Family of Spies (1990)

Not a costume drama, not a story of the rich and famous, not a saga, and not filled with a parade of stars, “Family of Spies” is something of a miniseries step-child.  It’s a true story about a naval officer who decided to make more money spying and tangled his family in the treacherous web.  What makes this one so special is the writing and the acting.  Both are so crisp and believable that this plays like a spy novel, with the ending never clear, the heroes and villains equally questionable. 

John Walker (Powers Boothe) is the Chief Petty Officer and a code breaker on a submarine in 1967.  Within the first few minutes of the movie, it’s shown to be quite an exciting job, missing Soviet submarines  and doing it with a sense of humor that has the whole crew loving him.

Back on dry land, his wife Barbara (Lesley Ann Warren) knows he’s cheating on her, a lot.  In fact, one of the dim blondes he’s been seeing shows up at the bar she runs to bluntly tell her she expects John to leave his family to marry her.  Barbara has a bit of an inferiority complex going, thinking she’s not good or bright enough for him.  The minute he disembarks she confronts him about it, but that good-natured charm wins her back to smiling, though he has to go out that night, supposedly to raise money to keep their bar afloat. 

He’s off to a bar, but it’s not his own and he hits on every woman.  “With your body, you know what would look good on you?” he asks a waitress whose bottom  he has slapped and into whose cleavage he has tucked money.  “Me,” he answers with a laugh.  Yeah, he’s that guy.  Actually, he’s at the bar to meet his brother to ask for money.  His brother can’t help, but he does talk about a friend who made extra money on the side with the mob.  When he gets home, he greets his son with, “it’s just us against the bitches” and then breaks down the door to his bedroom that Barbara has locked in anger.  Yeah, he’s that guy. 

John’s job involves top secret code breaking (we know it’s top secret because everything is stamped with “top secret,” like that’s not a dead giveaway that something valuable is lurking if it falls into enemy hands).  One day, he goes to the Soviet Embassy with an idea.  He offers them “classified documents” and actually shows up with code breakers to prove he means business.  Gutsy move, huh?  The Soviets don’t exactly say yes without at least checking up on him.  He’s nervous and doesn’t want to be late for his watch duty.  They do ask him a legitimate question, if his motives are political or financial.  Purely financial and they respect that.  Nervous as he was going into it, he’s thrilled leaving.  It was almost too easy. 

In no time, he’s moving his family into a glamorous apartment, throwing money at his wife to “fix up this place any way you want.”  He tells Barbara he has a second job selling cars.  For now, it’s easier not to ask any questions.  He gives his son his own room because, “you’re too old to be sleeping with the bitches now.”  You really want to punch this guy. 

John meets his Soviet counterpart, Boris one (Jeremy Krabbe) who tells him how much money he can make and what specific information the Soviets want.  He also warns him not to spend money; it’s too suspicious (too late).  Their first meeting at a museum, where John is given a crypto-device is right out of a spy novel, and square-jawed Powers Boothe fits the part.  Watching this story long after the Cold War has ended (it was made in 1990, when Communism was collapsing, but still potent), it’s somewhat comical, but in 1967, cloak and dagger operations were extremely serious.

None of his coworkers think his behavior is strange, but his wife does go digging into his drawer, prying open his drawer.  She then waits for him to come home with a cigarette and drink.  She’s also left everything she found on his desk so he would know she had been in there.  “You have your life and I have mine,” he blithely tells her, but Barbara is pissed, worried about her family’s safety.  As she’s throwing the money at him, he knocks her to the ground.  He actually tries to justify it, and explains because he’s been so afraid, that’s why he hasn’t made love to her.  Wow, he sure knows how to pile on the crap! But, she’s rather desperate, so she buys it and they end up kissing. 

By 1970s, he’s old hat at the whole spying thing.  But, the military brass has noticed that the Soviet submarine system seems to know every move they are making.  Captain Burnett (Gordon Clapp) wonders if codes are being broken.  John has moved his family to California and swears to Barbara he’s out of the spy game, “just a sailor.”  Barbara believes what she wants to believe, but the war in Vietnam and all the dead bodies on the naval base are making her very fidgety.  And then she discovers a loose tile in the garden.  She finds all the evidence that her husband is still very much a spy.  She actually burns the evidence, including cash. 

When John gets home, Barbara is drunk and holding a gun.  She has a job as a restaurant cashier and says she doesn’t need him anymore.  “You made me what I am, you bastard,” she tells him, but he’s a nasty piece, grabs the gun and starts shooting it all over the room.  “No divorce.  It’s not good for my security clearance,” he spits out.  When he tells her he wants to have sex with her, he also notes, “I brought you a little present from Hong Kong.”  Wow, he just gets more bad ass with every passing year!

