Watching the political thriller Embassy is frustrating not just because the picture is mediocre, but also because it wouldn’t have taken much to elevate the piece above mediocrity. The source material for this British production, a novel by Stephen Coulter, provides a solid premise—the arrival of a Russian defector at the U.S. embassy in Beirut sparks an international incident. As scripted by William Fairchild and directed by Gordon Hessler, Embassy is blandly photographed, drably paced, and filled with performances as uninspired as the corresponding characterizations are unimaginative. Yet it’s easy to imagine a crackerjack version of the same basic storyline with, say, Sidney Lumet at the helm, abetted by an edgier screenwriter. Even without that level of behind-the-scenes firepower, Embassy has a few credible moments, mostly thanks to leading man Richard Roundtree (appearing in one of his first projects after becoming a star with 1971’s Shaft) and supporting player Max von Sydow, who portrays the defector. Roundtree’s appealing swagger smooths over some of the movie’s rough spots, and von Sydow gives a genuinely multidimensional performance.
Alas, too much time gets wasted on nonsense. Roundtree plays a mid-level diplomat who shares responsibility for the safety of von Sydow’s character, but the movie also gives Roundtree a drab romantic subplot that adds nothing. Similarly, perfunctory acting by Ray Milland (as the pragmatic ambassador), Broderick Crawford (as a security officer at the embassy), and Chuck Connors (as a KGB enforcer) diminishes the experience. Especially when combined with Hessler’s lifeless shooting style, watching actors who are past their best days give paycheck performances makes Embassy feel like a disposable TV movie, notwithstanding impressive production values acquired while shooting on location in the Middle East. As to the question of whether Embassy has anything meaningful to say, the answer is sorta-yes and sorta-no. The movie isn’t a completely vacuous potboiler, but most of its cynical assertions about the morality of political expediency are trite. Embassy only really sparks when von Sydow’s character talks about his reasons for defecting, and when the same character snaps after too many days in captivity.