Garbo the Spy: Film Review

Garbo The Spy Poster Art - P 2011
First Run Features

Garbo The Spy Poster Art - P 2011

Doc's incredible tale of WWII espionage would likely work better as a feature film.

A true-life tale of espionage so brazen and crucial to World War II's outcome one marvels that it isn't better known; but the documentary would likely work better as a feature film.

A true-life tale of espionage so brazen and crucial to World War II's outcome one marvels that it isn't better known, Edmon Roch's Garbo the Spy introduces viewers to a Spaniard who worked for the Brits while pretending to be a fervent supporter of the Nazi war effort. Solidly made but without much theatrical appeal, the doc should find a comfortable home on video.

Code-named Garbo because he was viewed by handlers as "the greatest actor in the world," Juan Pujol García began as a "freelance spy," introducing himself to Axis forces only to feed them intel that was totally fabricated -- a feat whose dexterity is more impressive in light of García's earlier incompetence while trying to avoid the Spanish Civil War.

Once he officially joined the British war effort as a double agent, Garbo's operation grew incredibly -- to a network of innumerable "sources," all fictional, whose tips he fed to the Nazis. Elaborate lies were mixed with just enough truth to be plausible, a strategy that had its greatest success at Normandy, when Garbo convinced Germany that troops preparing to invade were actually a diversionary force, the real attack point being elsewhere.

Lacking any contemporary footage of García and only one or two photos, Roch relies on a combination of talking heads (an aged spy, a journalist, the investigative writer who pieced together Garbo's identity four decades after it was hidden) and a great deal of film from both vintage newsreels and fictional war pics.

His reliance on clips from movies like Our Man in Havana backfires, though, forcing viewers to consider how much more enjoyable a fictional treatment of this story would be. Despite a few colorful anecdotes (for example: when García allowed one of his imaginary sources to "die," his also fictional wife received a pension honoring his service), the blow-by-blow of García's exploits never comes to life, and we get no sense at all of him as a person or of what made him such a virtuosic fabulist.

On occasion (especially in opening half-hour), Roch's enthusiasm for found footage is such that he appears to be padding what should have been a much shorter doc into feature length; his sometimes off-putting choices of contemporary pop music for the soundtrack similarly try too hard. Use of motion graphics is tastefully restrained, however, and if the information is sometimes dry Garbo's photography and crisp style are always a pleasure to watch.

Opens: November 18 (First Run Features)
Production Companies: Ikiru Films, Centuria Films, Colosé Producciones
Director: Edmon Roch
Screenwriters: Edmon Roch, Isaki Lacuesta, María Hervera
Producers: Edmon Roch, Sandra Hermida, Belén Bernuy
Directors of photography: Bet Rourich, Gabriel Guerra, Joachin Bergamin
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Editor: Alexander Adams
No rating, 89 minutes