Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Crook Factory

Roger's back! And better late than never. Just when I was worried that Christmas would go by without a review from the man, he surprises me with a magical e-mail attachment. I guess this is his all of us. It's a Christmas Eve miracle. This will also be the last review of the week as I'll be taking Christmas off to hang out with the family. But I may throw up a surprise post if I have a few minutes. Won't be a review though. Anyway, Roger's got his eyes on another Black List script. Let's take a look.

Genre: Period, Espionage
Premise: An FBI agent is ordered to babysit Ernest Hemingway as he goes about running a motley spy ring in WWII Cuba.
About: At Warner Brothers with Johnny Depp's Infinitum Nihil producing, The Crook Factory made the 2009 Black List with 5 votes.
Writer: Adapted by Nicholas Meyer, based upon the novel by Dan Simmons

The spy fiction of John le Carré isn't normally the type of story that makes my dick hard, but the fiction of Ernest Hemingway has the type of prose that does. And although "The Crook Factory" ain't about the prose (it's a screenplay, baby, it's about the scenes), it is about Ernest Hemingway in pre-Communist Cuba with plenty of subterfuge and the customary spy fiction shenanigans.

I haven't read the book by Dan Simmons (a Harlan Ellison protégé), but I have read plenty of his other stuff. You may know him from his Dickensian tome, "Drood", which has a nice blurb on it by Guillermo Del Toro.
I know him from his World Fantasy Award-winning novel, "Song of Kali", which is one of the most disturbing horror novels I've ever read (which, supposedly, Darren Aronofsky has had his eye set on for a while), and his science fiction tour de force, the Illium/Olympos duology, which is like "God of War", Heavy Metal, The Matrix trilogy, and Shakespeare on psychedelics. He seems to have plenty of fans in the film industry, but it's going to take an army of visionaries (or James Cameron) to successfully adapt his science fiction epics to celluloid.
The interesting thing about Simmons is that he's not only able to tackle multiple genres, but that he's able to do it whilst being a top-tier author. In the publishing world, authors are usually pushed to use pseudonyms if they're looking to venture away from the genre that they initially found success in.
When it comes to genre-hopping and literary alchemy, Simmons has carte blanche.
What's The Crook Factory, Rog?
Aside from being a script adapted by "Wrath of Khan" writer and helmer, Nicholas Meyer (as if this project doesn't have enough geek cred)?
The Crook Factory is named after Ernest Hemingway's ragtag counter-espionage network in the Caribbean. It's comprised mostly of friends Ernesto gathered from the Spanish Civil War, but there are also house dicks, jai alai players, prostitutes, a priest, a millionaire, and a young urchin named Santiago. They all lovingly refer to our big-game hunting storyteller as Papa. "What is with this 'Papa' shit?" Joe asks at one point. Doesn't matter, it's just what they call him.
And Papa has taken to chasing Nazi subs on his fishing boat, Pilar.
When most writers get blocked (if you believe in such a thing), I like to imagine they deal with the agony with butt planted firmly in seat playing marathon sessions of the newest first-person shooters or obsessively skimming through all the comment threads on reddit.
When Hemingway gets blocked, he dives into a dangerous game of espionage for shits and gigs.
"The Old Man and the Sea" this isn't.
Who's our protagonist?
Joe Lucas, a forty-year old, half-Mexican FBI agent, whom we meet whilst in mid-murder spree of German spies in Mexico City. An efficient killer, he's sent on a fool's errand by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on the Crook Factory and report back what they're really up to.
See, Hoover isn't really concerned with the war. He believes it's a front for the real threat: Communism. He's also more concerned with what the OSS is up to (the precursor to the CIA), and his motto is, "There can be only one Intelligence."
Lucas is chosen because he doesn't "read make believe books", and is less susceptible to fall for Hemingway's crude charms.
On the plane to Cuba, Lucas is warned by a man who introduces himself as, "Fleming, Ian Fleming", a Commander in the MI6, to be careful in Cuba. He's told he's entering a turf war between the FBI, OSS, and two German intelligence organizations, the Sicherheitsdienst and the Abwehr. Throw in a sadistic Cuban police Lieutenant named Maldonado, aka Caballo Loco, and Lucas has quite the wartime stew (a la "Casablanca") to chew on.
How are the spy games?
They're okay. They're more realistic than pulpy, and as far as realistic espionage thrillers go, my favorite is probably Kushner, Roth and Spielberg's "Munich". But like that tale, I was more interested in what the story was trying to say (and the historical context) than the actual plot rumblings. Admittedly, I read this script for the Hemingway character, and for me, he was this story's strength.
But the Crook Factory has been watching a ginormous yacht called the Southern Cross that used to be owned by Howard Hughes, but is currently chartered by Theodore Shell, a Dutch businessman. Shell is usually seen with an attractive blonde named Inga Arvad, and as we can all probably guess, the Southern Cross is up to "archeological research" just like the Pilar is up to "marine research".
