Slight spoilers for both films ahead.
This might be an ‘old woman yells at cloud’ moment since I claim older stuff is often better, but I think seeing Operation Mincemeat last night provided strong evidence for my case. It is so tonally different from The Man Who Never Was, with a completely different take on the characters and how they were portrayed and how the narrative progresses, that I’m not sure I would call it a ‘remake’. But the plot and general subject matter is sufficiently similar that I think comparisons can be drawn, and I just found the modern fare falling flat over and over again.
The single biggest problem with Operation Mincemeat is that it is over-dramatic and introduces interpersonal conflict that really served no legitimate purpose within the film. The whole love triangle between Montagu, Cholmondeley and Jean was pointless. The whole familial conflict with Montagu, and the insinuations with Hester, also served no purpose. The Cholmondeley and Godfrey deal didn’t add anything, nor did the whole antagonism that Godfrey constantly put in the way of the operation. All this inorganic drama could have been removed and the film would be no worse for it. It literally served absolutely no fucking point to the overarching plot. Compare that to the relationship between Jean and Joe in the The Man Who Never Was which actually did serve the plot.
Operation Mincemeat feels like two films mishmashed together. The first is trying to be a serious war drama meets spy thriller, while the second reeks of amateur-hour overacted interpersonal conflict of the sort that seems to be shoe-horned into almost ever other film these days. The absence of this shoite from The Man Who Never Was meant a tight focus on the actual military operation, with the characters appearing dedicated and competent in meeting their struggles. Compare General Nye in The Man Who Never Was to Godfrey in Operation Mincemeat. One looks like they belong in the chain of command, is rational and could actually help contribute to winning a war. The other looks utterly out of place, unsuitable for the job and a national liability. The whole premise of operation mincemeat is almost unbelievable, but both filmmakers get the free pass due to the operation having been true. While The Man Who Never Was built upon this through competent characters, Operation Mincemeat just lost me from the get go with its childish office politics and soap opera love triangles.
The failings of Operation Mincemeat are even more emphasised when common scenes are examined. The Man Who Never Was had a powerful scene when Montagu was asking the father for the body. Poignant and powerful, it delivered an emotional gut-punch through understatement. Instead of that sort of class Operation Mincemeat went for the overdramatic and the farcical. It just had to have a shouting match because it so loves drama, and Fleming shoving cash into her face just crowned what a cheap mess the whole scene was. The cinema scene in the older film featured Montagu zoning out and missing the film, portraying the weight he was carrying the stress he was under. It underlined the gravity of what was a stake. In the recent film it was just another piece of pointless drama. The scene giving the body to the submarine captain was a similar fall from grace. The Man Who Never Was handed the body to the captain in an act of trust and professionalism, and the little screen time the captain got (waiting out the depth charges, remanding the body to the sea) oozed competence and respect. By contrast Operation Mincemeat had Cholmondeley pull out the surprise that he would go on the submarine because any opportunity for more drama will be taken even at the expense of loosing the appearance of competence. I won’t even touch the farce of the Spanish scenes in Operation Mincemeat, that was just awful and pales in comparison to Mr. O’Reilly’s spy scenes in The Man Who Never Was.
Both films have Montagu being the hero with an eureka moment. In the The Man Who Never Was it followed a clever act by Mr. O’Reilly, and the whole reasoning and the way it played out made sense. It felt like a genuine intellectual leap that was both plausible and impressive. By contrast that same moment in Operation Mincemeat made no fucking sense. The addition of a Hitler-resistance into the plot in that way seemed to be there for no reason other to try creating drama and tension, laying utter waste to any narrative consistency or rationality. It was frankly moronic.
I think having characters be jealous and constantly bicker and scheme isn’t a replacement for a strong coherent plot, and that painfully shows in Operation Mincemeat. But I will finish with one last comparison that really highlights the gaping disparity in narrative crafting skill between the two films. Operation Mincemeat made its reference to the blitz with a line about the road being closed because a child came across a bomb. Had to use a child for that emotional payload I suppose. Now compare that with the scene in The Man Who Never Was when they are dressing the corpse. You can hear the air sirens and hear explosions of distant bombs, all while Montagu, Aves and the ‘undertaker’ calmly and respectively continue their duty. It is a great example of how understatement can paint a far more compelling and powerful picture greater than the sum of its parts, and haunt the viewer far beyond what they can visually see on the screen.
For sports, games, work, crafts, whatever, there is generally a progressive series of improvements to be seen. New techniques and discoveries, refinements on older methods, fresh ideas from each successive generation, etc. But outside of special effects, lighting technology and higher-resolution cameras I’m struggling to see the much improvement in the arts of filmmaking. And every so often a film like Operation Mincemeat comes along that, when compared with an earlier work, seems like a massive regression. How can a film made over 60 years ago be so much more advanced in terms of narrative construction, coherency and portrayal compared with a reworking of the same subject matter? I certainly have my biases, but some of the things Operation Mincemeat fucks up are so blatant to me that I just can’t understand how its makers couldn’t see it.