So PSA, I loved this movie.
I’ve seen some discussion of the problematic aspects of this film, and we’ll get to those because I want to unpack them. But I want to start by focusing on the positives. I had been waiting to see this movie for two weeks when I finally made it into the theater high on chocolate cake and the newest influx of birthday books. From the opening scenes, it did not disappoint. I was able to completely lose myself in this film, and that hasn’t happened to me in a long time.
For the most part, spoilers are going to come in the critique section. I’ll put a warning, so read away for the spoiler-free bits of glory.
From the opening scene of Atomic Blonde, I was hooked. No, I’m not talking about the part where the guy gets chased down and shot in the head, though the framing of that shot was unfairly beautiful. Actually, all of the movie was unfairly beautiful, a contrast to the gritty, high stakes plot and grungy setting. Shots alternate between glittering 1980s excess and austere Soviet spaces which reek of industrialism – bare concrete, geometric designs, poor lighting. There is so much neon in this movie – and spraypaint, and boom boxes, and cassette tapes. Do you also have nostalgic memories of growing up in the late 80s and early 90s? Do you want those memories to be turned into a spy novel where no one is ever good – basically replicating the 80s aesthetic? This movie is for you.*
One of the things that was the most inspiring for me about this movie was not the dedicated femme fatale performance of Charlize Theron, though that was amazing. Nor was it the bitingly lovely and hardcore choreography of the fight scenes, though I was totally down with that. Nor was it, even, the way that the characters actually got hurt and had to live with those hurts and compensate for them. That was all awesome, but that was not the best thing. No, the best thing was how this movie brought the dramas of the Cold War into my timeline.
“What do you mean?” I hear you asking. Well, friends, I’m going to date myself here and admit that I was born the year before the Wall came down. Yet, as a child, I was always taught that the Cold War was something so far away. I think we have a habits of amnesia in this country, of distancing ourselves from very real upsets that we probably, even if unknowingly, lived through. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of people my age struggle with. We think of the Cold War as an artifact of the 50s, maybe the 60s. It certainly doesn’t affect us.
The events of Atomic Blonde may be fictional (I hope they are fictional) but nonetheless the story sheds light in a very immediate way on a relationship and time period that often feels like ancient history. I am totally here for more near-historical dramas, action movies, and political thrillers constructed with such attention to detail.
And now, on to the spoilers.
There were two major issues with Atomic Blonde that bear discussing. Three, really. First, the movie was pretty white. I’m not savvy on a lot of the migration patterns of the late 80s in Berlin, so I can’t say that I can critique it fairly, but it’s worth noting. I hope that we can see something as original, fast-paced, and interesting as Atomic Blonde that also manages to incorporate POC in the future.
Second, this movie was pretty back and forth on the male gaze issue. There were scenes that were framed well in this regard – I particularly like how Lorraine beat that one guy up with her shoe, this amused me incredibly. Obviously she also spent a lot of the movie bruised, bleeding, and generally doing gross stuff with little regard for what others thought of that except as to how it affected her ability to get what she wanted. But there were numerous scenes of lingerie, and of sex, which were beautifully shot and often relevant to the plot, but which were maybe not so relevant as to be required. With the exception of two, these did not bother me. Which leads me to the biggest issue with the movie, and the one with the spoilers. Really, bail out now if you want to form your own opinions.