Things get snarled when the radio operator of the yacht is found murdered in a brothel. Our heroes not only discover what appears to be an Abwehr code book, but the only survivor of the fracas, an innocent prostitute aptly named...wait for it...Maria. Lucas takes the code book and Hemingway rescues Maria from getting cut up by Caballo Loco and employs her as a maid at the Crook Factory's base of operations.
We then discover that Inga Arvad, that dangerous blonde, is the former Miss Denmark, now turned Nazi spy who is not only posing as an archaeologist, but is having a torrid affair with none other than Ensign John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Thing is, Hoover tipped off old man Kennedy, and he had his kid shipped off to the South Pacific.
Naturally, we're then on a hunt to find and acquire the cipher so Lucas can decode the Abwehr book. And what starts out as a quest for underground information turns into a dangerous Waltz as subterfuge after subterfuge is revealed. There's some deft narrative trickery that forces you to pay attention, but the most emotional moment is when Agent 22 is murdered.
I won't say much about Agent 22, but the death of this Crook Factory character is something that rocks the story on its axis. And for Hemingway, it sort of becomes a revenge thriller as he looks to balance the scales again, realizing that what was kind of a hobby actually has some dire and unforgiveable consequences.
Of course, he needs Lucas' help and they all get in over their heads as they battle the head of the Cuban police and a double-agent who has infiltrated the Crook Factory. All this while trying to discover The Who, The What, and The Why of the Abwehr code book.
Honestly, besides the personal vendetta Hemingway has against Maldonado and the double-agent, I found the Abwehr code book stuff kind of lackluster. Ironically, there's a moment of revenge that has a lot in common with one of the dealing-with-a-double-agent scenes in "Munich". Despite its similarities, it's really fucking good.
Do you think the Hemingway character would be a good role for an actor?
Of course, dude.
It's purported that 95% of the events in this story are based on trufax. According to Simmons, "this period appears to be the basis for the raging paranoia in the last years of Hemingway's life – a period when the writer was certain that he was being followed by the FBI." It was something he believed even up to the day he shot himself in 1961.
In The Crook Factory, he gravitates between braggart and self-doubter. In a way, because this script is about a writer, it's kind of a story about writing. And I like that about it. When Lucas finally reads "For Whom The Bell Tolls", he asks Hemingway, "How did you do it?"
And Hemingway responds, "A lie can tell the greater truth."
When pushed, he talks to some length about storytelling. "Just transcribing shit isn't art. You've got to do it from your gut, inside out. You take what's real and mix it up and make it your own. Then it's your truth...You choose pieces that stand in for the whole. Like that sub we're waiting for. All you need is the periscope and you can imagine the rest, those sweating, frightened bastards down there...Fiction is just another code."
Much of the script is about the push and pull between Lucas and Hemingway. One is an insider, a man of action who sees no value in art. Another is an outsider, an artist who wants to be a man of action. And there's conflict here, and heaps of jealousy. And eventually the lines become blurred when each man is able to understand the other, and the outsider is given the chance to be a hero while the other learns the value of the artist.
It's very...macho.
Besides the romance between Lucas and Maria, this is very much a guy's movie. Or a literary aficionado's movie. It has most of the tense wartime atmosphere of "Casablanca", but lacks the epic romantic angle. It's not about women. In fact, most of the women in the script are either villainous bitches, or in the case of Hemingway's wife, Martha, women who have grown tired of men's macho posturing.
I guess we can't blame them, can we?
The ending not only gets points for a heartwrenching postscript, but for a geeky quip by Ian Fleming where he muses that one day he shall try his hand at writing, like Hemingway.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Fiction trumps reality. Lies can be used to tell the greater truth. Seriously. I don't care if you give me a play-by-play of what really happened. It's still boring. If you have to lie and spin some fiction into it to make it entertaining, to give it some narrative drive, then fucking do what you gotta do, brother. Case in point: there was a point in "The Crook Factory" where I believed that Hemingway died. It was in the midst of the 3rd act, and things were heated, and there were fisticuffs, and there was Hemingway's body lying on deck. Bloody. Dead. And I'm thinking, "What the fuck! He's dead. Get his killer, Joe! Get him!" Then I realize, wait a minute, this isn't how it happened in real life. And in a cinematic climate where Quentin Tarantino rewrote World War 2, I was game for anything. But the writer was using the tools at his disposal, most notably suspense, to affect me. If you're writing period pieces about real people, tell a story, not a biography. If you have to lie for the greater narrative harmony, to draw your audience in emotionally, then lie to me, baby.