The mere mention of a WWII-era spy movie based on a true story is enough to make the ears of dads everywhere perk up from miles away. And if nothing else, Operation Mincemeat does enough to ensure the attention of that demographic: There’s a built-in audience for a somewhat dry historical film, and they’ll find plenty to like here. But while it’s a perfectly acceptable addition to the genre, it perhaps doesn’t make full use of how extraordinary its story actually is. Operation Mincemeat is content to rest on the considerable talents of its stars, Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, but it lacks a flair for the dramatic that such a wild espionage plot truly deserves.
The events of the film take place in the darkest days of WWII, when the entire might of the British intelligence apparatus is devoted to turning the tide against Nazi Germany by any means necessary. The military is planning an invasion of Sicily, but because it’s so heavily fortified, they need to convince Nazi brass that they’re actually planning on invading Greece. And the deception must be total: Germany has to be so convinced of this that they’ll move their armies accordingly, otherwise Allied troops will be walking into a meat grinder.
To that end, Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen) launch a scheme that’s so crazy it just might work: Operation Mincemeat. They plan to fake a plane crash off the coast of neutral Spain, where the lone body of a British officer will wash ashore in possession of top-secret documents seemingly confirming plans to invade Greece. These documents will then find their way into the hands of Nazi spies, who will pass the intelligence up the chain of command and provide what appears to be proof of British military movements. Its outlandishness is its greatest asset: If it works, the Germans will believe it simply because the idea of British intelligence signing off on such a harebrained scheme is too preposterous.
But the fact that Operation Mincemeat has a fascinating real-life piece of spycraft at its heart does little to overcome the script’s failure to translate that into an exciting film. Most of Operation Mincemeat is devoted to its main cast of characters sitting around discussing the plan as they painstakingly build an entire Officer of the Royal Navy from scratch, which certainly isn’t the most visually engaging concept. For it to really work, the weight of the audience’s interest needs to fall on the characters and how engaged we are with them. The cast does its best, but there are weaknesses here as well. The burgeoning romance between Firth’s Montagu and Kelly MacDonald’s Jean feels forced and unconvincing, a subplot that is given far more screentime than it deserves.
Macfadyen wrings empathy from the quiet, awkward Cholmondeley, who seems cursed to go through life thoroughly unappreciated. (This proves, once again, that when it comes to making a meal out of unassuming, overlooked office drone types with hidden depths, Macfadyen is unmatched.) His character, convincingly developed and likable as it is, feels as though it should operate at the center of the film. But he’s frustratingly pushed to the side as Operation Mincemeat puts all its eggs in less interesting baskets. Furthermore, the film goes to the trouble of casting Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming, the future writer of James Bond, only to give him almost nothing to do. It’s yet another example of Operation Mincemeat stubbornly refusing to play to its strengths.
Things only really start to pick up once the plot is actually unfolding – there’s genuine tension as Spanish officials don’t operate as predicted, and despite all their careful planning, English diplomats have to make moves in real-time that will determine its success or failure. One can imagine a version of this film with its narrative restructured to focus on the actual mission, with flashbacks to the planning period, which would perhaps have conveyed more excitement. Operation Mincemeat may stand on its own merits, but it rarely rises above the level of competent but dull.