A Call to Spy On the Rocks

Left: Sarah Megan Thomas stars as Virginia Hall in A Call to Spy. Right: Bill Murray and Rashida Jones star in On the Rocks.

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I am delighted to report that there are two way-above-average films opening this week in Boise. They have nothing in common other than being well-deserving of our time and money. There is no point in me being cute in attempting to bundle them together as a double feature. So, let us get straight to the point. Yes, there is one I like a tad more than the other (you will be hard pressed to decipher here), so let us consider them alphabetically.

A Call to Spy was an increasing surprise. By “increasing,” I mean to say that the film became more satisfying as it progressed and, particularly, in its final reel. There is much to admire here: It’s an often-thrilling spy drama that wants you to know more by the film’s end. Right from the start, we are told that A Call to Spy is “inspired by true stories.” Take note that it reads the plural, “stories,” rather than the singular “story.” Indeed, there were three extraordinary women in Winston Churchill’s so-called Secret Army: Vera Atkins, Virginia Hall, and Noor Inayat Khan. Their respective timelines may not have precisely collided, but Sarah Megan Thomas—a triple threat co-star, screenwriter, and producer of the film—has brought the trio together in a most engaging fashion, for all the right reasons. All were awarded the highest honors for their service (i.e. the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the U.K.’s George Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre). More importantly, they were each remarkably selfless in putting humanity before themselves, a well-timed lesson for our modern times. From an American (Hall portrayed by Thomas) disrespected for her disability to a Muslim pacificist of Indian heritage (Khan portrayed by Radhika Apte) who chose to fight the Nazis, to a Romanian Jew (Atkins portrayed by Stana Katic) who endures Britain’s shameful anti-Semitism at the height of WWII, these women united to defend human dignity, and their diversity proved critical to the success of their respective missions. By putting all three together in one quickly-paced story, while also closely tracking each individual’s historical arc, A Call to Spy amplifies how individuals from different nationalities can and did unite to resist evil, each in her own way. Because, whether we are in 1941 or 2020, we are all… well, I’m hoping that you can finish that sentence yourself.

I won’t spoil too much of the plot here (you’ll want to unravel it for yourself), but here are the particulars: At the beginning of WWII, with Britain becoming desperate and America nowhere near entering the fray, Churchill orders his new spy agency, the SOE, to recruit and train women as spies. Their daunting mission? Conduct sabotage and help the French build a stronger underground resistance. SOE’s “Spymistress” Atkins recruits two unusual candidates: Hall, who has a prosthetic leg; and Khan, who was actually a descendant of Indian royalty. Together, they help undermine the Nazi regime in France and leave an unmistakable legacy in their wake. It’s all quite profound.

I guess the best way to sell On the Rocks is the easiest way: It stars Bill Murray as a larger-than-life playboy who architects a sparkling comic adventure across Manhattan. Sold yet? By the way, it’s delicately directed by Sofia Coppola, who steered Mr. Murray to his only Oscar nomination (Lost in Translation); and it co-stars the wonderful Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation, The Muppets) as Murray’s daughter. Do I have your attention?

Rather than taking the well-traveled rom-com road, Coppola detours On the Rocks into a distinctly 21st-century generation-clash story, wrapped in a father-daughter detective lark. Murray’s Felix convinces Jones’ Laura that the only way to waylay her worries that her beloved husband is hiding an office affair is to join Dad on a nightly prowl, searching Manhattan for clues to hubby’s alleged bad behavior. But along the way, Felix and Laura inspect their own relationship with one another. And the more time they spend dodging mishaps and misadventure while tracking Laura’s other half, the more Felix and Laura keep bumping into the vastly different ways they see the world, all while trying to hang onto each other.

The high-spirted back-and-forth between Murray and Jones is of the moment, but there’s also a finespun homage to classic American comedies (think the Thin Man series of the late ‘30s and ‘40s). But On the Rocks also reminded me a bit of high-energy ‘80s American comedies (think Tootsie which, coincidentally, also co-starred Murray). Still, for all her film’s bubbly influence, Coppola’s more subtle, observational voice forges an undercurrent beneath her screenplay’s lightness and laughs. The blend of Murray’s lunacy, New York’s glamorous club life, and the heightened dilemmas of a woman trailing her own husband all bring a touch of fantasia. It’s all quite delightful.

A Call to Spy and On the Rocks open Friday, Oct. 9

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