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Between 2018 and 2022, three major OSS spies have been canonised in film and TV – Julia Child, Moe Berg and Virginia Hall. In this episode we look at this grouping of OSS-themed media and ask: why now? And is the CIA behind this resurgence in cultural awareness of their predecessor agency? We also do a little fact-checking, and look at the critical and popular responses to these entertainment products.

We will take these three historical figures and the media about them in reverse order of seriousness, beginning with Julia McWilliams, a.k.a Julia Child. Born in 1912 in Pasadena to a prominent land manager and an industrial paper heiress, Julia was what rich Americans like to call ‘upper middle class’. At six feet two (fully grown, not as a baby) she was tall for a woman, and was known as a flirtatious clown. Her father tried to marry her off into another rich family, but she wasn’t interested, and pursued education and then a writing career.

When WW2 happened she tried to enlist in the Army and Navy (the women’s sections, obviously) but was considered too tall for either, so she wound up in the OSS. Initially an administration assistant, in March 1943 she was moved to director Bill Donovan’s office as a researcher. An OSS memo in her file notes the change of position. She worked on a notecard system to help the Office keep track of thousands of agents working on different operations, this being the days before computers did everything for you.

She then moved to the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, who were trying to deal with a strange problem. The OSS were planting explosives along routes known to be used by German U-boats, in the hope of blowing them up underwater. But sharks sometimes brushed up against the undersea bombs, blowing them up. Naturally, the OSS couldn’t give two shits about the sharks, and were solely concerned with maintaining their explosives.

It seems that it was Julia herself who came up with the idea of making a shark repellent to keep the nosy sharks at a distance. She set about cooking up various concoctions which were then tested before being put into use – so successfully that they were still being used decades later. From what I can tell, this is where she first got into cooking, having grown up in a very posh house with their own cook and never shown any interest in cooking before.

Her latter years in the war were spent in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and in Kunming, in China. This is where she met her husband to be, Paul Child, a well to do OSS officer with a very sophisticated palate. They fell in love, though their early letters to friends describing each other are not always flattering. Julia felt Paul wasn’t very good looking, and Paul found Julia’s long legs captivating but said she wouldn’t stop giggling, which annoyed him.

In her OSS file a physical examination reported that she had a ‘slightly rapid pulse’ but ‘no symptoms of hypertension’, which encapsulates what most people said about Julia, especially in her younger years. She was excitable, perhaps a little giddy and ridiculous, but charming and intelligent.

Following the war, she and Paul took a trip to France, touring through various towns and villages, sampling the food, until they ended up in Rouen, which is a lovely place. It is here that Julia fell in love with food and French food in particular, and so she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu, the famous and very long-standing chef school in Paris. Despite it being a very macho, male-dominated culture and profession, and despite having almost no life experience as a cook, let alone a high level chef, she made it.

This also gives us an impression of her – despite being quite zany and even childish at times, she was also very capable – when she made a decision she tried to put it into action, and very often succeeded.

So, Paul joined the Foreign Service while Julia set up a cooking school in Paris with two French ladies who were working on a book about French food aimed at Americans. This would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which redefined cookbooks in that it was over 700 pages long and went into specific detail about each part of the process to prepare and make each meal.

During the 50s American supermarkets were full of convenience food – canned and frozen stuff, mostly not very healthy or tasty – and cookbooks aimed at American housewives kept things simple. The whole notion of the instant cake mix that only requires you to add water and an egg, so the housewife still gets the sense of proper baking, but without the hassle and time-consuming nature of proper baking, was born out of this market culture.

The book by Julia, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle was the opposite – it demanded raw ingredients, prepared and cooked in a complex way, to produce delicious food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it got rejected by publishers during the trio’s initial attempts to get it out there, but Knopf picked it up, seeing the potential, and it was published in 1961.

By now Paul and Julia were married and living in Boston, after travelling around Europe for most of the 1950s while he pursued his diplomatic career. To promote the book she went on the local public TV station, WGBH-TV, on their book review and discussion show. She cooked a three-minute French omelette, which along with her bubbly personality, unusual height and looks and very unusual voice, captured audiences.

The following year WGBH put out three episodes of The French Chef as a pilot – a show where Julia presented how to cook recipes from her book and introduced the audience to French cuisine, and to herself. It proved so successful that they commissioned a series, beginning in February 1963, which ran for ten seasons, over 200 episodes. It has since been released on DVD, and Twitch did a four day stream of every episode to help launch its own move into cookery shows.

