Mossad, Charlie and Khalil: ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ Comes to TV

The Arab-Israeli conflict rages on, making a TV version of John Le Carre's 1983 novel sadly relevant.

Alexander Skarsgard and Florence Pugh in a scene from the TV miniseries "The Little Drummer Girl."

A few months ago, I showed a manuscript of mine to an agent-turned-editor for feedback. After reading this still-evolving work-in-progress, she offered me pithy advice: “Cut your first chapter and start with the second one.” Flabbergasted, I countered: “But the first chapter is important. It’s a set-up for what happens.” To which she replied, “You don’t need all that exposition. Just jump into the chaos of the second chapter — that’s when the true action begins.”

I can’t help but to think of this anecdote after watching the six-part miniseries The Little Drummer Girl on AMC. It perfectly sums up the biggest problem with this adaptation of the 1983 John le Carré novel that was also the basis of an ill-conceived Diane Keaton-starring film one year later. The TV version is infinitely better than the cinematic debacle of nearly 35 years ago, yet the pacing of the first two episodes is so painfully laborious that watching it becomes an endurance exercise. As the remainder of the series is a riveting, suspenseful effort directed by Park Chan-wook, that is a shame.

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Set in 1979 West Germany, The Little Drummer Girl centers on agents from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. By force and deception, they recruit Charlie (Florence Pugh), a young English pub actress, for what could be her greatest role: pretending to be the lover of Salim, the dead brother of Mossad’s most wanted criminal, Khalil (Charif Ghattas), who masterminded a series of bombings of Jewish-related targets in Europe. Charlie’s mission is to infiltrate Khalil’s terrorist cell while rooting out the elusive Khalil. The only way for her to do this is to follow a narrative carefully constructed for her by Mossad’s agents, led by wily Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), a Holocaust survivor. Also in the group is Becker/Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård), who finds himself drawn to the feisty Charlie and she to him — despite her being partial to the Palestinian side of the conflict.

Using fake love letters and doctored photos, the team concocts a script for Charlie to play. It will help her win over Khalil’s hardened and skeptical relatives and gain access to Khalil. After Khalil’s sister tests Charlie on her intimate knowledge of Salim’s dead body (which Charlie gains only after Kurtz takes her to inspect Salim’s nude, drugged out body before Mossad kills him in a staged car accident), the young actress and budding spy is kidnapped and taken to a Palestinian training camp in Beirut. There she is taught how to shoot various firearms and how to make a bomb. Khalil’s group is so impressed with Charlie’s grit and passion for the cause that she’s tasked with her first assignment: placing a bomb at a lecture given by an Israeli university professor whose moderate views on the Arab-Israeli conflict rankle Khalil. It is then she finally meets Khalil, a soft-spoken, bearded man whose thoughtful, scholarly bearing belies his spearheading a killing spree that has claimed innocent children and bystanders.

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Here’s a spoiler alert: Charlie takes to her newfound role as a spy with the same gusto that she brought to her theatrical endeavors. If nothing in life is ever free and if everything has its cost, the same applies to Charlie. She has a brief affair with Khalil, which ends when Khalil realizes something is amiss — that Charlie betrayed him. In my favorite exchange (also my favorite exchange in the ’84 film), Khalil asks Charlie why she did it:

“Are you a Zionist? Are you Jewish?”
“No,” answers a guilt-ridden Charlie.
“You don’t believe in anything?”
“I’m an actress,” she replies tearfully.

It might be a meta moment for Charlie. It’s also a very haunting admission. It also ushers in Khalil’s downfall and Charlie’s subsequent breakdown.

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Pugh, who reminds me of a younger Kate Winslet, is excellent as the left-wing Charlie, torn between her mission for the Israelis and growing loyalty to the Palestinians that indoctrinated her as one of their own. And as much as I initially rolled my eyes at the casting of Irish-American actor Shannon and Sweden’s Skarsgård as Israelis, I was won over by their commitment to their roles. Shannon, a terrific Oscar-nominated character actor, continues to prove that he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated players.

Despite it not driving many headlines lately, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unending. Coupled with the ever-present relevance of terrorism as a political weapon, The Little Drummer Girl can wallop both mind and heart. And hurt your teeth and jaws, too, which you will clench for the first two episodes.