The Patriots (1994)

The Spy Who Came in From the Desert


As outlined in writer/director Eric Rochant’s Cannes Film Festival award-nominated 1994 film, The Patriots -- much like David Fincher’s Fight Club -- the first rule of the Mossad seems to be that you do not talk about the Mossad. And, the second rule of the Mossad seems to go even further — if you’re ever asked about the Mossad, there is no Mossad. And these are probably the very reasons there are few movies about the Mossad, which Wikipedia explains is not only “the Hebrew word for institute or institution” but is also the “national intelligence agency of Israel.”

However, while it’s no doubt an important organization, it’s not quite the cloak-and-dagger corporation one would assume from Rochant’s film nor the secretive “men wailing on each other” experience to be found in Fight Club but a super cool, far-reaching, covert organization that serves as “Israel’s equivalent to the C.I.A,” as the DVD box for The Patriots explains.

Furthermore, in a year where Adam Sandler played a Mossad agent turned hairdresser in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to discover that here in the twenty-first century the Mossad (like any corporation or organization from the C.I.A. to Hello Kitty) actually greets visitors with their very own website. Although instead of adorable Sanrio characters, the Mossad's official site (which also has a link for career opportunities for those of you budding spies out there) states that their purpose is “to collect information, analyze intelligence, and perform special covert operations beyond its borders.”

Yvan AttalAnd while my prior experience with the Mossad only consisted of Sandler’s comedy and Steven Spielberg’s brilliant yet highly controversial Oscar-nominated film Munich, as a fan of spy films, I was eager to check out the recent SKD USA and KOCH Entertainment release of Rochant’s film. The Patriots earned him a Golden Palme nomination upon its screening at Cannes and also garnered its female newcomer Sandrine Kimberlane a Cesar nomination for the Most Promising Actress of that particular year. However, unlike the high tech world of Jason Bourne or the decades-spanning CIA epics such as The Good Shepherd or the far superior made-for-TNT miniseries The Company, Russian red scares and computer hacking are replaced by good, old-fashioned shoe leather and low-tech still and video cameras for the '80s setting of The Patriots.

For instead of a spy who came in from the cold, the secret agent man in Rochant’s film ventures into the desert, emigrating to Tel Aviv from Paris after his eighteenth birthday. Eager to fulfill his goal of joining the Mossad (and obviously this was pre-website when he could’ve inquired online before booking a flight), Ariel Brenner (Yvan Attal) leaves his family and friends behind and goes deep undercover. After psychological testing and endless attempts at tricking him into revealing too much, the brainy Ariel is recruited into Unit 238, headed by Yossi (played by Yossi Banai). The unit, notorious for not playing by the rules, quickly moves operations to wherever is necessary and Ariel quickly becomes acclimated to — as he narrates along the way in a diary and via letters — the “business of manipulation.”

Due to his French background, he heads up his first high profile assignment in his native homeland as his group of covert agents begins spying on a secretive nuclear scientist who, under the guise of a fake career as a math teacher, has begun working on a nuclear device for an anti-Israeli country. Employing the talents of a beautiful, street-wise, high-class call girl Marie-Claude (Sandrine Kimberlane) who captures Ariel’s heart, their assignment grows far more dangerous as it continues. However, it isn’t until Ariel begins working with an overly anxious and sympathetic American Jewish NSA employee (played by Richard Masur) to whom they give the codename Aladdin, that the doubts he’d been having about the nature of his business begin to grow heavily. As lives are jeopardized, questions of whether or not the end justifies the means begin to make him rethink the true nature of his alignment with the Mossad.

The gorgeous and gifted Yvan Attal (pictured throughout in various career stills), who actually got his start in film acting for director Rochant in A World Without Pity, is excellent in one of his early roles. Moreover we can already see the charismatic star he would become, evolving over the past few years into a talented writer and director in his own right with films such as My Wife is an Actress and Happily Ever After (starring his lovely significant other, Charlotte Gainsbourg). And although I was riveted throughout this film, which is noted to have been inspired by actual events, the structure of the Rochant’s work fails its lofty ambitions.

There are problems right from the beginning as it takes a good thirty minutes to successfully gain our interest since Ariel doesn’t share a scene with another character of significance and/or one who returns later on until well into the first act. And while we forgive the holes that exist throughout a majority as it never fails to entertain, the film’s overly rushed and unsatisfying conclusion leaves too many questions unanswered and there’s one particularly significant action made by Ariel that seems entirely out of character. While you can justify it by inventing a few explanations based on a few vague details scattered throughout (and indeed, the filmmaker may have been wanting us to leap to certain conclusions), by not inserting enough dynamic clues and prompts for the turn of events that occurs near the end The Patriots manages to leave us scratching our heads instead of feeling like the puzzle was solved.

Granted, it is fitting for us to use our intuition and skills of deductive reasoning when we’re dealing with international espionage, but for a movie one shouldn’t have to work that hard. And unfortunately the DVD offers us zero extra features to help answer any lingering questions. Thus in the end, despite The Patriot’s stellar production values we’re left with just the bare minimum amount of facts and the reminder not to talk about the Mossad… which, again could be why there are so few films about the Mossad in the first place. However, it's good to know that should we like to learn more, we're always welcome to visit their user friendly and easily navigable website.