Sidney Poitier Movies
“Little Nikita” (1988)
Long before Fox’s TV series The Americans, director Richard Benjamin’s Little Nikita, starring the late Sidney Poitier opposite the late River Phoenix, soft pedaled Soviet sleeper agents in America. Paramount’s 1988 movie teams the two actors, who re-teamed in 1992’s similarly Russian spy-themed Robert Redford vehicle, Sneakers.
With excellent exposition, actor-director Richard Benjamin begins with the drumbeat of a military march which marks a transition to an all-American parade in Southern California. As talented drum majorettes and an Uncle Sam on stilts march—as a young, slimmer Loretta Devine coordinates—Little Nikita introduces the energetic young Phoenix as an ambitious teenager. Amid a meeting in Mexico at Soviet Russia’s embassy, a horse racetrack murder of an IRS agent by a double agent and Reagan-Gorbachev clips, Mr. Poitier’s hard-working man of justice seems intent on finding the killer of his partner 20 years ago. This puts moral emphasis on the year 1968 (the late Sixties factors into Sneakers, too).
Unfortunately, Little Nikita deprives the audience of moral reckoning, let alone judgment with justice. Little Nikita shows a curious sympathy for the Phoenix character’s Soviet sleeper agent parents. Like most of Benjamin’s movies, it’s otherwise a smart, compact, intriguing motion picture. As Poitier’s FBI agent asks when he meets River Phoenix’s Air Force academy applicant for the first time: “what do you think?” Little Nikita’s loaded with thoughtful plot points and reasons to watch: a score by Marvin Hamlisch, cinematography by László Kovács, action, murder mystery, a thrilling climax and San Diego in its late Eighties prime—the trolley, aircraft carriers, water skiing, Seaport Village, scenes shot in La Mesa—as well as Sidney Poitier playing with the teenager, who hung a poster of Oscar’s first Best Picture winner, Wings, in his bedroom. Other movie winks include a boat called Lady Eve and a headline about a “Big Chill.” That you never learn what happened to Poitier’s partner at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station in 1968—let alone the acts of espionage the Communist parents did for the U.S.S.R.—even after a border crossing climax prevents Little Nikita from dramatizing a proper accounting of the Cold War.
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