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Because of its shocking content, I could never recommend Red Sparrow. Yet the fact that it was made at all—with Hollywood’s third-highest-paid actress, no less—seems worthy of attention.
Like the popular cable drama The Americans, Red Sparrow takes socialism seriously. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a modern-day prima ballerina with the Bolshoi. But, for all her talent, her livelihood is entirely dependent on the Russian government. Once she suffers a career-ending injury, she learns her country will provide only a bare subsistence for her and her sick mother. Her uncle, a highly placed official, offers Dominika the option to serve as a “sparrow”—a secret agent trained to kill, lie, and, most importantly, seduce.
In a typical spy flick, Dominika’s “training” would probably look sexy. But Red Sparrow isn’t typical. In a series of pathetic and gross encounters, she’s taught that because the government nourishes her body, it also owns it. If the state wants to use her flesh to manipulate other flesh, it’s her duty as a patriot to choke down her disgust and submit to degradation. She does, not to serve her country, but to stay alive. However, when she seduces an American agent who cares more about individuals than ideologies, her survival mentality is disrupted. She further discovers the moral consequences of her form of government when she uncovers a Russian double agent.
Notwithstanding Red Sparrow’s explicit violence and sexual content, it’s a rare film that casts the American ideal in a positive light and contrasts it darkly with real rather than theoretical socialism. It’s a shame it does so with such raw, R-rated material when a more restrained hand could have still gotten the point across. Of course, the less interesting content about “female sexual agency in a male power structure” is what most of the media are homing in on. And isn’t that what the spy game is all about? The sleight of hand that makes you look at the shiny, temporary thing rather than the deeper message being transmitted behind it.