‘Damascus Cover’ Lacks Clear Storytelling

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I had a friend in college who loved movie trailers. He’d park himself on the couch, watching trailer after trailer deep into the night, absorbing the peripheral details of as many films as possible. Perhaps his habit was symptomatic of millennials’ dwindling attention spans. Or maybe it was his way of filtering out the duds.

I don’t know if he planned on taking in Damascus Cover, which debuts in theaters July 20, but I’d recommend he stick with the trailer. Director Daniel Zelik Berk’s film trudges on for 93 minutes and 36 seconds, offering little in the form of intrigue but plenty of confusion. Based on Howard Kaplan’s 1977 novel, but moved up to the late 1980s and the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall to portray a more hopeful political climate, Damascus Cover unnecessarily hides key details, a tactic that functionally slows the film down instead of harnessing anticipation. It’s a mystery film, yes, but more in the sense that it keeps viewers grasping for reliable plot points.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ leading man performance as undercover Israeli spy Ari Ben-Zion is fine. Ben-Zion traverses West Berlin with aims of extracting a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria. His alter-ego is Hans Hoffman, a German carpet importer.


His character too often relies on tropes, like the groan-inducing revelation early on that his marriage couldn’t recover after his son’s death. To be sure, a son dying young is an unequivocally sad development, and paints Ben-Zion with a welcoming layer of sympathy. But the manner in which the detail is delivered — during a flashback, with his wife walking away from his outstretched hand at the kitchen table — is cliche to the point of irony.

He otherwise projects a stoic, unflinching spy unwilling to deviate from his cover, despite the admission that, if he had things his way, he’d be Hans Hoffman all the time. Can you blame him? Ben-Zion is a grieving father and recently divorced, one who recently failed to bring a double agent back to Israel alive, and whose sanity is questioned by a mental health professional.

Hoffman, on the other hand, is smooth. And Hoffman gets the girl. Olivia Thirlby plays Kim Johnson, a charming journalist for USA Today who can’t seem to wipe the smile off her face around Hoffman. The two eventually find themselves in bed, of course, but the precipitating flirtation lacks sizzle, as Meyers and Thirlby struggle to channel the necessary chemistry to render their affair believable. Thirlby is engaging and cunning, but ultimately pigeonholed by a limited role.

When he’s not chasing Johnson, Ben-Zion — or, ahem, Hoffman — is cozying up to a wealthy right-wing German businessman, with hopes of getting closer to his target. The interactions don’t yield much in terms of memorable dialogue, but Ben-Zion’s chance meeting with Suleiman Sarraj (Navid Negahban), head of the Syrian Intelligence Agency, prompts a much-needed ratcheting of storytelling pace.

The film doesn’t end before a double cross, and a series of twists and turns that are light on shock value. The lack of continuity and bland storytelling prompts little emotional attachment to the characters, and so the big revelations fall flat.    

Part of the movie’s shortcomings could be attributed to its budget. Berk said he had just above $5 million to work with, which made things difficult considering the sizable cast and fact that the movie was shot in three locations —  Morocco, Israel and Germany.

The budget forced Berk to get creative. One scene was shot using furniture from the Sheraton hotel the crew was staying in. Another is filmed at a real, dilapidated, abandoned warehouse, which Berk thought looked more authentic than anything a production team could’ve created.

“If I had a higher budget my life would’ve been easier. We probably would have fed the crew better food,” Berk said with a chuckle. “I would’ve had more time to elaborate action scenes. … When you’re on a budget like this, you rise to the occasion. This is not an excuse at all; I’m extremely proud of what we did.

“There’s something exciting about trying to do something for less. You experiment, you make compromises that turn out to improve the movie.” Besides, Berk said, his intent was not to compete with giant studios. He wanted to make an old-fashion spy thriller in the vein of films from the ’60s. He said he’s previously worked with an Israeli consulate, and so the script for Damascus Cover checked all of the boxes.

jneedelman@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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