Diary of a Spy (USA, 2022) is set in a shadowy Los Angeles that is not quite noir, though it is dark. It’s almost always the wee hours in Anna’s (Tamara Taylor) world. The bars and restaurants are empty except for her and her handler, James (Fred Melamed). The cosmic bowling alley is closed and the only light comes from cigarettes, dim bar lights, yellow streetlights in alleys, the flashing colored lights of a club, and, once, when she’s on a job, gray skies outside a cafe. This Los Angeles is dark and depopulated. For Anna, it’s less the underworld of criminals and private detectives than a shade-filled purgatory between the disconnected worlds of spies and civilians.
Anna is a petroleum engineer and intelligence officer for the CIA. She’s burned out, depressed and suffering from PTSD. She has returned to LA from Saudi Arabia to be debriefed by S (Susan Sullivan). Anna wants to retire with the security her last supervisor promised her, but Anna is a freelancer and her last job went bad. Her entire crew was killed during an operation in Jeddah. S gives Anna a choice. She can retire now with whatever she has in the bank or do one more job. It’s not much of a choice, because Anna is, as she tells S, “a fuck-up,” and she spent all the money she made in Saudia Arabia on cocaine and “old fashioneds.” S promises Anna a large lump sum payment and an apartment in Moscow, warning Anna that she might have to leave the country after this job. All Anna has to do is seduce and recruit Camden (Reece Noi), the tutor for the Saudi royal family’s children in California. Anna will help cement an alliance with Saudi Arabia and walk away with financial security and a clean slate. Anna accepts the job.
Of course, things are not what they seem and the job does not go smoothly, but things don’t go the way you might expect with a spy story. Diary of a Spy is more a drama and character study than a thriller or action movie. It’s about Anna falling for Camden in all his awkwardness and attempts at honesty. The film follows Anna as she struggles with her feelings, her beliefs about herself, and her realization of what she wants.
Diary of a Spy is quiet and slow-paced compared to other spy stories. There are few gadgets and many conversations. There are a lot of empty spaces for a city of 4 million people. While I will refrain from giving away too many details, Diary of a Spy is based on a true story and that story is a remarkable one. I am definitely interested in seeing a documentary made about that story, but from what writer/director Adam Christian Clark has said in interviews, the people involved would likely never come forward for one.
Background story aside, the performances are the highlight of Diary of a Spy for me. Tamara Taylor gives a strong, believable performance as a woman barely holding it together in her twilight world. Anna is fucked up, lied to, betrayed and fooling herself about her work and maybe what she wants. Reece Nio’s Camden is equally lonely, but more self-aware and strangely enough, has more support from people in his life. While appearing less proactive than Anna, Camden lets himself imagine–and try for–more. Paulina Leija is delightful as Fahda, a Saudi princess insulated from any kind of consequences by her wealth and connections. She surrounds herself with the most horrible of social media influencer friends. But Fahda also cares about Camden in her possessive, denigrating, self-involved, but sincere way. Fred Melamed is always good and always a pleasure to see.
Diary of a Spy is a solid film with very good performances. I just wish it had something more, though I’m not entirely sure what that something is. Maybe revealing certain things sooner rather than going for a twist would add some more resonance to Anna’s conflict with herself. Maybe it’s just me. Still, in this time of entertainment franchise monoculture, it is nice to watch something that tries to do something different. I appreciate striving. And I appreciate that Diary of a Spy tries to tell a story that is secret, based on real people’s lives, and difficult to tell.
Diary of a Spy is available on streaming on July 14, 2022 in North America.
Carol Borden received a screener to review this film, so’s you know. Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness andVanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, and the Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day.You can find them here.