The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sanitizes the sixties and strips it of life

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (hereafter written without those infernal full stops), Guy Ritchie’s film adaptation of the TV show of the same name, revels in its sixties setting.  But with its obsession with beautiful people, beautiful cars and beautiful locations, it loses the filthy underbelly that made authentic sixties films so attractive.

From the title sequence and the opening shots, it’s clear that The Man From UNCLE wants to capture a distinctively sixties aesthetic.  The title sequence educates younger viewers about the recent history of the Cold War in a style reminiscent of a Saul Bass advertising pitch.  Scenes are colour-corrected to look like old Kodachrome stills come to life.  It’s all very clever and makes you want to go back and rewatch the early seasons of Mad Men.  Sixties style remains intoxicating.  Or, at least, what we remember of sixties style is intoxicating.

What we think of now as “sixties style” is the feelgood foam floating atop a bitter and cloudy mixture.

It’s easy to forget that there was more to the sixties than Cary Grant’s perfect hair, James Bond’s gleaming Aston Martin DB4, and The Italian Job’s race through the gorgeous Alps.  The sixties also gave us the sexual trauma of Hitchcock’s Marnie, the psychological and political confusion of The Ipcress File, and the sullen detective work of Bullitt.

Literally everything wrong with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - a feast of beautiful people wearing amazing clothes staring at a gorgeous car.
Literally everything wrong with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – nothing but beautiful people wearing amazing clothes staring at a gorgeous car.

What we think of now as “sixties style” is the feelgood foam floating atop a bitter and cloudy mixture.  So many excellent films were made in the sixties that mixed the decade’s fascination with sun, sex, celebrity and style, with the insanity of the Cold War’s nuclear militarism, the mundane reality behind the flashy exploits of spies and policemen, the often troubling consequences of the sexual revolution, and paranoia that the foreign enemy – or your own people – are out to get you.

It’s a version of the sixties where the civil rights movement was never needed

The Man From UNCLE has none of that.  It gives us a world without oppression, without paperwork, without malfunction.  It’s a version of the sixties where the civil rights movement was never needed and the Cold War was just a friendly disagreement among friends.  It’s a trip through a 1960s-themed amusement park where the people are always happy, the music is always upbeat, and the only risk is that they won’t have your favourite flavour of ice cream.  The Man From UNCLE is a spy thriller without danger.  I smiled all the way through, but the best sixties thrillers also make you frown, gasp and recoil.

I can only take so many chiselled jawlines, cute hats and perfectly shaped bottoms before wanting to see someone struggle with what life throws their way.  The sixties wasn’t an amusement park ride.  We should stop fantasising that it was.

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