We then jump ahead to 1975.  The navy stages an operation that will tell them once and for all if someone is furnishing them with secrets.  There is even some suspicion about John Walker.  When the naval operation turns up a positive reaction from the Soviets, the commander scowls, “Ivan [code name for the Soviets] isn’t reading our mind.  He’s reading our mail.”  His security clearance is up for renewal, but he’s more interested in the ladies, particularly a pretty divorcee who hops into bed with him after only a few sentences in a bar, while his wife passes out in front of the TV and has to be cleaned up by her son.  However, John wants this woman for more than just her body.  She’s the one who has been assigned to check into his clearance issues.  He fixes that issue and remains hidden, he thinks, both by sleeping with her and by forging documents. 

There’s a really creepy scene back at home where John has one daughter massaging him and one daughter bringing him cold beer as if that’s all women are good for.  Barbara watches from the kitchen, smoking and wear sunglasses.  It gets even weirder when one of the daughters volunteers to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” 

Captain Lennox (John Wesley) figures out something is going on with the security clearance.  Something about a pink copy instead of a white copy or vice versa, but John has a leg up on the navy even if they were to find something out: he’s retiring, and he hands Lennox his papers with the cockiest of smiles.  No longer in the navy, he is finally willing to give Barbara a divorce, and one from her “brats” too.  He smashes up the place and bolts.  Before leaving, he gives his son his private phone number, not to be used by “the bitches.”  He’s a bit paranoid because he insists that they have code names.  “Don’t let the bitches get you down,” he says and hurries off.  The Soviets are not happy with his retirement and summon him to Vienna.

Boris and his superiors are not happy that John has retired and broken access, but John is confident his replacement can handle the job, though the Soviets aren’t in for trusting someone new.  It was probably not a wise idea to go snapping at Boris.

By 1978, Barbara and John are divorced and Barbara is working at a factory and she’s a grandmother.  Son Michael (Andrew Lowery) is thinking of helping his father in his new detective business, but Barbara is furious.  John’s replacement, Jerry Whitworth (Graham Beckel) has lasted only two years before deciding to quit.  John rather melodramatically tells him the Soviets will kill him if he tries to get out, pulling out countless news articles about dead spies.  John neglected to tell Jerry he was giving information to the Soviets, pretending it was the Israelis all along.  John has one hell of a defense prepared.  “There have always been spies…maybe it’s better if the two countries don’t have any secrets,” he says, having convinced himself of it long before he spits out that drivel to Jerry. 

John’s daughter Laura (Lili Taylor) wants to join the army, but needs some money, so she calls Dad, who is busy with a doll in bed at the time.  He of course has plenty of money on hand and seems genuinely happy to have a daughter going into the armed services.  Though Barbara cannot fight to keep her children away from their father, she does caution Laura not to trust him, “no matter what he says.” 

Once out of the army, John goes back to hating Laura, who is now married, pregnant and living in a trailer.  “But, you’re my daughter and I’ll help you,” he grudgingly says, as long as she stays in the army.  He tells her point blank to put the baby up for adoption, even though both she and her husband want the baby.  Here’s the kicker: “I can help you make some real money as long as you stay in the army.”  Explaining that his spy career is like the Mafia, and starts to spill the beans on his operation, handing her a wad of cash to prove his point. 

Son Michael is cause for Barbara to worry.  He is on probation, drinking and even…gasp…having sex!  He plans to go live with his father, but Barbara begs him not to go.  I really have to give Lesley Ann Warren credit for her performance here.  The story really belongs to Powers Boothe, and he’s excellent, but totally cast against type, Lesley Ann Warren matches him.  An actress with so much natural vitality is given a role of the dowdy drunk harridan and it’s not easy to make something of that.  Unfortunately, the moment she picks to tell Michael that his father is a spy she’s pretty drunk and he laughs it off.

Caught between his sleazy detective father and his drunken mother, Michael naturally picks the former.  Dad gets him drunk at nudie bars, so the decision couldn’t have taken much teenage thought.

By 1982, Jerry has decided he’s had enough.  He wants to retire, and John is not happy.  They have one more year until Jerry’s retirement goes through, but you can see where this is leading.  Michael is expected to join the navy, and that plan would be fine except his new girlfriend opens his eyes to the fact that he can be independent from his father (on Independence Day, no less, which leads to a groaning pun in an otherwise gorgeous script).  Michael joins the navy and it doesn’t come a moment too soon, because the Soviets are not happy with Jerry’s work.  Film is hazy and they think he’s not doing his job, Boris tells him, before giving him a special pen since it’s their last meeting.  It’s obviously some sort of death instrument, but John doesn’t heed the warning.  He is chased around the city by Soviet goons and then decides to go back to his daughter Laura, volunteering to adopt her child so she can re-enlist.  He’s in hot water and is not above using his family members.  Father of the Year he will never be. 

