A gun hidden inside a cane. Codes and cryptography. A drone that looks like a hummingbird. I love anything that revels in the covert art of spy craft. From campy, early James Bond movies to the even campier Austin Powers films, to the serious James Bond features of late, I’ve always been captivated. I even loved Spy vs. Spy in the old Mad magazines.
So when Netflix’s new docuseries Spycraft dropped, I cleared out four and a half hours to binge this baby.
The series is eight episodes, each taking a look at an aspect of espionage, like the eye in the sky, code breakers, and sexpionage. Some are more fascinating than others, but each offers insight into how the world works. It will feed appetites of conspiracy theorists who believe they’re always being watched. Spoiler Alert: they likely aren’t being surveilled all the time, but they could be.
Spy tech grows in a vicious circle. One country develops a new camera, nerve agent, or listening device, and another country figures out how to defeat it, and so it goes. And the show reaches a pretty good balance of giving some historical foundation with techniques from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and the World Wars while mostly focusing on the modern era of spy craft from the 50s on. I was fascinated to learn how drones are cheaper, faster, and more effective than satellites.
Spycraft is at its best when it’s telling spy stories. Hardcore fans of real life spy stories probably won’t learn much. While a couple of the cases were new to me, I’ve seen documentaries or news coverage of most of the operations Spycraft details. But casual fans looking to take their first deep dive into espionage outside of Bond or Bourne movies will be entertained and educated.
As I said, I set aside time to binge this in one sitting. Sadly, the production values made that impossible to stomach without a break. First: the announcer. I don’t need to name check him here, but suffice to say he’s not great for project being released at this level. His phrasing is erratic and stunted. Several times I had to go back and listen to a sentence again to understand him. He also mispronounces a couple of words.
There are also a couple times he says “extradite” when I’m pretty sure he meant “extract” or “exfiltrate.” But I’m going to put that on the writer and producer. Also on producers is the fact that they repeat stories over the course of the series. I’m like ‘yes, I know this because you told me the exact same thing two episodes ago.’ I’m not talking about a passing reference to the same spy, I’m talking an entire retelling of the saga.
Add in that with the Special Ops and the Saboteur episode, which was more of an episode of Modern Marvels than adventures in espionage and you feel like they were just trying to fill the series order.
Too Much Too Fast
Another major flaw is the pacing of the entire show. You don’t learn a lot about any of the gadgets and techniques, but you learn a little about a lot of things.. enough to make intelligent conversation at a cocktail party, assuming it’s not a cocktail party for spies.
That would be fine, except everything is flying at you in rapid succession. Sometimes they pause to put up a graphic with the definition of a term, but it’s gone so quickly you don’t have a chance to read the entire thing. Yes, you can pause and go back, but that breaks the flow.
They interview several experts, and their insights are the backbone of the show. But when they put up a graphic with their name and what they do, there is way too much information and, again, it disappears quicker than an elite spy who just killed a foreign agent.
The show also has a serious editing problem. By its very nature, there isn’t a big video record of spy activities. Spycraft blends whatever original video they have with stock footage and re-creations. The problem is there are a lot of times when the old video doesn’t match what’s being said or show a picture of one person while talking about someone else.
Despite the numerous and jarring flaws, Spycraft is still worth watching. Pick up an episode here and there and enjoy.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Like the ultimate suave spy, I will have a martini. Shaken, not stirred.