Nostalgia reigns on the big screen this summer. Sequels, reboots or franchise films (e.g. Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Fantastic Four, Vacation, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, to name a few)—it’s clear that affection for pop culture’s past is driving the movie-going marketplace.
Director Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is the latest nostalgia-fueled reboot, this time a big screen version of a 1964-68 TV show about Cold War-era spies. Pairing an American spy named Napoleon Solo (what a libertarian name!) with a Russian spy named Ilya Kuryakin as the the buddy-cop leads (alongside British, German and Italian characters), U.N.C.L.E. has fun playing with Cold War tropes in the decadent playground of 1960s Europe.
Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as Napoleon Solo, a dandy-ish American womanizer who parlays art thievery into international espionage and speaks innuendo as fluently as James Bond. Cavill (himself British) nails the square-jawed American accent (“Nat-zi”). He thoroughly enjoys exaggerating his American-in-Europe excess (bespoke three-piece suits and a taste for truffle risotto) in contrast to his more Spartan Russian partner, Kuryakin. As the volatile, masculine Russian with anger problems, Armie Hammer (The Social Network) also has fun with an exaggerated accent and bygone stereotypes.
U.N.C.L.E. loves cultural conventions, colorful high fashion, stylized filmmaking (including era-appropriate split screen) and retro pop culture pastiche, and so it feels a bit like a PG-13 cousin to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Ritchie’s gritty-but-baroque visual sensibility (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) and love of genre and pop cultural iconography have always felt Tarantino-esque. With its embrace of debonair style and absurdist plots involving nuke-dealing archvillains on a secret Mediterranean island, U.N.C.L.E. also evokes the James Bond franchise, particularly in the Sean Connery era.
But as I watched U.N.C.L.E., I thought most of another film currently on the big screen that also has its origins in 1960s espionage TV: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Both films are nostalgic, in that they proudly flaunt their DNA’s origins in the Cold War spy TV gene pool. Both are globetrotting adventures and deal with covert agencies spawned by governments of WWII Allies.
But whereas U.N.C.L.E. retains the 1960s setting of the original show (and as such becomes mostly tongue-in-cheek revelry in throwback style and vintage genre tropes), the Mission Impossible franchise (James Bond too) sets its stories in contemporary settings with contemporary geo-political backdrops, though they’re no less absurdist. Where U.N.C.L.E. takes time to pay homage to analog technology (slide projectors, manual car windows, physical maps!) and spends entire scenes wallowing in the 1960s fashions of Pucci and Pierre Cardin, Impossible (and Bond) simply exists in the present and spends its energies on the action and plot.
Which is not to say that these modes of nostalgic filmmaking (more ironic/humorous/reflexive vs. more earnest/serious/straightforward) are altogether different from one another. What U.N.C.L.E., Impossible and Bond share is their gleeful project: turning real-world anxiety (nuclear, technological, geo-political, even sexual) into popcorn entertainment.
That entertainment can diffuse tension (not to mention bombs) and send audiences away happier, even as they listen to NPR stories about Iran nuclear deals on the drive home from the theater. What fun it is to watch apocalyptic terror plots get unraveled! To see world-destruction scenarios thwarted by western heroes! All in the span of two hour,s and usually with martinis and Armani suits on display!
How hungry are we for narratives of resolution in a world of unresolved anxiety!
There are two great scenes, one from Impossible and one from U.N.C.L.E., that capture the paradox (and appeal) of these films well. In Impossible, it is the already much-discussed scene set in the Vienna Opera House, where Tom Cruise’s spy tries to foil an assassination attempt while the opera Turandot is performed (climaxing with gun shots at the famous belting of “Vincerò” at the end of “Nessun Dorma”).
In U.N.C.L.E. it is an Italian boat-chase action sequence where Solo pauses in the midst of it to sip wine, enjoy a sandwich and listen to an Italian crooner on the radio, all while villains die and boats burn in the background.
Both of these scenes juxtapose life-and-death, high-stakes action with high culture; they both pause or slow down to actually enjoy operatic decadence even when it doesn’t really serve the plot. They are self-consciously cinematic and force the viewer to pull back and observe the beauty and artifice of movies. I also think of the climactic Scotland scene in Skyfall where cinematographer Roger Deakins turns an otherwise typical gunfight into something quite beautiful.
Perhaps these scenes are the key to why movies like Impossible and U.N.C.L.E. will continue to get made. They are real enough to quicken our pulse or tap into our cultural fears, but artificial and detached enough to produce in us pleasure and laughs.
Just like the campy cult TV shows of yesteryear, that diffused Cold War tension in the form of watching good guys defeating evil masterminds—as we ate Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese on our TV trays—these movies provide concise comforts and welcome wins in the midst of an uncomfortably complicated world.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is so much an homage to the era it depicts that it also minds the manner of 1960s TV (for the most part). Foul language is basically nonexistent. Sex is always off screen, though alluded to with almost constant innuendo and euphemism. One woman’s bare back is seen, but that’s about the extent of skin shown in the film. Violence is ever-present but largely bloodless, though one scene of a man frying on an electric chair is a bit disturbing (though played for laughs). Alcohol is also consumed regularly, as befits a James Bond-esque spy movie.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.