The Western World still holds up World War II as the last "good" war, making it endless fodder for television and movies. The era that launched modern technology endlessly fascinates us, from mainstream mega-hits like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List to PBS dramas like World on Fire and Atlantic Crossing. But some World War II stories feel like they were made for adaptation, like the one behind Operation Mincemeat. Sadly, Netflix's retelling isn't close to Oscar-worthy, but the story itself is so wild, and the actors A-list enough that the film carries on just fine, despite its limitations.
Operation Mincemeat isn't a joke; it was the actual codename for one of U.K. intelligence's wildest plans ever devised. Germany had caught wind of Operation Husky, the Allies' plan to invade Sicily, forcing the Nazi regime to focus their air and naval powers in the Mediterranean ahead of D-Day. So Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (who went on to become famous for inventing James Bond) and his boss Rear Admiral John Godfrey (the inspiration of Bond's boss M), came up with a so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme.
Their idea? Disguise a dead body as a made-up Naval officer, plant fake messages on him revealing Husky was all a feint, wash it up on shore, and hope Hitler bought it. The body was a random homeless man found in a U.K. morgue; an entire history was invented for his new identity, the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. Just to make sure everything didn't seem too convenient, the body was dumped on the neutral shores of Spain, a government riddled with fascist sympathizers. They were only too happy to slip the Germans a piece of intelligence to prove how loyal they would be when the time came.
The scheme was carried out by Naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu and RAF officer Charles Cholmondeley, the former of which chronicled the experience in his novel, The Man Who Never Was. Though the story was already adapted once to film (under the book's title), Netflix's new version ignores that script, choosing a new reworked script from Shakespeare In Love's John Madden. The cast includes Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu, Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming, and Jason Isaacs as John Godfrey. (Not to mention co-stars Penelope Wilton, Will Keen, Alex Jennings, Mark Bonnar, and Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill.) It seemed like a film destined to be a classic.
Unfortunately, not so much. Operation Mincemeat is a film that never entirely comes together. It has all the parts that should make a slightly comic military heist thriller sing — including the clickity-clack of typewriters anxiously slamming and dinging away — but the suspense is lacking. It's almost too focused on its historical re-enactment aspects to remember that this is supposed to be thrillingly fun. A literal story of a bunch of bureaucrats pulling one over on Hitler turns into a workman-like recreation. It desperately needs some Ocean's 11 chemistry for Firth and Macfadyen, two men from different branches who don't like or trust each other, forced to work together on a hair-brained idea that worked.
But the biggest problem is the film's refusal to go the next step in why a story like this is relevant now. After Brexit, the 2016 election, and ludicrously so on-the-nose scandals from Trump and Johnson, fiction writers and satirists have given up and gone home; a film like this should be one that's focused on fake news, information laundering, and how sheer incompetence by the bad guys sometimes saves the day. But the movie never goes there, almost as if it's afraid someone, somewhere, might get offended. It's a missed opportunity.
That being said, the movie is still enjoyable. It's streaming on Netflix, so it doesn't require one even to leave the couch, let alone the house, to flip it on. It may have wound up more of a low-stakes piece of historical entertainment than one might wish. However, its low-effort availability makes its middle result perfectly acceptable home-viewing entertainment and a perfect period drama for a rainy afternoon.
Operation Mincemeat is playing a limited release in theaters and streaming on Netflix.