Michael is still enlisted, and asks his girlfriend to marry him as soon as he gets home from a tour.  However, he also tells her that he wants a vasectomy because he doesn’t want kids.  At least someone in the family has good sense.  Luckily, Rachel doesn’t want any either, so that’s settled neatly.  “It’s too easy to mess up kids,” he tells her.  Before the wedding, on the beach, no less, John tells his son about his real work, giving that same Mafia speech, but giving him a fuller description than he gave his daughter. 

Luckily for John, Michael agrees to the scheme and sets off to be trained as a spy.  If only there were manuals for this thing, instead of an overbearing father.  Soon, though, Michael is fully into the family business, though his initial attempts are not very smooth.  And oops, his wife finds some secret documents in his stuff.  Rachel is pretty bright  and wants him out of it all.  So, he calls Barbara and asks her to visit.  Rachel meets Barbara at the airport and tells her she wants to turn in John while she’s there. 

Since John lives near Michael, Barbara storms into his office and threatens to turn him in (he’s also owes her a lot of alimony).  Michael is in the middle.  She doesn’t know Michael is involved yet and John has that over him, so he wants Michael to call her off.  Michael is worried that if Barbara finds out he’s involved, she’ll kill herself.  “She won’t kill herself, there’s too much left to drink,” her ex snorts.  Plus, John reminds Michael that if he goes down, they both go down. 

In 1985, Michael is off on another tour and begs Barbara not to say anything about John, lying to her that he’s not involved to spare her that pain.  But, as soon as he’s on the ship, he’s spying, lucky because when he’s caught, it’s by the stupidest man ever promoted above deck duty.  Michael is actually rooting through a bin of top secret trash (it’s marked that way), saying he threw something out by accident and he’s looking for it.  No one questions that fib.

Barbara can take no more and calls the FBI.  They come to her and she tells the whole story.  She’s drinking during the interview, which doesn’t help her case.  She remembers Jerry’s name, barely, but the agent still thinks she’s just an angry drunk ex-wife.  At the FBI, they put her story in “the crazy file,” but someone there is impressed by the details she knows and has it written up.  Plus, Laura backs up her story. 

The FBI finally begins to take it seriously and they launch a full investigation.  Michael starts to worry and calls John, who decides it’s time to take care of Barbara.  He invites her to Virginia, gun loaded, and the FBI claims they can’t offer protection because he’ll figure it out.  They know he checks his phone and van for tracers, so they really can’t easily track him.  That gives one confidence: the criminals are smarter than the people who are supposed to protect us.  Oh, but you say, this was 1985 and there are no more Soviet spies.  True, but we do have other enemies escaping capture.

Anyway, this isn’t a political treatise but an anthropological study of a dead genre.  John and Barbara get together.  She goads him about his girls and he says he’s broke.  The scene is a great bit of cat-and-mouse writing, with calm collected Powers Boothe retaining the upper hand against nervous jittery Lesley Ann Warren.  To try to throw her off the scent, he not only kisses her, but gives her money. 

The FBI decides to track him and his supposed counterpart, though the surveillance looks about as threatening as the villains in episode of The Bionic Woman.  However, they do get the evidence on a botched drop and he knows it, waiting in a hotel room by himself, gun to his head.  And then, naturally, the phone rings.  The hotel desk calls to say his van has been in an accident, the FBI’s ploy to get him out of the door alive.  I bet he wished he had that special Soviet pen right about now.  They arrest him, though he is cocky even as they do.  Michael is arrested on the ship, with everyone on the ship yelling at the yellow spy. 

Barbara finds out about Michael from the television and dissolves into hysterics.  The movie ends with father and son in prison. 

Because this movie was released in 1990, there are obviously some changes.  Barbara was not prosecuted because of her role in exposing the case, though the Soviets claimed their side actually did more to expose him.  Michael was sent to prison, but released in 2000.  John’s brother Arthur and his friend Jerry are still in prison, not eligible for parole until long after they will be dead.  As for John, he will be eligible for parole in 2015, but according to various online sources, he’s suffering from a host of ailments, including stage IV cancer.

“Family of Spies” is a hard miniseries to categorize.  It’s obviously not romance, but is it adventure or history?  Both, but I think it belongs with adventure.  The story is told in total truth, but the way it’s told is pure adventure.  There are tense scenes and Soviet codes, drunken ex-wives and mind control.  If it weren’t a true story, it would be fascinating fiction and would easily be classed as adventure.

And once again, I have to give credits to the two remarkable leads.  Powers Boothe is even better here than in his Emmy-winning role as Jim Jones.  He’s much nastier and much more suave here, a man so desperate that he believes his spying is the equal of movie Mafia chiefs.  And Lesley Ann Warren, who spent a lot of time in romantic miniseries drivel like “Evergreen” and “Beulah Land” gives one of her finest performances ever, certainly a complete 180 from her all-time greatest, playing dizzy Norma in “Victor/Victoria.”

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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