Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Espionage Masterpiece: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Damian Lewis, Morgan Saylor, Jackson Place, and Morena Baccarin in Homeland.

The word “homeland” makes me kind of queasy, especially when used by the Bush administration in launching the Department of Homeland Security nine years ago. It’s reminiscent of the beloved Nazi “fatherland.” The less patriarchal “motherland,” preferred by the Soviet Union, sounds just as creepy. But as the title for a new series on Showtime, Homeland makes for a tantalizingly tense television drama in which creepy is a good thing. The brilliant Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a crack CIA agent taking medications to mask bipolar disorder. Mandy Patinkin is a marvel as Saul Berenson, a seasoned spook who’s her mentor. As performers, they’re both at the top of their game.

In the October 2 debut, the inciting incident takes place in Iraq, where Carrie is on an unauthorized covert mission. After a jailed militant awaiting execution tells her that an American POW has been “turned” by al Qaeda, she’s busted before learning more details, put on probation, and reassigned to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Of course, nothing can keep this obsessive woman from the work that gives her life its sole meaning.

She becomes suspicious when a captive Marine sergeant named Nicholas Brody (a subtly menacing  Damian Lewis), missing in action since 2003, is rescued by a Delta Force raid. Could he have been brainwashed, in a very Manchurian Candidate way, to wreak havoc back in the United States? The platoon buddy incarcerated with him has not survived the ordeal. Although under a cloud, Carrie begins a clandestine investigation from her home that’s only marginally sanctioned by Saul, who is unsure if his colleague’s concerns are driven by sharp instincts or paranoia.
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison
For round-the-clock surveillance, Carrie recruits two operatives: The cynical Virgil (David Marciano) has worked with her on previous stakeouts. This time, he brings along his cousin Max (Maury Sterling), a nervous guy fearful about the legality of their operation. The viewer, while naturally worrying that he’ll somehow compromise everyone involved, also wonders if the makeshift team’s tactics verge on repellent voyeurism.

With hidden cameras installed in every room of the Brody’s suburban household – except the garage, a significant omission – they watch and listen as the newly freed man with apparent PTSD readjusts uneasily to civilian life. He engages in rough sex with his startled wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin, a freaky extraterrestrial in the cancelled ABC sci-fi show V). She’s guilty about her affair with his former best friend Captain Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff), a relationship Nick correctly guesses has evolved during his long absence.

The Brody kids – teenager Dana (Morgan Saylor) and Chris (Jackson Place), about nine or so – don’t quite know what to make of their dad, now a virtual stranger. Nick, whose body is emblazoned with scars, alternates between nicely normal and coldly distant. They don’t realize he’s experiencing violent nightmares and waking flashbacks that reveal the details of his years in a tomb-like jail without windows and regular torture sessions. There are hints, so far, that al Qaeda has programmed him to become an enemy within. His secretive Muslim prayers in that garage, unobserved by the spies, suggest something’s horribly amiss.

Meanwhile, the military, the CIA and the White House (Jamey Sheridan portrays the vice-president) want to bolster the war efforts by convincing the public Nick is a hero, a scenario that the gets the media salivating. Think Jessica Lynch, an Army private whose liberation from Saddam Hussein’s clutches was hyped way beyond truth, or Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan but lauded as having fought courageously to the end. In both those cases, harsh reality was brushed aside in the zeal to whip up American patriotism. A typical media frenzy follows. This Homeland conundrum may leave only Carrie, Saul, Virgil and Max as the eyes-wide-open but flawed guardians desperate to prevent what could be an al Qaeda-sponsored catastrophe.

Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody
The acting is magnificent and the characters fully fleshed out, perhaps apart from the predictable gruffness of Carrie’s by-the-book boss (David Harewood). Michael Cuesta, whose L.I.E. was released in 2001, is an executive producer who has directed at least the first three episodes of this psychological thriller written by two X-Files alums, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who also worked on 24. Their new project is based on the Israeli TV program Hatufim (Prisoner of War).

Carrie, who self-medicates with pills from her reluctant physician sister, drowns her alienation in booze and anonymous sex with men she picks up in nightclubs. During one such encounter, though, a jazz musician tapping out the beat suddenly reminds her of the TV footage she’s seen of Nick being honored in various ceremonies: Specifically, the seeming pattern in a repetitive movement of his fingers. Could it be a Morse Code-like message he’s sending out to his handlers? This ranks among many clever, nuanced touches that distinguish Homeland from 24 and other action-oriented spy sagas that value bloodletting.

A sought-after terrorist, Abu Nazir (David Negahban), appears to be the mastermind behind both whatever’s happening to Nick and a parallel subplot with a rotten Saudi prince (Amir Arison) caught in the middle. The randy royal maintains a harem run by his mistress Lynne Reed (Brianna Braco); when not busy hiring new English-speaking babes for him to bed, she puts her life in grave danger by feeding information to Carrie.

Nothing is certain, however. Nick’s possible sleeper-cell status could be something else altogether and there’s certain to be a traitor in the CIA’s midst. Despite the recent assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, nobody envisions a shortage of nasty jihadists any time soon. So fiction can continue to imagine the worst. Homeland is loaded with potential twists in edgy episodes as suspenseful as they are revelatory about how vulnerable we remain to extremism post-9/11. The message that’s also delivered: We’re stupid enough in our politics to allow these threats an excellent chance of succeeding.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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