which is surprising, given it’s by the people responsible for NBC cluster-f*cks Kidnapped, Bionic Woman, and My Own Worst Enemy.
It sees Max “son of Jeremy” Irons in the Redford role. Now a coder working on data analysis in a similar sort of set-up to Redford, he’s disillusioned with spying and on the point of giving up. It’s been six years since his previous relationship and every time he goes on a date with the likes of Katherine Cunningham, either work gets in the way or he’s unable to open up. He grouses about it to fellow CIA buddy Kristoffer Polaha (Valentine, Ringer, Life Unexpected, Miss Guided) and Polaha’s wife Kristen Hager (Being Human (US)) and decides to hand in his notice in.
Then he’s hauled off in the middle of the night by Polaha to meet some CIA big bods including his uncle (William Hurt) and the deputy director Bob Balaban. An old program of his designed to pick up potential terrorists has identified – with only a 12% chance of accuracy – just such a person… and he’s in the US, heading to a packed stadium with a package from a PO box. What should they do?
Irons waxes eloquent about civil liberties and presumably bored and insulted they send him packing to the dirty without him.
Before you know it, thousands of people have been saved and Hurt is tasking Irons and the rest of his Rubicon-esque co-workers with the job of finding the people who organised the attempted incident. Except within a day, everyone’s been shot at work and Irons is on the run.
What’s going on, who’s responsible, why are they targeting Irons, where can he run to, when will he be safe and how can he know who to trust?
Presumably we won’t find out in three days any more.
It’s a little hard to review the first episode in isolation, since despite the stellar cast in the first episode – I haven’t even mentioned Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, Trust, George of the Jungle) as the somewhat quirky head baddie – a whole bunch don’t turn up until the second episode, including Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) and Angel Bonanni (Absentia, כפולים (False Flag)), while Faye Dunaway’s replacement (Cunningham) only really gets to have a bad date with Irons in the first episode.
However, so far, the show is both a surprisingly faithful adaptation and a decent updating, even if I spent the entire first episode getting whiplash from so many serious flashbacks to Rubicon. Irons is a strong but subtle lead, although the show does like to spend a lot of time watching him in tight clothes and frequently no clothes at all, rather than advancing the action. His maudlin self-pity is a little tedious – the first episode is entitled What Loneliness – and the familial link to Hurt even more tedious, but at least he seems to have a better idea of tradecraft than Redford did and you can believe in him as an action star. His conversations with Polaha and Hager aren’t just recycled cliché and his date with Cunningham does at least go in unexpected directions off what had been a broadly predictable trajectory.
I’m not sure what Fraser is up to. He’s oddly funny. One minute he’s burying infected prairie dogs in the middle of nowhere, the next he’s outraged and accusing his head assassin-ess (Gabrielle Joubert) of being “a psycho” when she kills someone. He alternates that with head villain status, doing bad things and feeling a bit bad about it, but not much.
Refreshingly for a conspiracy theory show, we do actually know who the conspirators are from the get-go, which takes most of the tedious guesswork out of things. I’m sure there will be some surprises, but when you basically have Polenka downloading all the top secret evil plans onto a USB drive, during which you get to see everything that the conspirators are up to, you know the show isn’t going to pull a Rubicon and only reveal what any of it’s been about in episode 10.
Parts of the show feel oddly out of sorts when Donald Trump has so shifted the Overton Window. Irons’ musings on where to draw a line when it comes to targeting Muslim-Americans is strange when the line’s basically been removed altogether. Moral concerns about Its 24-esque race against the clock to stop the baddies, using just a few means necessary, feels tame, particularly when the evil plans have already shown us it’s all a (spoiler) false flag operation and we’re dropping bunker busters on anything bigger than an otter in Afghanistan just because it might impress someone, somewhere, we don’t know who.
But there is action and excitement, albeit a tad predictable and unrealistic. This isn’t just a cerebral piece of left-wing angst, but something that really tries to excite the adrenal glands as well. Again, it’s 24-style, over-the-top action that tries to seem real but is just too silly to do it. Nevertheless, it’s decently executed.
I enjoyed Condor both far more than I expected and far more than I did the movie. I won’t be dumping my Sandbaggers DVDs for it or even my old Rubicons, but Condor is an above averagely smart, somewhat unpredictable, very well cast spy thriller that’s fun and has something to say for itself, even if no one’s going to be listening to it. I’ll be watching it for the next few weeks, at the very least, I’m sure.