Screenwriter Mark Boal has received worldwide acclaim for his highly detailed screenplays of military operations in the Kathryn Bigelow films, “The Hurt Locker” (for which Boal won the Oscar) and “Zero Dark Thirty.” He brings a journalist’s mind for detail—he was one for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and others—to his projects, and one can feel the veracity of his life’s work in his latest project, mostly in its elaborate action set pieces, usually long, dialogue-free sequences of soldiers meticulously trying to complete their missions. When it comes to character and dialogue, Boal struggles a bit more, but when “Echo 3” has its military boots on the ground, it can be difficult to turn away. It’s a show that comes to life when its characters are in life-or-death situations. And while some of its themes feel underdeveloped so far, only half of the season has been sent for review, so it’s possible they will come into sharper focus. Halfway through, it’s an ambitious thriller, another Apple show that clearly cost a fortune and yet will almost certainly slip under the radar in such a crowded entertainment season.
Fans of Boal’s previous work, along with those who admire the alpha male posturing of the hits by Taylor Sheridan or even the escapist action of something like “Reacher,” should check into “Echo 3.” Based on an Israeli series titled “When Heroes Fly,” which itself was based on a novel, this is the tale of a woman’s kidnapping in South America, seen not only through her eyes but those of the two men closest to her: her husband and brother. It digs into the complex machinations of what happens when an American is kidnapped, unpacking the politics and precision required for rescue missions and negotiations. Boal is also playing interestingly with class as each of the men at this show’s center come from very different backgrounds, and how that influences their approach to the most traumatizing event of their lives is one of the interesting-yet-so-far-underdeveloped aspects of “Echo 3.”
Again, critics have only seen what is billed as the first two parts of this show—a title card says “End of Part 1” after the first three episodes, and “End of Part 2” after the subsequent pair—so take most of the following review with a wait-and-see approach. The jingoism avoided so far could erupt in later episodes, and conversely, the flaws could iron themselves out.
The premiere introduces the major players at the wedding of Amber Chesborough (Jessica Ann Collins) and her new husband, Prince (Michiel Huisman). Amber’s brother, who goes by Bambi, believe it or not, and is played by Luke Evans, is clearly his sister’s protector, a role he has filled since they were children. Prince comes from money, captured in the form of his slimy political shark father (Bradley Whitford), who quite literally quotes Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” at one point like its hard-earned wisdom. Sheridan is probably jealous he didn’t do that first.
Prince and Bambi were in the same unit together, and a snow-covered flashback to a deadly mission in Afghanistan reveals a traumatic tie that can never be severed. A scientist, Amber, is doing research on natural medicine in Colombia when she’s kidnapped by rebels. Knowing she was going to a dangerous part of the world, her husband placed a military-grade beacon in her belongings, but its presence convinces Amber’s kidnappers that they’ve stumbled onto a high-value target. And they’re not wrong. Amber has been working for the C.I.A., a fact she kept secret even from her husband, and something that will complicate matters greatly.
The second and third episodes of “Echo 3” basically center on the rescue missions of Amber run by both U.S. and Colombian forces with Prince and Bambi on the ground in the country. These sequences are expertly written and directed (South American filmmakers like Pablo Trapero and Claudia Llosa certainly don’t hurt), the tense moments when “Echo 3” really comes to life. They are brilliantly shot, keeping viewers tight with the protagonists without over-cluttering the action with choppy editing, dialogue, or a booming score. They are clearly meant to mimic the precision that special ops soldiers need for missions like these, and they can be thrilling.
Boal and his collaborators smartly refuse to turn “Echo 3” into a standard action procedural. It’s no spoiler really to say that Bambi and Prince’s mission goes awry, pushing all three characters into very different places. Amber ends up in Venezuela, where it feels like the U.S. can’t reach her to bring her home. Bambi refuses to return without her and heads down his own rabbit hole—Evans’ work in the fourth episode is some of the best of his underrated career, finding the balance of a man who may literally drink himself to death if he can’t save his sister but also someone who is constantly on his mission. Prince heads off in another direction in a narrative twist that will likely greatly influence the back half of the season greatly. In terms of performance, Huisman is the weak link—he looks lost more often than Evans or even Collins—but the way his character is going to be manipulated after the Bogota mission might explain those blank stares. He’s the traumatized soldier refashioned into the political hero. To be that kind of pawn, he needs to be a little thin in the personality department.
“Echo 3” is the kind of show that thrills the most when it’s defying expectations, either with an unexpected gunshot in a Colombian alley or an entire episode that takes its time with a brand-new character (played by Franka Potente). It plays with desperation, whether it’s Amber’s, Prince’s, Bambi’s, her kidnappers, or even those who try to control her in Venezuela. It gets a lot of mileage out of that crossroads of violence and need—how far people are willing to go to better their situation is something that should never be underestimated. And it reminds one of a theme that Boal has often explored in his projects before: In combat, everyone is a hero, and no one is a hero at the same time. [B]