From a TV history point of view, Julia Child was very significant. The French Chef was so popular that it helped change the landscape of public TV, especially educational TV. Up to that point it was dominated not only by men, but by incredibly boring men. Academic men. Academic in both the sense of being certificated by the intellectual establishment and being utterly irrelevant.

So, to have a tall, oddball woman with a great sense of humour and a bon vivant, sensualist attitude towards life (including no end of sexual innuendo) appear on screen, teaching people how to make souffles and coq au vin was a landscape-changing moment. Educational TV was no longer about imparting information, it was instructional and entertaining, and helped broaden people’s cultural horizons, not just told them what to think.

She continued appearing on TV in some form for decades after the end of The French Chef, and was parodied in various sitcoms and sketch shows – notoriously by Dan Aykroyd in a 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch, shortly after Julia had appeared on TV with a bandaged finger after cutting herself quite badly during rehearsal. Dan is shown playing Julia, injuring himself but continuing on trying to cook, blood spirting out everywhere, until he eventually collapses. Apparently the real Julia found this so amusing that she used to show it to friends when they came over. She set up a foundation in 1995, devoted to the culinary arts, and eventually died in 2004, having outlived her husband by 10 years.

As such she’s an important historical and cultural figure who would not have become the woman she became were it not for her time in the OSS, both personally and professionally. But why did it take until 2021 for her life to be outlined in a feature documentary, and until 2022 for someone to make a TV show about her? Looked at another way, why did these two Julia Child-themed cultural buses come along almost at once?

Julia (2021) and Julia (2022)

Unfortunately for anyone trying to write about them, both the documentary and the TV show are simply called Julia. This is a reference to how she was so popular at one point that people referred to her show by her first name, but that doesn’t work over half a century later. These days, every female celebrity is referred to by their first name, and often their first name alone. I don’t even know if Zendaya has a surname. Or if she does anything except turn up to events in stripper dresses. Does she sing or act or something? If anyone knows the answer, please email me.

My point because that calling a documentary about Julia Child ‘Julia’ is a bad idea from a marketing point of view. Which Julia are they talking about? Julia Roberts? Julia Dreyfuss? Julia Garner? Let alone all the ones on TikTok.

Bad title aside, it’s a pretty good documentary – nicely visualised with excerpts from letters and diaries, lots of photos. It certainly isn’t just a succession of elderly talking heads, which is what I worried it might be. They get into how Paul was pushed out of the State Department amid accusations that he was a gay communist (wasn’t everyone in the mid 20th century?), how Julia was eventually pushed out by PBS as other shows started to ape what she was doing, and how she found new ways to format her cooking to fit into short morning TV slots, as well as loads of personal anecdotes.

It isn’t especially revelatory and they do somewhat over-credit her with inventing the cooking show, which she didn’t. And with revolutionising public service broadcasting, which she was certainly a part of, but wasn’t the only person. The film was made with the assistance of the Julia Child Foundation, so don’t expect anything other than a mostly idealised depiction.

Where things get a little odd is in her relationship with gay men, who she referred to disparagingly as ‘homos’ despite being close friends with some, including James Beard, perhaps the inventor of the live cooking TV show. Julia was very heterosexual – she liked straight men, liked to flirt with them, liked their attention. By all accounts she preferred to be around straight men than around gay men.

Then, towards the end of her career, she became very outwardly a friend to the gays, what would now be rather annoyingly called ‘an ally’. She used her position to speak out about AIDS and the need for better treatment for HIV and AIDS, better treatment of gay people in general. And that was at a time when AIDS was the Covid-19 of its day, except that AIDS actually kills people, and gay men were being blamed for having somehow created this terrible virus.

Thus, I’m recommending the documentary Julia, from 2021, if such films are your thing. Certainly, I wasn’t bored at any point, and found it very easygoing and informative. I am also recommending the TV show of the same name that came out the following year, in 2022, from HBO Max. Indeed, by the time this episode comes out the second season is due to start airing.

I will say straight off that it doesn’t really get into her time in the OSS, unlike the two films that we’re going to look at. It is set in the early 1960s, and follows her emergence as a TV star. The first episode does run through some earlier events, to help establish her and Paul and Simka – Simone, one of her co-authors – and some of the other characters. But the major storyline takes place in the 60s, in the TV studio and in Julia’s home.

It is, like the lady herself, quite charming. Sarah Lancashire, a British actor who has been in loads of stuff that I’ve never watched, takes the title role and she does an excellent job. It’s slightly cartoonish, but somehow never obnoxiously so. I put this down to how TV has changed so much – at the time she appeared, Julia Child was a breath of fresh air on a relatively new medium that was quite stiff and risk-averse.

Whereas now you cannot move for attention-seeking, supposedly quirky personalities desperately trying to seem different and new, especially in the TV chef arena. There are entire channels full of these loud, annoying, stupid people showing even stupider people how to chop vegetables that the even stupider people are never going to eat.

That is perhaps the downside of what she did – because the success of The French Chef was down to Julia’s personality, it helped establish that cookery shows aren’t about food or health or introducing people to new cultures, but about big, loud ‘personality’ chefs themselves. Not her fault, of course, but one of the less nourishing cultural impacts of her work.

Thus, to have someone who is just a nice person, who likes food and is enthusiastic about it, and who doesn’t really understand television, as the central character in a modern TV drama is – ironically – refreshing and different. We get to watch her energetically fumble her way through the fledgling episodes, while everyone gets to grips with what the hell The French Chef is supposed to be, and see Julia caught in the double bind of enjoying fame but not knowing how to enjoy it.

I did have a bit of an issue with how they messed with the origin story of The French Chef, making out that it was Julia’s idea entirely and that she paid for the pilot episode. It’s true that the network had money troubles and produced most things on a very small budget, but the whole plot point about them having the money to build a set but none left over for crew and ingredients, so Julia pays for all that herself while lying to her husband about it, is nonsense. In reality, a gas company already had a mocked up display kitchen with a working gas stove and they used that for the three pilot episodes.

Ditto, they portray Paul and Julia living in a much more modest home than their real home in Boston. When you see photos, they lived in one of those fuckoff detached mansions like something from The Waltons, whereas in the TV version they have far less money. I can see why they did this – making it clear that the whole project was a rich white woman living out a fantasy of being a TV chef, that takes away much of the jeopardy and makes her far less relatable. But it did bug me a little.

Also, they made her female producer black, for no obvious reason. I’ve noticed this increasingly in period pieces, that they try to make it seem like America was always the liberal multicultural dystopia it has become in the 21st century. I kid, but come on – black women did not get to produce TV shows in the early 1960s, especially not in Massachusetts. But for some reason we have to see endless scenes of black lady producer complaining to her mother about not being taken seriously at work, and she’s the one who sells the show to other networks, solving all the money problems. It’s quite, quite bizarre in this story of an upper middle class white woman who appealed to lower class white women to crowbar in a woman who at that time most of the people who watched The French Chef would still refer to as a ‘negress’.

Naturally, this being the 2020s and this being a female-led TV show, they couldn’t resist shoving some pointless gender politics in there, but it wasn’t as lazily and nastily done as in much of modern pop culture. For example, though they made up the whole story about Julia lying to Paul about paying for the show herself, she is shown feeling very guilty about it as time goes on, and she ends up telling him, even as all her female friends tell her not to.

Likewise, the only part where her motivation is truly challenged, and she decides she doesn’t want to do a second season, is when a bitchy feminist has a go at her at some dinner event they’re all invited to. The feminist claims that Julia is helping enslave women to the kitchen, raising the bar so that women feel they have to produce these elaborate dishes for their husbands, and so on.

This is interesting to me because for one, Julia Child never called herself a feminist, and for two, because the feminist is shown to be wrong. Much like in Minx, the series about the feminist who starts her own porn magazine, which was dropped by HBO after one season, some of this simple-minded sloganeering is scrutinised, or at least opposed by our protagonists.

From my perspective, the problem with that kind of mid-20th century feminist commentary is that it’s all about women having careers, becoming part of the capitalist machine. I’m all for challenging the idea that women can only be mothers and wives and look after houses and kitchens. For one thing, most women like that are truly crap at DIY, but also because women can be many different things. But I don’t like it when people badmouth women for being wives and mothers, because if a family is what you truly want then you should devote yourself to that and take responsibility for it. The notion that this is something to be insulted, like those women are somehow lesser than women who become bloodless corporate cocksuckers, is just as objectifying and reductive as any misogynistic youtube twaddle.

Of course, Julia Child had opportunities open to her than many people do not, but she did something creative, had a career, followed her heart. Why is that something to be criticised? If anything, criticise her for maintaining the myth that there’s some kind of secret to French food. In reality, the ‘secret’ is to cook everything in butter and/or wine and/or chocolate, and if possible all three.

The other moment that’s worth picking out is the only time she mentions the OSS, and it’s a bit weird. During a conversation with a close friend, talking about men (as women do quite a lot), she brings up an operation created by Ed Salinger, the OSS head of psychological warfare, and his plan to use glow in the dark foxes to scare the Japanese into surrendering.

The version told in this scene is quite inaccurate. Salinger came up with the fox idea, not this ‘Mr Earp’, presumably first name ‘Wyatt’. They never took a thousand foxes and dipped them in phosphorous and dumped them in the ocean – the idea was to paint them in some kind of radioactive paint and let them loose on the land, to scare people at night.

They got hold of glow in the dark paint, even though they knew the Radium in it was dangerous, and got a vet from Central Park Zoo to experiment in sticking it onto the fur of the creatures. The vet recruited a raccoon, who seemed quite happy to be painted in luminous colours and behaved normally once painted. Well, as normally as any raccoon behaves.

Then, they got hold of some test foxes and painted them before releasing them in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC. This resulted in many scared patrons of the park, some of whom called the police. The test operation a success, they went back to the issue of how to get the foxes into Japan. The original plan called for dropping them in the ocean but the OSS weren’t sure foxes could swim long distances, so they tested some out in Chesapeake Bay. The foxes made it ashore, but most of the paint had washed off, and when the foxes licked their coats to dry them, they took the remainder of the paint with them.

So it was a total bust of an operation, but not in the way described in Julia. And why they felt the need to turn this into some sort of lecture on men making the rules and all the rest of it, I’m really not sure. Perhaps – and this is a speculative perhaps – the CIA consulted on Julia and due to their new, progressive, 50 Shades of Rainbow Statism approach to public relations, had some input on shaping this scene.

Moe Berg – The Catcher Was A Spy

An altogether more serious OSS story is that of Morris Berg, better known as Moe Berg, the baseball player. Much like Julia Child, he has been the subject of two major cultural products in recent years – 2019 saw the release of the documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate, which recounts Moe’s time with the OSS.

I have not seen this documentary, as I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. It seems to have had a festival release but not much beyond that, so I cannot offer any opinion on it. Somewhat strangely, it actually came after the movie version, when it’s usually the other way round. A documentary is made, it gets praise, so some studio buys up the rights to turn it into a film or TV show.

Suitably for such an odd man, with Moe it happened the other way round. In 2018 the film The Catcher Was a Spy came out, based on the book of the same name (that you can find on The book tells a broad tale of the life of a truly unusual guy, while the film focuses almost entirely on his WW2 activities.

Moe was born in Harlem in 1902, the son of a Ukrainian Jewish pharmacist. He played for his church team and for his school teams, sometimes under pseudonyms so people wouldn’t realise he was Jewish. He attended NYU for a year before transferring to Princeton – and thereafter never mentioned his time at NYU. He graduated with a degree in languages, speaking Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit. And English, of course.

Having impressed on the college baseball team he was signed up by the Brooklyn Robins and began his career in professional baseball. He also got a law degree and worked for a law firm during periods when he was injured, and made several trips to Japan in the 1930s to help spread the gospel of baseball. During one such trip in 1934 he snuck off to the roof of a hospital and filmed some footage of Tokyo Bay on a handheld camera.

The last few years of his career, for the Red Sox, saw Moe not play much so he had plenty of time for other things. He made three appearances on a radio quiz show called Information, where he dazzled the host and audience with his knowledge on many topics. The third time he appeared, the host began asking him personal questions, about him being a bachelor and so on, which Moe avoided or refused to answer. He did not go back on the show again after that.

In short, he was an unusual guy – a highly educated professional sportsman, unmarried, did have relationships with women but was also suspected to be gay. He was known for being strange, not that talkative, certainly not a typical sportsman, not especially concerned with his Jewish ethnicity or religion, and very smart.

In the movie it begins with the tail end of his baseball career, and we see a rookie talking about him in the locker room, suspecting that he’s gay. The rookie follows Moe, spying on him, so Moe leads him down a back alley, confronts him, and beats the crap out of him. According to the film, Moe was essentially a closeted bisexual – he has a live-in girlfriend and we see a quite funny sex scene where they’re humping on a piano in the living room, but he also sneaks off for sexual trysts with men.

Then, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Moe immediately joins the OSS, showing his Tokyo Bay footage to senior intelligence figures. This is not accurate – he actually spent over a year working for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and didn’t join the OSS until August 1943. But I can see why they skipped over the boring part of his government service.

His early months at the OSS were quite dull as he was put on the Balkans desk, writing analysis reports on the situation in Yugoslavia. He also helped prepare Slavic Americans for parachute drops into the country, to help with the fight against the local fascists. The film misses out this bit, and shows Moe bored at his desk, desperate for some action.

They do show two major missions in the movie. First is when he was part of a small team who went into Italy as it was being taken by American troops, to capture Italian physicists and talk to them about the Nazi nuclear program, how far it had got, who was involved and so on. This is a quite nicely produced bit of action to spice up the middle of the film, as we see Moe and the others on the fringes of the front lines of the war, trying to locate one of these Italian scientists.

The problem is that the film never returns to this pace of action, and if anything slows down in the second half of the story. I found the first half quite engaging – Paul Rudd’s performance as Berg is solid, and captures some of his oddball nature. The rest of the cast includes Jeff Daniels as Wild Bill Donovan, Guy Pearce as another OSS guy, and Paul Giamatti as a Dutch-American scientist advising on the operations around the Nazi nuclear program.

However, the second half descends into a succession of scenes that add up to less than the sum of their parts, as we see Moe being tasked with potentially assassinating Werner Heisenberg. The scientist doesn’t want to kill him, but the others recognise that he is key to Ze Germans developing nuclear weapons, so Moe is sent back to Europe. He is to attend a conference, meet Heisenberg, try to determine if Ze Germans are at all close to a functioning weapons and, if so, kill him.

Another problem this second half faces, aside from flat writing without many peaks or troughs, is that we all know how it ends. The Germans aren’t that close to a bomb, so Moe lets Werner live. The End. There’s no real tension, no surprises, and the stakes are heavy, but feel light.

The other big failing of the film is to portray Moe relatively normally. While the opening part does delve a little into his complex sexuality, the rest of the movie is played quite straight. People keep telling Moe he’s strange but we, the audience, don’t really see that.

I think they got lost in between making three different films – a biopic about this oddball baseballer, a WW2 spy film, and some kind of progressive ‘look at the importance of this gay Jew who was actually bisexual and not that Jewish’ story. They wanted to do all of this, but instead of making it a true character study of a real life person, or a fun action adventure set in WW2, or some sort of discussion about whether historical figures are treated at all equally, they just made a film. It isn’t a terrible film, but given the cast and subject matter it should have been more than a run of the mill historical drama.

Then, there’s the missing pieces. When Moe got bored of writing analysis reports and demanded some action he was transferred to work under John Shaheen, the Chief of Special Projects. We’ve discussed Shaheen before – a senior OSS man who was a consultant on the movie O.S.S. in 1946, the one that called for the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was also an industrialist, though his oil company went bankrupt, was a major donor to Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign and was rewarded with an ambassadorship. Nice work if you can get it.

According to the book of The Catcher Was a Spy, Shaheen and Moe did not get along, or at least Moe didn’t like Shaheen. He would literally hide under desks to avoid having to talk to him, and didn’t trust the man at all. Again, this is the sort of amusing detail that tells us something about both characters, and which could add colour to an otherwise rather monochrome script. But instead, Shaheen doesn’t appear in the movie at all, while screentime is given to a range of miscellaneous scientists and other characters that are far less interesting. Ditto, Shaheen doesn’t appear in the articles about Moe Berg on the CIA’s website.

In captions right at the end of the movie we find out that Moe was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but refused to accept it and never explained why. Just as with the articles on the CIA’s website, there is no mention of his post-war work for the CIA. In 1951 he begged them to send him to Israel but they weren’t interested, so in 1952 he ripped them off for $10,000 plus expenses to supposedly gather info on the Soviet atomic bomb program. According to the book, he basically provided them with no useful information.

This does seem to be a theme of Moe’s time working for the government, as his OSS file is full of papers mentioning various advances of money sent to him that it seems were rarely accounted for, never paid back – or if they were then no one wrote it down anywhere. I imagine you can see why I quite like this guy and the life he led, but it does pose an interesting question:

Were the CIA involved in The Catcher Was A Spy? Much like with the Julia TV show, I am not sure. It seems like something they would be interested in, and I can see why they’d want to keep their own relationship with Moe out of the script and stick to the OSS material, as well as not wanting people to know about Shaheen. As always, if and when I get clarification or paperwork on this question, I will let you know.

Virginia Hall and A Call to Spy

One film that was definitely supported by the CIA was 2019’s A Call to Spy, which is about several female WW2 spies, primarily Virginia Hall. How do we know that the CIA helped to make this film? Well, because someone from the CIA who worked on A Call to Spy told me that. And because the CIA convened a discussion panel between the writer Sarah Megan Thomas, CIA historian Randy Burkett, their museum’s deputy director Janelle, who you may remember from their podcast, and one of their public affairs officers Sara Lichterman. An excerpt from this panel is available on youtube, though whether the person I spoke to about A Call to Spy is any of the people in this video is up to you to guess.

Obviously, the CIA don’t just go around doing promotional discussion panels on any old movie – though they rarely come out and say that they helped make a film. Whenever you listen to them doing some kind of panel or podcast or something and they talk about spy movies, 9 out of 10 of the movies are ones they helped to produce – Argo, Mission: Impossible, The Recruit, Homeland and so on.

As such this video all but confirms their role on A Call to Spy, but we should also look at Sarah Megan Thomas who solely makes stories about women doing things usually thought of as men’s activities. Or at least, that are thought of that way by shallow, dumb people, hence having to keep making the cheap point that ‘women can do that too’.

That might seem reductive, but honestly – she wrote, produced and starred in Backwards in 2012, the first movie about women Olympic rowers, then wrote, produced and starred in Equity in 2016, about women working in the financial sector (because capitalism is ok when it’s done by feminists, or something), and now this, a story of female spies.

Surely, most people are aware that 1) women do sports, 2) women have jobs and 3) there were women spies in WW2. None of these seem like the earth-shattering, prejudice-challenging movies they’re clearly designed to be, but when you read the reviews of them, they are praised to high heaven. We’ll come back to this.

As I say, A Call to Spy mostly focuses on Virginia Hall, a Jewish American lady born in Baltimore in 1906. She studied at Harvard, Colombia and George Washington University before deciding to complete her studies abroad. Much like Julia Child, she evidently came from money.

She got a job in Warsaw working as a consular clerk, but she wanted more. In 1933, during a hunting trip, she fell while carrying a shotgun and shot herself in the leg. Gangrene set in and surgeons removed her lower leg in a bid to save her life, and from then on she walked with a wooden prosthetic. She recovered, went back to working as a consular clerk but dreamed of doing something bigger in the Foreign Service. Virginia made several attempts to become a diplomat, but was barred due to a stupid and obscure rule about not hiring people with disabilities to be diplomats. She even wrote a letter to FDR asking for his help in pursuing her desired career, but it went unheeded. She resigned from the State Department in 1939.

In the early part of the war she worked as an ambulance driver for the French Army, but once France was overrun she fled to Spain where she happened to meet a British intelligence officer, who gave her a number to call in London. This is how Virginia ended up joining the Special Operations Executive – one of a number of British intelligence agencies that would be formed into MI6 after the war was over.

However, in the movie version it is quite different. Thomas said that she did ‘years of research’ prior to writing the script, but it seems she ignored historical fact in favour of foregrounding women and covering up for their lies and mistakes. While the result – A Call to Spy – is not a bad film, it is a shameless piece of feminist revisionism.

As I say, in reality Virginia got into SOE via a man she met in Spain, but in the film they skip over all that and show her being recruited by Vera Atkins. Atkins was a real person who did really work for F Section, recruiting people and preparing them to be dropped into France to help with the Resistance. But she didn’t recruit Virginia Hall, that’s a piece of girlboss bullshit.

Indeed, Atkins has a curious history. Born to a rich Jewish family in Romania her real name was Vera May Rosenberg and she grew up on a large estate in what is now Ukraine, went to the Sorbonne and to a posh finishing school. She moved to London and tried to get British citizenship, working for SOE due to having met some British diplomats in Bucharest who had ties to British intelligence.

However, in the movie she’s portrayed by a Canadian actor putting on an extremely plummy British accent.  There’s simply no way a French-educated Romanian Jew spoke like this.

The more interesting thing about Vera is that in 1940, prior to joining SOE, she travelled to the Low Countries to bribe an Abwehr – German intelligence – officer so he’d provide a passport to enable her cousin to escape Romania. This, too, is left out of the movie, though there’s no way Thomas could not be aware of this part of her story.

In F Section Vera worked under Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, and was responsible for dozens of female spies who were trained, prepared and then sent to France as covert agents. In the film we follow two in particular – Virginia, obviously, but also Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of an aristocratic Indian family whose father was a famous preacher of Sufi Islam. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sufism is a more mystical, pacifist and even occult version of Islam.

Virginia and Noor are shown going through training, with Virginia doing well despite her disability while Noor struggles somewhat, but is a gifted radio operator, sending and receiving coded transmissions. Vera and Maurice decide to send Virginia to France to set up a resistance network in Vichy France, particularly around Lyon. This is all true as far as I can tell, and though the roads are a bit too well swept and the clothes too clean and new for war-torn France, the reconstruction of setting up the network is quite nicely done.

Naturally, you can’t make a film like this without having female characters dwell on how much they hate having to answer to men, and without Virginia telling some guy how it was the male surgeons who decided to chop off her leg and that she was unconscious and it wasn’t her choice, and so on. While the film is supposed to be an homage to female spies of WW2 – and it is, and not a bad one at that – I did tire of the endless feminist crap being shoved in there. Not just because it’s a tedious and insulting ideological agenda regarding a war where it was only men who were conscripted and forced to give their lives for King and country, but also because it deviates from reality.

According to the accounts I’ve read, Virginia was alive and awake and doing fairly well for weeks after the hunting accident, but then gangrene set in and she was either going to lose the leg or die. There wasn’t a choice to be made, really, but the way she tells it in the movie it sounds like she got hurt and when she woke up her leg was gone because some men decided that. It’s a moronic joke of a scene.

Then, there’s the decision to send Noor to France to be a radio operator, sending back coded messages about what the resistance needed, the location of injured people who needed to be flown out at night, and so on. The way the movie tells it, Buckmaster insisted on sending her despite Vera saying she wasn’t ready, but in real life Vera Atkins signed off on her performance evaluations and fully supported the decision.

Then, there’s the fact that the network Virginia set up and ran was infiltrated, compromised by Ze Germans. Both Atkins and Buckmaster failed to realise this, and kept sending in new agents, many of whom were picked off as they landed in France. Noor was captured in October 1943 and her radio was used to send fake messages back to England. While Atkins and Buckmaster were told that Noor had been captured, via a message from a local SOE agent in France, they didn’t trust the message and kept sending in more agents, who in turn ended up captured.

It was a massive intelligence failure which set back the resistance effort, and led to many spies and the resistance fighters they’d recruited on the ground being rounded up and executed. Sara Helm’s 2005 book on Atkins explores the possibility she was a double agent, including the question of her relationship with the Abwehr, but concludes this is probably not the case and it was actually incompetence, fog of war, and terrible mistakes in judgement.

The film avoids this almost entirely. We see the infiltration happening, via a spy being paid off by the Nazis, and we see Noor getting captured and eventually executed. But when Buckmaster tries to blame Atkins, at least in part, for the fuck up she loses her shit at him and says she’s only being scapegoated because she’s Jewish. That absolutely is not true – she was part of the fuck up, and though she carried out an extensive investigation to find out what had happened to the missing spies, that’s far too little, far too late in my opinion.

Indeed, the film goes far out of its way to portray Atkins as a victim – unable to get British citizenship until 1944, supposedly not taken seriously at work even as she ignores protocols and screws up the entire operation, blamed for the fuck up which was her fuck up. Noor is the real victim, but she’s the only one of the three who isn’t Jewish, so her victimhood is downplayed while Virginia’s and Vera’s is front and centre.

Again, this isn’t just objectionable because it’s potentially racist and driven by feminist ideology rather than facts, but also because it makes for a worse movie. The film does, like The Catcher Was a Spy, struggle due to a lack of tension. It’s also shot like a TV show, too close in and narrowly-framed, and there are almost no establishing shots letting you know where things are happening. And very few tonal shots, such as one of chickens pecking around outside the home of one of the resistance fighters – the sort of thing that helps you feel something for these people.

As such, we get just scene, followed by another scene, followed by another scene, followed by yet another scene. There’s no pace or shape to it, just a succession of things that happened in an order. No captions about places or times, no montages indicating time has passed.

Now, if they were making a very by the book, according to fact story I wouldn’t have a problem with this – keep it low key and well grounded. But they’re not, they’re making a homage to female spies to try to score feminist points in an argument that they’re having with no one. But instead of establishing the characters properly, so the audience cares about them, they just twist facts and ignore history in order to turn the two upper class white Jewish women into victims – even though they both survive – while downplaying the imprisonment and death of the non-white Muslim woman, due to a fuck up by one of the upper class white Jewish women which is left out of the script intentionally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah Megan Thomas is a white Jewish woman, but I have no idea whether she’s from an upper class background. Certainly, it’s obvious she was drawn to this story because she saw something of herself in Vera and Virginia – again, she did write, produce and star in this movie as she had with both of her previous features. I’m not saying these are pure vanity projects by a rich white woman who wants to complain about relatively minor things, but let’s be honest – if she was black and working class then her career would look different.

