One of the strange things about the Cold War was that, for as long as it lasted, how suddenly it all seemed to end. The nature of that antagonism between the U.S. and its Western allies and the Soviet Union and its Eastern ones had kept up the kind of stalemate one sees when two evenly matched wrestlers lock up and pit their full strength upon each other knowing that the content will end when the first of them gasses out. That’s how it felt at the end of the 1980s, when, in the span of a fairly short time, the Berlin Wall went down, Germany reunified, and the Soviet Union dissolved. It was a turn of events that many could see coming and yet nobody really was ready for, least of all those whose lives had been defined by this conflict and, to some extent, aimed not at ending the fight but perpetuating it. For all of the action-espionage movies set in the Cold War, few capture that moment of collapse, chaos and confusion—when the closer victory got the less certain anybody knew what it meant—quite so well as Atomic Blonde.
The story takes place in 1989, right as the Berlin Wall is about to tumble. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve the List—a roster of all Eastern and Western intelligence agents working in Berlin—which was lost when the MI6 agent who was holding it was murdered by parties unknown. Broughton’s mission is to go to Berlin, connect with a rogue station chief there named Percival, get the list, and stay wary of an infamous double-agent on the scene named Satchel, who has been a persistent thorn in the West’s side. Broughton’s activities becomes a point of scrutiny for her bosses, who interrogate her afterwards in an attempt to discover what really happened when Broughton went to Berlin. As the story bounces between Broughton’s present interrogation, and her recent past where she conducted her mission, we see the world in which all spies dwell: one where trust is a four-letter word, honesty is a resource best deployed selectively friends are something only rookies people have, and the secrets worth killing and dying over usually belong to someone else.
A lot of Cold War espionage stories fall either in the camp of heavy atmosphere and little action (spies don’t get into shootouts; they just turn up dead) or action extravaganzas full of gadgets and fistfights but little actual spycraft. Atomic Blonde attempts to split the difference with a story that is very much an action-adventure romp about a city full of corrupt and disillusioned spies. But it also trades on the unique feeling in Berlin (communicated expertly by an incredibly good soundtrack, BTW) when Everything Was About to Change. It’s an interesting choice, especially when one knows a little about Berlin and its unique status as the most heavily spied upon city in the entire Cold War. Espionage was so much the city’s chief import and export that it created a particular atmosphere that sustains those who live for the Game of it, and exhausts those who just want a regular life. Naturally, this story is about the spies and wetworkers who live in the shadow of what feels like Armageddon. What use will the world have for them when the Wall comes down? What if East and West stop staring at each other so suspiciously? What will become of the army of ghosts who have always been expendable, but soon will become obsolete and redundant…a liability?
The struggle for survival between spies who know their meal ticket might soon end lends a grimly compelling tone to the proceedings. There is a great scene in the beginning, where we establish a Stasi officer who interrogates and tortures a bunch of East German kids who are of the kind we would see a few days later driving sledgehammers into the Wall. The way in which the Stasi officer deals with them isn’t so much to show how clueless his devotion to a failed order is. It’s that when you have nothing left to define you, losing whatever order it was that you upheld is more terrifying than anything. It’s a lesson we keep in mind as our hero Broughton makes her way through the City of Spies, doggedly trying to stick to her mission. Wherever she looks is the evidence of crumbling belief structures, all of which seem to suggest that if she had any sense at all, she’d quit trying to accomplish her mission and do something better with her time. When the inevitable double- and triple-crosses start to happen and people tumble like dominos, none of it is exactly surprising. What is, however, is watching Broughton figure out how to survive it all.
Broughton is a compelling character in large part because, for all of her harsh demeanor and slick skillsets, she still feels out of her depth in a city that either doesn’t want her there, has no use for her, or is actively trying to sell her out. We know that Broughton’s luck will inevitably run dry. The question is, how will she conduct herself when it does? That’s where the action sequences take over, and the great thing about Atomic Blonde is how it carefully rations them so they aren’t just-kinetic filler for when the plot’s wit runs dry. They illustrate how a good spin can find secrets or kill for them, but a great spy can do both.
The film’s moment of truth—an astonishing fight scene where Broughton must battle her way out of a KGB-infested apartment building—isn’t just a great action sequence. Its every punishing blow is also a piece of evidence that in this world, great spies always end up as dead spies. The trick is how much punishment they’re willing to take to prove that in a life of betrayal and lies, survival is its own form of punishment.