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Series Review: The Night Manager, or Why Long Form Storytelling is the Best Vehicle For Spy Narratives

"You'll never be as funny as me, Hiddleston."

The Night Manager is a UK-US mini-series, a collaboration between American AMC and the British BBC, which is one of those powerful collaborations meant to remind people that HBO doesn't have the monopoly on good quality television.

Unlike a regular series, a mini-series has a fixed format and (usually) lasts just a single season. An example of a mini-series that lasted more than one season would be HBO's Rome, which ran for two 10-episode seasons, while the usual single-season mini-series would be HBO’s Band of Brothers. These examples are from a time when HBO still had the monopoly on good quality television.

The Night Manager stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine or Andrew Birch, depending on which side of the espionage ring you’re looking at. He’s been recruited by British intelligence, the glamorously dull MI6, led by Agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), with help from US intelligence Joel Steadman (David Harewood), to bring down notorious arms dealer Richard Roper, played by the delightfully villainous Hugh Laurie. The action shuttles back and forth from Cairo to London to Zermatt (Switzerland) to Istanbul, among other places; a veritable globe-trotter adventure.

With a dog-loving, shorts-wearing globetrotter.

The series has everything a proper spy story should have: murder, betrayal, explosions, espionage, and sex (especially with the hot model Jed played by Elizabeth Debicki). Surprisingly, it works better than the more popular examples of proper spy dramas such as the Mission Impossible and James Bond franchises, and I believe it all boils down to the format. The MI and 007 movies, although part of a series of flicks, are released as individual stand-alone feature-length films, whereas The Night Manager, as a mini-series, utilises long-form storytelling, which works surprisingly well for espionage flicks.

Anyone who’s ever been a spy can attest to the difficulty of playing the long game. First you have to stake out the enemy, find a point of weakness. Then you exploit that weakness and find an opening to infiltrate. Once you’re in, you have to stay hidden, or under the radar, as the case may be. And if you haven’t infiltrated the top level, you work your way up, slowly, carefully.

It all can be summed up in one simple rule: Blow your cover and you’re dead. A two-hour feature length film about espionage, or even about heists (which also plays the long game), does not truly capture the full experience of infiltration and intelligence-gathering. At best, feature films show us highlights of the most exciting moments in the plot. But in espionage, the long game is the plot—the preparation, the waiting, the planning—and only long form storytelling can fully capture the experience of the long game.

And because you have more time, given the length of a mini-series (as compared to the shorter ~2-hour running time of feature films), you have more chances to develop the characters. Although a spy flick is primarily plot-driven, a stronger, more powerful spy narrative would have completely fleshed-out characters, both the spy and the villain. Betrayal is stronger over time: it takes time to win someone’s trust, and it takes time to fully trust another. In long form stories, the audience gets to go along with the ride, getting to decide when a cover is solid, and more or less predicting the repercussions of having that cover blown.

So with these points raised, should all spy flicks have longer running times? Well, not exactly. Some spy and espionage movies tend not to focus on the long game, but on the suspense and the thrill of the chase. After all, in this busy world we live in, who has time for a long form movie?

Ladies, Tom Hiddleston's butt. You're welcome.

The Night Manager. US/UK. 2016.

Original rating: 8.5 / 10
Tom Hollander's character's douchebaggery: - 0.1
No Elizabeth Debicki nudity: - 0.1
Final rating: 8.3 / 10


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