The core ingredients of Daniel Zelik Berk’s spy drama Damascus Cover have a certain 007-esque flair about them, from the multitude of fitted suits, leather boots, expensive cars, and designer watches, to that ever-steely appearance on the face of Ari Ben-Sion (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). And indeed, the man’s tragic backstory mirrors that of Daniel Craig’s brooding iteration of James Bond, as well as that of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.
But looks can be deceiving, as beneath its sleek surface, Damascus Cover evinces neither the sense of playfulness of even the most brooding of Bond films nor the knack for dynamic action sequences that elevates the Bourne series. While its period details and pacing also brings to mind Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Damascus Cover lacks the Tomas Alfredson film’s intricate narrative. Instead, it trots out thinly conceived villains and a murky plot twists that leave crucial details needlessly shrouded in mystery.
The story primarily focuses on Ari’s mission to extract a chemical weapons scientist and his family from Syria. Posing as a German carpet salesman, Ari cozies up to a former Nazi, Franz Ludin (Jürgen Prochnow), who’s housing one of the scientist’s relatives, Yael (Neta Riskin), as a live-in maid. But Ari’s plans quickly go awry when the head of the Syrian Intelligence Agency, Suleiman Sarraj (Navid Negahban), conveniently pops in to visit Ludin and senses something suspicious during his lengthy stare down with Ari.
Set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Damascus Cover puts forth a potentially intriguing scenario involving burgeoning post-Cold War pacts and European espionage in the Middle East, but Berk uses these imbroglios merely as political signifiers, never delving into the specific ways they connect. The nature of Ludin and Sarraj’s shady dealings is left opaque, and even the reasons behind Syria’s kidnapping of the scientist or the link between their regime and former Nazis are frustratingly left unanswered.
Given the film’s scope, this wishy-washiness causes the story’s stakes to remain surprisingly low. Time that would have been better spent examining the inner workings of the Israeli spy agency (the late John Hurt, for example, is wasted as a shadowy Massad boss) or the political aims of the Syrian government is devoted to Ari’s burgeoning relationship with an American photographer, Kim (Olivia Thirlby), battling her own demons.
For a spell, Thirlby’s anxious energy is a welcome counter to the film’s otherwise lifeless performances. But her character’s arc, like that of many women in spy films, is a predictable one, as Kim’s anguish and professional goals are less important to the story than her function as an emotional crutch for the troubled male hero. And like everyone else in Damascus Cover, she ends up an empty shell of a human being, epitomizing the film’s tendency to reduce its characters to hollow avatars of good and evil.