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Shining Through

Shining Through
Fox Home Entertainment
1992 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 132 min. / Street Date January 11, 2004 / 9.98
Starring Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, Liam Neeson, Joely Richardson, John Gielgud, Patrick Winczewski
Cinematography Jan de Bont
Production Designer Anthony Pratt
Art Direction Desmond Crowe, Martin Dorpler, Albrecht Konrad, Kevin Phipps
Film Editor Craig McKay
Original Music Michael Kamen
from the novel by Susan Isaacs
Produced by Carol Baum, Sandy Gallin, Howard Rosenman, David Seltzer, Nigel Wooll
Written and Directed by David Seltzer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Here we bemoan good ideas for movies that somehow went wrong. Savant likes to take advantage of the review format to check out pictures given a negative rap when new; that's how I found out about titles like Joe Versus the Volcano, a real gem disparaged by critics when new.

Shining Through didn't turn out to be a lost deserving wonder film - quite the opposite. Rather handsomely produced, this WW2 spy thriller has a lot of weaknesses in story and casting. Much more troublesome is the attitude, wherein the war, Nazis and the persecution of Jews just serve as a background for an unconvincing glossy romance.


Second-generation Jewish American Linda Voss (Melanie Griffith) gets a government job despite ethnic bias when it is discovered that she speaks German "like a Berlin butcher's wife." She easily detects that her lawyer boss Ed Leland (Michael Douglas) is some kind of spy, a hunch confirmed when war breaks out and he starts wearing dapper Army intelligence uniforms. The OSS desperately needs an operative in the home of a high-ranking Nazi, and Linda volunteers for the job. Slipped into the Reich via Switzerland, she connects with spymaster Konrad Friedrichs (John Gielgud) and his swanky associate, Margarete Von Eberstein (Joely Richardson). Linda is a flop as a replacement cook for the targeted enemy but is taken in by dinner guest Franz-Otto Dietrich (Liam Neeson), who needs a nanny for his motherless kids. Her security unsteady, Linda is told to leave by Leland but insists on remaining to investigate a secret room in Dietrich's basement, and to contact her beloved cousins still hiding in Alexanderplatz.

Spy movies about WW2 have to walk a pretty thin line; most real stories are noble tales with bad endings. But moviemakers have never stopped distorting the reality and significance of espionage. The truth can be found in Leo Marks' nonfiction book Between Silk and Cyanide, an account of British efforts to keep underground networks going in France and Holland. Marks' under-prepared spies were often deployed by spymasters using insufficient or faulty information. Agents were sent to Holland for over a year before anyone realized the network had been compromised and they were all being captured as they arrived. National heroine Violette Szabo was a fearless operative until she was caught for no fault of her own and shot. The real stories come complete with ironies hard to believe. One female agent blithely showed her radio transmitter and code book to practically everyone she met, yet didn't get picked up.

The English made a stirring movie about Violette Szabo called Carve Her Name With Pride; its only fault was to exaggerate (probably) Szabo's capture to portray her as an action heroine, slaying Germans right and left with a machine pistol. That was nothing compared to later films, that persisted in placing sentimentality or love affairs higher than the deadly logic of these brave spies. Cannon's Hanna's War spent a tearful hour asking us to be shocked that the Germans would actually shoot a female Jewish spy who is caught almost immediately after parachuting into captured territory. Other examples distort the danger and the reality by inventing escapist love stories wherein determined lovers can always defeat the combined efforts of Hitler's keenest anti-spy corps. Shining Through is the most flagrant offender of this kind that I've seen so far.

Shining Through is told as the proud flashback of Melanie Griffith's character, Linda Voss, leading us to think that this is perhaps a true story. If it is, the image it presents of Nazi Germany during the war is a very special one. US Army intelligence chief Michael Douglas can enter Germany at any time just by flying to Switzerland and getting on a train with some faked documents. Likewise, Linda is allowed to walk the streets of Berlin without so much as a background check. She gets her instructions from a hokey fishseller (Patrick Winczewski) who crams notes into the mouths of the fresh catch of the day.

Linda's German was learned from a Grandmother who presumably hadn't been to the old country in decades, but gets her by without any problems. John Gielgud's high-level double agent is suspected by the Gestapo but his operatives are able to come and go without detection. The beautiful Margarete (Wetherby) and Linda run around Berlin like two galavanting teenagers but attract no attention. Linda becomes an undocumented worker for a top-level Nazi (the kind that stores secret papers about rocket programs home to his basement) and has an accent that other Germans have trouble placing. She walks the streets with Liam Neeson's children and nobody can locate her. Is spying dangerous? I don't think so, judging by this movie. The only reason Linda is suspected is that she disobeys orders for personal reasons. That, and her 'ally' Margarete shows her off to her mother, a society pianist who will pop up at an odd time to recognize her under an incorrect name.

Going to Germany in the middle of a war is also a great fashion opportunity. Linda always looks spiffy in a variety of outfits, and besides having a nattily-tailored hunk like Michael Douglas worrying about her, her new boss is also showing interest, to the extent that he takes her to the opera in one of his dead wife's dresses. 1940s Berlin is represented with lavish sets and masses of spotless costumes, especially in a parade scene. We realize the script needed a fact checker when Griffiths and Douglas hear the announcement that Pearl Harbor has been attacked, in their Sunday morning bed. It was Sunday 8am in Honolulu, and the East Coast wouldn't have gotten the news until after 2 or 3 in the afternoon, at the earliest. After that we wonder what else might be grossly inaccurate.

All of this might be alright if Shining Through were hitting on other cylinders. Michael Douglas' character tries to carry the dramatic weight of the movie by being ridiculously sober at all times. His character simply isn't written well and is asked to do too many unlikely things, like fake his way though Germany by claiming to have a neck wound so he can't talk and give himself away. What good would just pretending to be mute do, if he can't understand what people are telling him?

Finally, this just wasn't good casting for Melanie Griffiths. She's written as intelligent but we never get the feeling that the lines are anything but memorized - Griffiths just doesn't project the needed level of cleverness. Also, her thin, whiney voice doesn't sound authoritative in German or English. I'm certainly not advocating that she should stick to a narrower range of characters, but this one never fits her.

The conclusion is completely baffling. Griffiths is badly shot (but leaks no blood on herself or Douglas' German uniform) so Douglas carries her into a border-check shack. He somehow manages to stab and shoot three suspicious soldiers and run with her toward the Swiss side of the border. Guards open fire and hit them several times, and Douglas manages to shoot one of them from the hip, while carrying his unconscious sweetheart. It's all far, far too ridiculous. If anything like this happened in real life, I ... I just wouldn't believe it.

Fox's budget DVD of Shining Through (check that price) has a sterling-quality enhanced widescreen copy of the movie, so if this one is a big favorite, by all means enjoy. The only extras are some war and espionage-related trailers.

The IMDB reports that the film was released in 70mm in some markets.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Shining Through rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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