Gilbey on Film: don't follow the Oscars herd

All this praise for The King's Speech makes me suspicious.

Ever since time began, mankind has yearned for justice to prevail at the Academy Awards. I don't think all the films which landed nominations this year are worthy of approbation.

Inception is surely only in the running because it's a popular favourite; the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominations to ten last year so that mainstream audiences could root for films they'd actually seen -- a transparent bit of populist tokenism. And I'm baffled by the general admiration for The Town, a compendium of macho crime movie clichés. But even we terminal Oscar curmudgeons would have to concede it's a pretty decent spread this year.

There's lots of love for The Social Network, Winter's Bone and The Fighter (out here on 4 Feb), as well as the odd crumb of comfort for Blue Valentine, Dogtooth, Biutiful and the Australian thriller Animal Kingdom (25 Feb). It's rumoured within the industry that Mike Leigh receives a Best Original Screenplay nomination each year whether or not he's actually written a new film, but that doesn't make his nod for Another Year (his fifth writing nomination from the Academy) any less deserved.

I can't even join in with much of the griping over at GoldDerby, where some of the exclusions are branded "shocking". Yes, it's a real shame that Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network was squeezed out of contention, particularly as he provides the emotional centre; he wears all the movie's pain in his worried face. But I can't get exercised over the omission of Michael Douglas for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (that would've been one of those "congratulations for still being alive" Oscars) or Robert Duvall for Get Low (ditto).

Casting a long shadow over the UK media's reporting has been, inevitably, The King's Speech. Supporters of the picture, who care not that it is dutiful and deferential to both royalty and to archaic wisdom about film acting and directing, may crow about its 12 nominations, but should recall the chastening example of The Color Purple (eleven nominations in 1985, but no prizes).

I won't begrudge Colin Firth the Best Actor award that he is the favourite to win; those of us unconvinced by The King's Speech might console ourselves by thinking of it as a deferred acknowledgement for his work last year in A Single Man (he was beaten to the gold by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, who is in the shortlist for True Grit this time), much as Jeremy Irons's Oscar for Reversal of Fortune was widely considered to be compensation for his stunning double-performance, ignored by the Academy, in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.

But I feel suspicious of any consensus, even if it's one that builds up around a film I admire. I happen to think The Social Network does everything right, and couldn't really be bettered, but I'm suspicious of the absence of any convincing counter-arguments (though Zadie Smith's rigorous analysis of the film, and the phenomenon it describes, is a joy to read).

Likewise, it's dispiriting to hear the party line being toed over The King's Speech, as though to fail to root for it would be tantamount to incinerating a Union Jack. On Radio 4 last night I heard a news item in which the film was described as -- let me get this right -- a metaphor for the Anglo-American relationship, with the irreverent speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) as the funky, straight-shooting US figure helping the uptight Brit to loosen up. This, the reporter suggested, was why the film had gone down so well in America. Despite the fact that Logue was, erm, Australian. And that the only American character in the film, Wallis Simpson, is roundly disparaged.

A similar kind of consensus has built up over the Golden Raspberry awards -- better known as the Razzies -- where the nominations give new meaning to the idea of easy targets. The Razzies were once prized as an antidote to Hollywood sycophancy, and there was usually a comingling of scorn and affection for the films that figured on their radar. These days, they have an orthodoxy of their own that's every bit as blinkered as the one promoted by The King's Speech cheerleaders.

Rather than singling out the genuinely pitiful but supposedly prestigious lows of the year -- The American, say, or Black Swan -- the Razzies are an unpleasant reflection of adolescent fanboy prejudice. You can find some informed objections to the awards' agenda (such as: Why do they aim most of their barbs at teen idols or gay icons?) here and here.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge