“Little Drummer Girl”: The Lowdown

I spent a fair bit of my Thanksgiving holiday watching the “Little Drummer Girl” mini-series on BBC/AMC, apparently the second film version of the John LeCarre novel of that name. Whether you’ve seen it or not, I’ve done the hard work in this post of distilling everything about it that you need to know.

On the plus side:

  • Yes, the cinematography is as lush and captivating as everyone is saying.
  • Yes, Florence Pugh is hot, and does a great job portraying her character, Charlie.
  • Yes, Alexander Skarsgard is hot, and does a great job portraying his character, Gadi.
  • Yes, they have good chemistry.
  • Yes, Michael Shannon is credible as a Mossad agent, or at least as credible as he needs to be to an audience consisting primarily of non-Mossad agents.
  • Yes, the series is worth watching, even with all of its flaws and at 6 hours’ showing time, and yes, it whets your appetite for the book (which I haven’t read).

On the minus side:

The plot of the film is confusing enough at times to make you think that the book must surely make more sense than this. To avoid spoilers, I’ll let you make your way through the various plot confusions on your own, and assume that you’re enough of a secret agent to make your way out of them.

The plot of the film also strains credulity enough to make you think that the book must surely be more credible than this. As in:

  • Would Mossad really recruit a 22-year-old anti-Zionist English pub actress to function as the central figure in a major counter-terrorist operation?
  • Would British intelligence really give Mossad free rein to run its own essentially unsupervised (but heavily subsidized and supported) intelligence/counter-terrorism operation on British soil?

If the answers to both questions are “no,” as I think they are, “Little Drummer Girl” starts to look more like science fiction than political thriller. (Incidentally, the head of British intelligence is somewhat tendentiously played by Charles Dance, depicted here as a stereotypical anti-Semitic twit, a characterization essentially continuous with the Tywin Lannister he  plays on “Game of Thrones.”)

And then, like so many films on this subject, “Little Drummer Girl” embodies one of the primordial clichés of Zionist piety: evidently, the emotional heart of the Israel/Palestine dispute is not the conflict itself, but the hand-wringing, tear-jerking angst felt by civilized Israelis for the brutal things they’ve “had to do” to inscrutably uncivilized Palestinians. Ultimately, every decision in “Drummer Girl” involves an anguished inquiry of the form:

Should we, forced by necessity, commit some barbarity? Or should we, by appeal to our conscience, refrain?

Naturally, the formula for mulling things over is to jump into bed, have a fumble under the sheets, then jump out, find someone out there with a funny moustache and Arab accent, and blow his fucking head off.

No matter how much sympathy “Little Drummer Girl” tries to conjure up for its Palestinian victims (or how little), the story it tells revolves around the love story of Charlie, the sexy anti-Zionist ingenue, and Gadi, her sexy Israeli handler–the latter an idealistic soldier who does the best he can to reconcile his humanitarian impulses with the ruthless imperatives of his profession, always to the detriment of the former. Though “Al Nakba,” Deir Yasin, and the 1967 occupation lurk vaguely and elusively in the film’s shadows, they play no essential role in the plot—not that the average American viewer would either know or care. (The action of the film takes place in 1979.)

While I think “Little Drummer Girl” is ultimately worth watching, I would, for purposes of balance, suggest watching it in tandem with “Omar,” a 2013 drama on the same topic, but told from a consistently Palestinian point of view. I happened to have watched it in Abu Dis, the West Bank town in which it was shot, with a Palestinian audience (predominantly female) that was invited to discuss it after the viewing.

My Palestinian friends are somewhat divided on the merits of “Omar,” the more cynical and hyper-critical describing it as bullshit that strains credulity, and the more charitable describing it as “a good try.” That said, I’m inclined to think that if you’re going to ingest one kind of bullshit, you may as well ingest a contrasting kind in the hopes that the ingestion of contrasting forms of bullshit leads to insight that can’t be gotten from one. But “bullshit” also strikes me as an overly cynical account of either film. At least I think it does.

The Wikipedia entry for “Little Drummer Girl” describes the ending of the book in this way:

Charlie subsequently has a mental breakdown caused by the strain of her mission and her own internal contradictions.

I don’t blame her. I nearly had one myself after my first trip back from the region—as I think almost anyone would, assuming they went to the right places and saw the right things. The film conveys only the shadows of this, captivated for obvious reasons by the love story at its center rather than the politics at its periphery. The combination of “Little Drummer Girl” and “Omar” does more than either one on its own at highlighting “internal contradictions,” but if you really want to experience a dialectical meltdown, nothing beats being there. I long for the film that conveys the experience of being there, but until then, I’m content to watch Pugh, Skarsgaard, Shannon & Co. go at it, whether under the covers, or over the top. It’s all in good fun, which I guess is more than can be said of the conflict itself.

18 thoughts on ““Little Drummer Girl”: The Lowdown

  1. You say it’s worth watching, but what you go on to say after that makes it sound…not worth watching. I suppose this may just show that you’re not quite as cranky and unforgiving about film and television as you sometimes seem (I still haven’t seen Hereditary, but pretty much everybody else I heard from about it really liked it…). I myself am not sure why I have an apparently limitless tolerance for some sorts of things while having little patience for others; I’m really untroubled by lapses from realism, for instance, but I have ended up in unpleasant, friendship-complicating disputes over my grumpy reactions to otherwise well-made movies that have seemed to me to aim solely at playing on my emotional expectations and then disappointing them for the sheer hell of it (The Science of Sleep: is it a dream? who knows!? you don’t! but wasn’t it just so quirky!?), or that end up subordinating it all to some wildly simplistic ideological message (Brideshead Revisited: Catholicism ruins people’s lives), or that trivialize and glorify violence while pretending to problematize it in some superficial way (The Boondock Saints: beautiful people are good, bad people are ugly, what a badass shootout, oh sure people will debate about the merits of vigilante justice; many things by Tarantino: look, an interesting, charming character that we will follow for a while, oh, whoops, nope, dead quite unexpectedly and randomly because screw you, viewer). I suspect it’s because I have low expectations for certain things and so do not really hold them to any standards, while movies and shows that are well made in other respects lead me to expect more even when I ought to know better. I’m not sure which category this one would fall into. I hadn’t heard of it until your post, though, and it initially looked like some kind of Hallmark Channel holiday special, so I was deeply confused for about 20 seconds about why you were writing about it.


    • Well, I know I said that the post tells you “everything” you need to know about the film, but that is the kind of bullshit I tend to say and ought not to be taken seriously. I was obviously just fixating on the bad, and making a pro forma nod to the good–my forte. But, to quote Portia, you press me far and I shall yield.

      Despite all the criticisms I made, watching it was six hours well spent. And this comes from someone with a very low tolerance for TV. (I’m disappointed that you weren’t suitably impressed with my “Game of Thrones” reference, by the way, which could also have been a “Jewel in the Crown” reference if I’d really wanted to show off.)

      First, everything I said on the plus side could in principle have been elaborated on at greater length than the stuff I said on the minus side. Start with the totally “superficial.” A film is in part a visual experience, and as sheer visual experience, this was good stuff. I know how unapologetically superficial and bi-curious-flaunting this sounds, but I enjoy looking at beautiful people, whether male or female, so there was no shortage of that. The cinematography (Greece and Slovakia) was almost worth the price of the movie. (Granted, I saw it for free, but time is money.) Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard romping and rolling through Greece and Slovakia is almost good enough for me on its own.

      Second, as I intimated in the original post, the casting and acting were superb.

      Third, yes, the plot was “at times” confusing and in some respects lacking in credibility. But “at times” confusing in a six hour film is not that big a deal, even if it leads to a few too many conversations like this:

      Alison: What the fuck just happened?
      Irfan: What do you mean? They’re going to bomb it.
      Alison: Where are they? Is it Munich or London?
      Irfan: She just left Beirut.
      Alison: So she’s in Paris?
      Irfan: I think she slept with him in London. Wow. They make a nice couple.
      Alison: So they’re in Austria? Are they bombing Austria or London? I’m confused.
      Irfan: Do you find Alexander Skarsgard hot?

      And so on. But this kind of thing often happens when a film is made of a book with a complex plot. I strongly suspect that the book fills in the details. So I’m intrigued to read it.

      Yes, the less credible features of the plot do require a major suspension of disbelief. But again, not that big a deal, as follows: Would Mossad actually have recruited a 22 year old English gal to play a major role in a counter-terrorism operation? Probably not, but intelligence agencies do so many fucked up things that you never know. Take for instance the Lavon Affair, which really happened:


      Would British intelligence have allowed Mossad to engage in operations all around the English countryside? I doubt it and fucking hope not. But then, this actually happened:


      All five Israelis made it out of the country to tell their story on Israeli TV. Hard to believe that they were really “movers.” And then consider the degree of cooperation between our police and military and the Israeli police and military, anyway. Or consider what Sascha Baron Cohen was able to get away with.

      That’s not quite the same as allowing Mossad to do its own operations here, but it’s half way there, and suspended disbelief can traverse the rest.

      As for the Zionist piety I mentioned, it’s so ubiquitous that if I let it bother me, I’d never be able to read or watch anything about Israel/Palestine that gets published or shown in this country.

      So take all that and add this: on the plus side, the plot is gripping and exciting. And though the film doesn’t do justice to the issue, the film is insightful on the disintegration of Charlie’s personality under the competing pressures she’s under. She’s an anti-Zionist successfully recruited into Mossad, and a Mossad agent who gets bombed by the Israeli Air Force; she’s in love with her Israeli handler, himself a complex figure, and half in love with the Palestinian men she entraps. That’s an interesting and at some generic level, a plausible predicament to put a character in. It also nicely captures the experience of engagement in the Arab-Israeli dispute: unless you’re a dogmatic partisan of one side or the other, you’re apt at times to feel pushed and pulled by different dimensions of each side’s case against the other. If you regard yourself, let’s say, as fundamentally pro-Palestinian, there will be times when some aspect of the Zionist or Israeli case will strike you as having merit that Palestinian partisans don’t sufficiently appreciate or understand. And at times like that, you’ll feel like a “traitor” to your cause. The film is an interesting study in betrayal and self-betrayal–occupational hazards of immersion in the Israel/Palestine dispute.

      I get the sense that the book does a better job at capturing the complexities than the film (that’s what LeCarre is known for), but that’s what books do. And even here there is a real-life approximation:

      Little Drummer Girl (the novel) was a big deal when it came out (in 1983). I remember it well: I was 14 at the time, and everyone, it seemed, was reading it (except me–because I was reading Hermann Hesse). So in the spirit of “better late than never,” I’m going to read it now. I suspect that it will be an enjoyable read, and I have the film to thank for it.


  2. I haven’t read the book either, but I’ve read enough Le Carré to make two predictions:

    a) Sympathetically portrayed agents agonising about doing morally dubious things, but then doing them anyway, is a frequent theme in Le Carré, so that part is likely to be true to the book and layable at Le Carré’s door. (Though in fairness, sympathetically portrayed agents agonising about doing morally dubious things, and then consequently NOT doing them, or even doing the opposite instead, is ALSO a frequent theme in Le Carré, Admittedly, one could still worry that the focus is on the agonising agents and not on the lives they’re impacting, which would be a fair criticism of much of his work. On the other hand, they say “write what you know,” and he does know more about being a conflicted agent than about being an ordinary person either screwed over or protected by such agents.)

    b) Failures of realism are much LESS likely (albeit not impossible) to be layable at Le Carré’s door.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds just right. My only prior exposure to Le Carre was the film version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” (with Gary Oldman) which struck me as brilliant, and is one of my all-time favorite movies. I unfortunately developed a prejudice against Le Carre after his comments on the Rushdie affair, and without quite “boycotting” him, developed a reflexive aversion for anything having to do with him, and so, ended up not reading him.


      But I’m now willing to put my feud with Le Carre behind me.


        • Awesome (re your post).

          This gives a somewhat better sense of Stage 2 of the Le Carre/Rushdie feud, with piling-on by Christopher Hitchens:


          Would take awhile to dig out Stage 1, but I still agree with the Rushdie/Hitchens line on this: Le Carre really did side with Rushdie’s assailants at just the time when they were threatening his life. He minimizes it here, and minimized it yet further as their feud ended in 2012. So he had to take some liberties with the truth to end the feud. But he did work for British intelligence, after all…”Write what you know.”


          • Poking around on the intertubes I find this from Stage 1:

            While calling the death sentence outrageous, John le Carré agreed. “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity,” the spy novelist told The New York Times in May 1989. “I am mystified that he hasn’t said: ‘It’s all a mess. My book has been wildly misunderstood, but as long as human lives are being wasted on account of it, I propose to withdraw it.’ I have to say that would be my position.” Le Carré elaborated in “Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death” (1990), a biography by W.J. Weatherby. At a time when the leading American bookstore chains refused to carry the novel out of concern for their employees’ safety, “again and again, it has been within his power to save the faces of his publishers and, with dignity, withdraw his book until a calmer time has come,” le Carré said. “It seems to me he has nothing more to prove except his own insensitivity.” Le Carré also questioned defending the book on literary merit alone: “Are we to believe that those who write literature have a greater right to free speech than those who write pulp? Such elitism does not help Rushdie’s cause, whatever that cause has now become.”


  3. Pingback: The Spy Who Wrote Me | Austro-Athenian Empire

  4. With the grades submitted, I’m allowed to have a life again, so I’ve decided to read some Le Carre. These two reviews of Little Drummer Girl convey some of the excitement and attraction of the novel. Whatever its flaws–and despite the snarkiness of my post–I’m still inclined to say that the mini-series is good enough to hint at the virtues of the book and induce the viewer to read it.

    The first review is by Anatole Broyard, the second by William F. Buckley, both in The New York Times back in 1983.


    I find it interesting that both reviewers praise Le Carre’s ability to get inside both the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives in a plausible way, and that Buckley criticizes the novel in ways that echo my criticisms of the mini-series:

    The Israeli Schulmann, determined to track down the Palestinian Khalil, has decided (most implausibly) on the attractive instrument for the entrapment – the touring actress, halfgypsy, half flower child, Charlie. And so he kidnaps her and begins a brainwashing operation that in most circumstances would cause the reader to smile with condescending incredulity. Consider the girl being interrogated thoroughly so that the supersleuth can learn literally all he can about her, the better to manipulate the penetration of the terrorist network.

    But Buckley excuses that in the novel, as I more or less did in the mini-series, because there’s something overridingly valuable about this aspect of Le Carre, which is more than one gets from a lot of writers on this topic:

    Is there a message in ”Drummer Girl”? Yes. A quite earnest one. It is that the intensity with which the Israelis defend what they have got can only be understood if one understands the intensity with which the Palestinians resent what it is that they have lost.

    I’m not a big fan of Buckley’s, but he nails that. Call it blasphemy, but instead of keeping the Christ in Christmas this year, I’m going to replace JC with JlC. Merry leCarremas to everyone.


    • A long time ago I read one of Buckley’s thrillers (Stained Glass, I think) and wasn’t particularly impressed. He’s certainly not in JLC’s league. But I’m glad he can recognise JLC’s talent even if he can’t equal it.


      • What does one make of the fact that Buckley’s novel Stained Glass and Judas Priest’s album Stained Class came out within a month of each other during the same year (February and March, 1978)? I haven’t read Stained Glass, but I have listened to Stained Class, and I suspect that this is a case where Buckley could neither recognize talent nor equal it.

        I went to the library and discovered to my horror that they didn’t have Little Drummer Girl (where are my tax dollars going, anyway?), so I borrowed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy along with Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, applying my standard test to determine which of the two to read: read the first page or two of each, and make a spot judgment about which one does a better job at drawing me in.

        No contest: Le Carre, 1; Eco: 0. If I didn’t make a conscious effort to put it down, I’d have read the book in one sitting.


    • An even less impressive thriller, that I read even longer ago (age 12 — when the book had just come out) is The Canfield Decision by none other than Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a review from the time:


      I haven’t revisited the book, but I doubt my judgment would be any kinder today.

      I’ve always assumed that it was ghostwritten, but poking around on the web turns up no evidence of this, so maybe he really wrote it. In which case I’d say it’s actually better than you’d expect, for a book written by someone with no experience or prior interest in fiction writing. That’s not a high bar, mind.


  5. I have read LDG many times and taught it. The series I found pro zionist and compared to tinker tailor not very good; splashy and well filmed yes but that is all. The book is different. First it is plausible; Israeli officials told Le Carre they could imagine launching such an operation. Second we are so used to Facebook propaganda that we have forgotten what actually changes peoples minds. This is the only book I taught that made people question the zionist narrative and I mentioned this to Edward Said. You have to make the Israelis look good at least at first–otherwise you lose the rationale for fighting them You have to make them look better than they are or what you end up with is propaganda.Pontecorvo understood this when he made Battle of Algiers. Le Carre carefully but relentlessly deconstructs the zionist narrative. He has said he would have made it more explicitly pro palestinian had know about Sabra and Shatlla. i would not teach it now because we live in a culture where everything has to be spoon fed to us

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. After writing that post, I went out and read Little Drummer Girl twice (and also read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Pigeon Tunnel). I have a very different take on LDG-the-novel than you, one that mostly echoes my take on the series. I don’t think LeCarre relentlessly deconstructs the Zionist narrative, or confines his “making the Israelis look good” to the beginning of the book. Very little of the book takes issue with Zionism per se; some of it takes issue with Israel’s methods, focusing on the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was taking place as LeCarre wrote the book. But at least 80% of the book focuses on the moral deliberations, loves, and agonies of the Mossad agents; the Palestinian characters (Salim, Khalil, Fatima, and Captain Tayeh) make cameo appearances by comparison. Given that imbalance, LeCarre manages to humanize the Israelis in ways he doesn’t humanize the Palestinians.

      That said, I think it’s a brilliant novel, not quite as good as Tinker, Tailor (which is admittedly a hard act to follow) but still very much worth reading. And LeCarre is head and shoulders above 90% of the Anglo-American intellectual class on Israel/Palestine, so I don’t want to come across as overly critical. I can see how people might be influenced by LDG in the way you describe. I’m curious to know how Edward Said responded when you mentioned it to him. I vaguely seem to remember that he mentions LeCarre somewhere, but I can’t remember where.

      Anyway, I’m going to be doing a post, “Little Drummer Girl Revisited,” where I discuss this at length. That’ll be maybe a week or two from now, so I hope you’ll come and visit the blog again when I post it.


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