In a chilling moment (and there are many) in Red Sparrow, we learn that the Cold War isn’t over. In fact, according to a high-ranking Russian official at a clandestine training school for “honey trap” operatives, the battle simply fragmented into thousands of pieces as the West got distracted by social media and shopping. While the world wasn’t watching, Russia grasped power.
In Jason Matthews’ book Red Sparrow, the source material for the new Jennifer Lawrence spy movie out this weekend, the same Cold War enemies face each other across the frozen tundra of former Soviet-era brutalist architecture.
The movie closely mirrors the original book. Anti-heroine Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a Russian prima ballerina, whose career is viciously curtailed. To make ends meet, she’s forced into what amounts to sex trafficking, retraining at the Sparrow School to use her body in service to the State. In a staged encounter with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), she becomes mired in (very) violent intrigue that threatens international security.
Directed by Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and written by Justin Haythe (Cure for Wellness), Red Sparrow also stars Matthias Schoenaerts, Ciarán Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons as high-ranking officials inside SVR, Russia’s intelligence service. Mary-Louise Parker has a brief but devastating cameo as a corruptible target inside the US State Department. It’s a fast-paced thriller with (almost too many) hard-to-watch scenes of degradation and torture. No spoilers here, but watch out for a couple of smart plot twists.
PCMag tracked down author Matthews ahead of the movie’s release to find out how his own 33 years of espionage experience as CIA Operations Officer and Chief of Station inspired his story. We spoke to him on the phone at his home in Southern California. Now we could be paranoid, but was that a click on the line before Matthews came on the line? We didn’t ask.
Jason, in the great tradition of spy-turned-author (Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Stella Rimington), you retired from the CIA and immediately penned Red Sparrow.
[JM] Yes, in January 2010, when I retired from the CIA, I started writing fictionalized memoirs about the people we’d met—my wife Suzanne was also a CIA officer—and the places we’d known. The third novel in the trilogy, The Kremlin’s Candidate, just came out a few days ago.
You come to the wordsmith trade honestly. Before being recruited into the CIA, you received a Masters degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri.
That’s true. But there again, a career in CIA is mostly writing. It’s not all jumping from fast cars and burning buildings.
Don’t shatter the illusion, Jason.
It’s true. It’s a lot of writing proposals, scenarios, and so on. Essentially it’s “advocacy journalism” in that you’re always trying to convince the paymasters at HQ to approve budgets for an operation.
So it had better be compelling stuff?
So, as Charlotte Rampling says in Red Sparrow the movie: “The Cold War is not over.” Discuss.
Those lines are lifted from my book. Yes, what Russia is doing now, in the USA and in Europe, is Putin ensuring he stays in power.
Does he want to bring back the USSR?
No, he doesn’t want to reprise the old Soviet Union. But he wants to stay in power by discombobulating NATO, breaking the Atlantic Alliance, and thereby weakening the USA. As you can see, he’s succeeding. So no, the Cold War is definitely not over.
How close to the truth is your central premise of the “Sparrow School” for sexual entrapment training?
During the Cold War during the 60s and 70s, there was an Academy where they taught women the art of entrapment. It was in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan.
Do you know, or have good reason to believe, such places still exist?
It’s done by independent contractors at 5 Star hotels in Russia these days.
In the movie there’s equal opportunity exploitation, with both XY and XX chromosomes engaged in such activity.
That’s true. The men, in those training schools, were called Ravens.
Does the West still use honey traps?
Western intelligence rarely, if ever, used sexual entrapment. It was an operating principle, in the CIA, that recruitment of a foreign agent based on blackmail was not trustworthy.
Let’s talk about espionage tradecraft. You’re on record talking about how to get information out of contacts and how to assess their motivation using the technique of M.I.C.E (Money, Ideology, Conscience, Ego) and have even appeared at the Googleplex inspiring geeks to get into spycraft. But what’s up with the use of 3.5-inch floppy disks as a plot point in the movie? Seriously?
That is a literal example of authentic tradecraft; 3.5 floppy disks are used because they’re harder to hide. You can’t take one in and out of the building. Larger media is better to use to control access for downloading. Much better than USB flash drives.
The CIA, itself, reviewed Red Sparrow, saying: “There exists a long tradition of former CIA operations officers turning to fiction after they leave the agency.” As they’re clearly tracking you, what’s the process of ensuring you stay on the correct side of the Espionage Act which, in effect, curtails your First Amendment rights?
There’s a unit at the CIA called the Publication Review Board. They looked at every comma and period to make sure I didn’t reveal secrets.
How long did that take?
For Red Sparrow the process took about three months, slightly less for the two others in the trilogy. I think they got used to me. Plus, as a retired CIA officer they knew I know how to engage in negotiation.
Talking of making deals, let’s switch to Hollywood now. How did the studio buy the option?
It was an amazing experience. Before the first book was published, my literary agent shopped it around Hollywood and, ultimately, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to all three books.
Had you written all three by then?
No, I had only written Red Sparrow and it was in manuscript form.
What was the process like, dealing with Hollywood?
There were some raucous telephone calls during the bidding. I said to my agent: “I thought the Soviets were tough negotiators. But they’re nothing on Hollywood.”
Hollywood will love that observation. So how involved were you with the final script for the movie?
I was engaged as a technical consultant. To advise on the mechanics of tradecraft.
To make sure experienced spies didn’t roll their eyes when they saw errors on screen?
Did you visit the production on location?
Yes, we visited Budapest for four or five days and got a real eye-opening look at the process of making a movie.
Lots of movie stars sitting around while they light the next setup.
What were they shooting during your visit?
We were on headphones, watching via monitors in another room, while Korchnoi (Irons) reprimanded Egorova (Lawrence) for beating up a fellow student. They did five different shots around the table, running the scene over and over again. There was unbelievable attention to detail. And repetition. But neither of them missed a line.
That’s pros for you. Do you think the movie will make it in Moscow?
I have a hard time picturing Red Sparrow playing in Russia. They’re all portrayed as evil; the bad guys. I happen to know the Russians are very sensitive about that.
So what’s next for you? Cruising around the Caribbean?
I told myself I’d take a rest after the last book came out. But the next day I found myself at my computer again.
More dastardly deeds of Dominika Egorova?
This one is different. New characters. Different plot.
During your operational days at the CIA, you also spent time in the Middle East and Asia. So you have plenty of foreign postings diaries to plunder next.
My lips are sealed. For now.