Rogue Agent, a British film on AMC+, stars James Norton as the charming and manipulative Robert Freegard, a real conman who convinced women and men that he was an MI-5 agent, sucking them into his “missions”, and “recruiting” them for the agency in the 1990s. Once he had them on the hook, he would create reasons why he needed their family’s money. Some of his victims ended up giving him hundreds of thousands of British pounds. The Puppet Master, on Netflix, is a documentary featuring some of the victims and the law enforcement agents who tracked Freegard down and ultimately arrested him. Watching both the film and the documentary together gives an effect greater than the sum of its parts, as each focus on different aspects of the Freegard story. I recommend watching Rogue Agent first.
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Rogue Agent-Portrait of a charmer
With his good looks and open countenance, James Norton convinces the viewer that smart women could fall for the outlandish stories spun by Robert Freegard. In real life, Freegard is not nearly as handsome, but maintains an easy-talking charm. Gemma Arterton plays Alice Archer, a (fictional) sharp and skeptical lawyer that Freegard wins over, mostly with his ability to pivot on a dime. “You don’t exist,” she tells him after checking his credit. “That’s right, because Robert Hansen is not my real name,” he confesses without blinking. “My real name is Robert Freegard, and I’m an agent with MI-5.” Although she allows herself to relax for a while, ultimately Alice devotes herself to bringing him down. While she does lose some money and a bit of pride, Alice’s story is not nearly as horrifying as Sophie’s (Marisa Abela). Ten years earlier, Sophie met Freegard at a local pub. He convinced her and some friends to drop out of college and join him on his “mission” outing IRA sympathizers, and she has been “on the run” for 9 years, living in squats and cheap motels while Freegard is off wooing other marks.
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The Puppet Master-the victims’ stories
After the film, I turned immediately to The Puppet Master, a three-part binge of a documentary on Netflix. This is where I got the gut punch. I won’t spoil it here, but you’ll know it when you see it. The doc features interviews with some of the victims, including the real Sophie (actually named Sarah) and her father, who was tormented by the fact that Sarah would call every year or so to say she was alright, but needed money. In real life, as in the film Rogue Agent, what brought Freegard down was the FBI. When Freegard convinced Kim, a young American woman, to walk away from her life, the parents contacted the Embassy, and they enlisted the FBI. The main driver of the doc is the story of how the FBI and Scotland yard worked together to nail Freegard. The documentary does not feature any interviews with Freegard, but we do hear his voice on a recording, where he maintains a conciliatory yet persistent tone as he tries to finagle $60,000 out of Kim’s father for “spy school”. Unfortunately, we never do learn anything about his background or motivation for destroying these people’s lives, but watching Sarah and others reckon with the fallout is heart-rending.
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More Than The Sum of Its Parts
When watching Rogue Agent, it’s hard to believe that Robert Freegard is a real person and that he really did, by posing as an MI-5 agent, swindle close to 1 million British pounds from his victims. This is why I recommend watching the film first, because once you start The Puppet Master, the story becomes painfully real. But I DO recommend watching the film so you can see how Freegard operates. None of that is in the documentary, which is more about the aftermath. There are some criminals whose motivation is obvious-bank robbers, drug dealers, etc, but someone like Freegard is simply mystifying. While I understand swindling, why make up the outlandish MI-5 bit? And why have simultaneous cons going, with some people “on the run”, and others “in spy school”? But he seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing when to charm, when to push, when to threaten, and when to leave. I’m reluctant to blame the victims; I think Freegard is just that good of a manipulator, and that’s mind-boggling.
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