Indeed, the closing caption of the film brings all this together, noting how after working for the SOE, and then the OSS later in the war (when she went back to France and worked with the resistance again), Virginia became ‘the first female CIA agent’. Even though they’re not called agents, they’re called officers. And there is no ‘first CIA officer’ of any gender, it’s not like a company where the founder is employee number one. It was an adaptation of a pre-exisiting agency, the OSS, which Virginia had already worked for.

But ignore all that in favour of the endless repetition of how impressive these women were and going ‘yay, CIA’. Virginia herself certainly was impressive, but Vera Atkins wasn’t, she was a two-faced, double-dealing screw up who spent the whole war hiding behind a desk like some cheese eating surrender monkey.

Before we move on we should note that there is another Virginia Hall movie in the works, due to star Daisy Ridley from Star Wars. It is based on the 2020 book about Virginia, A Woman of No Importance. Get it? Because she was important? But she’s a woman, so we have to make out like she wasn’t taken seriously? Even though she was?

Conclusion: Reviewers Are Full of Shit

Before we wrap up, I do want to dwell on the critical and audience responses to these various products, and a little on why this has all happened in the space of four years – 2018 to 2022.

The Catcher Was a Spy mostly got quite negative reviews from critics – on Rotten Tomatoes is has only 33%, albeit a 50% audience score. On IMDB, where you just get user ratings and they don’t filter responses (as far as I know), it has 6.2 stars out of 10. Not good, but not as humiliatingly bad as the reviewers would have you believe.

Meanwhile, A Call to Spy has 6.7 stars on IMDB, a 77% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 71% critics’ score. And yet, the films are very similar – both have Jewish protagonists, both are period pieces set in World War 2, both are about covert action and spying, both have decent first halves but suffer from a second half that is flat and lacks shape or tone.

So, why such a notable difference? Honestly, it does seem to be about gender and sexuality. Moe Berg was a bisexual man, Virginia Hall was a straight woman. If you read reviews of A Call to Spy, all the really positive ones mention women, how this is an incredible triumph for women in film and female filmmakers and so on. When in reality it’s a fairly mediocre and forgettable piece of OSS propaganda – but because it was written, produced by and stars a woman and the director was a woman and it’s about women, the reviewers felt obliged to praise it, ignore its gross factual inaccuracies about intelligence fuck ups that got dozens of women spies killed (and a fair few men too), and pretend like it isn’t propaganda for both the gender war and for the OSS and CIA.

It’s also rather condescending towards women, especially film makers, since it seems that some reviewers see merely making a film (regardless of historical accuracy or overall quality) as something worthy of maximum praise. As though women and their films shouldn’t be judged by the same standards and criteria by which we judge men and the films they make.

Likewise, while The Catcher Was a Spy does explore the rumours about Moe being bisexual, this is only in the first part of the movie and doesn’t really carry through enough to turn him into a gay icon, and get the pink reviewer vote. Indeed, while several reviewers said he was gay this isn’t true – he is depicted as bisexual, which is still something pushed to the edges of the sexuality discussion. You can be straight up gay, but if you swing both ways you’re a bit like someone being non-binary, people can’t pigeonhole you easily so you get sidelined.

That’s what seems to have happened here, once again showing how liberal identity politics is just as bigoted and simple-minded as the politics it criticises. Personally, I slightly preferred The Catcher Was a Spy to A Call to Spy, but didn’t see much difference between them as far as quality of movie goes.

Which leaves Julia and Julia, where both the documentary and the TV show got strong reviewer and audience scores, which is unsurprising because they are based on someone who was already very popular to begin with. But certainly, both documentary and TV series are good to watch and well made, but not 9 out of 10 good to watch. In this case I really don’t think it’s do with gender or sexuality or the CIA or politics of any kind, and simply that Julia Child was so beloved that if your screen entertainment features her and is well produced, people will love it.

All of which poses the question of whether it is pure coincidence that between 2018 and 2022 we got two documentaries, two movies and a TV drama about OSS figures, which neatly coincided with the 75th anniversary of when the OSS effectively became the CIA? I can’t prove this absolutely, but of course it isn’t coincidence.