The CIA and Hollywood
Just as the genre of the crime drama will continue ad infinitum, (because there will always be crime, hence the drama associated with it) so will the genre of the spy thriller. Can anyone ever envision the day that cloak and dagger activities will not be conducted in this big, bad, world of ours? And to help matters along, the CIA is the gift that keeps on giving to countless Hollywood filmmakers.
Are there ever any collaborations between Hollywood and the CIA, God forbid? Well (and I'm whispering now) yes. You might surmise that a symbiotic relationship exists between the two entities. But it should come as no surprise to some. After all, the FBI used the dramatic television series The FBI as a propaganda tool in the 1960's and 70's which showcased the agency in the best possible light. J. Edgar Hoover got a highly sanitized version of the FBI to present to the American public while ABC received high ratings which translated into profits for the network. A government/private partnership at it's best or worst depending on your perspective.
Would the CIA resort to such a transparent relationship? Apparently, yes. They have already succeeded with the television shows The Agency and Alias. With the case of The Agency, scripts were reviewed and input given by the CIA's "Hollywood liaison officer" whose chief responsibility is to enhance the image of the agency. Alias star Jennifer Garner went so far as to appear in a recruitment video touting the benefits of a CIA career as well as appearing on the agency's web site. I never realized one could go from method acting to method advocacy so easily.
Maybe I doth protest too much. After all, aren't they just television shows? Mindless entertainment for the masses? True, but as I have shown, the CIA views them as great public relations opportunities (again think "image enhancement") which makes me a little nervous when a secretive government agency is involved with the arts. Benevolence doesn't cross my mind. Is it asking too much for some of us to expect more from movie makers than to be merely hacks, lackeys, and water carriers for the CIA? And anyway, if I want to be entertained by a CIA themed flick, then give me Confessions of A Dangerous Mind any day. Based upon the assertions of zany game show king Chuck Barris, the film chronicles Barris's other "career" as a CIA hitman. Entertaining indeed but also thought provoking. When asked if all could be true, Barris just responds with that standard CIA line of not confirming or denying the allegation with I'm sure his tongue firmly planted in cheek.
So are there any films around that portray the CIA in a more realistic, accurate setting? And I don't mean portrayals that demean and slander the efforts of thousands of dedicated hard working employees who have only this country's best interests at heart. One would hope that the upcoming movie about the travails of outed undercover agent Valerie Plame is such an endeavor. Perhaps more than anyone, the bright, articulate Plame has given a much needed human face to an often beleaguered agency. Although her cover had to be blown in order to make that happen. What about any number of Tom Clancy inspired films? Doesn't Mr. Clancy know a thing or two about the CIA? It would seem so, but Tom is a little too cozy with those in power to be objective for my tastes. British comedian and musician Bill Bailey once mused that, "Clancy's got a very simple view of the world. Good versus evil. Evil seems to get the upper hand. Good triumphs with vastly superior automatic weapons".
Perhaps a film closer to the truth about how the CIA operates is the 2005 Syriana. With its multiple storylines based on a couple of books written by former CIA case officer Robert Baer, Syriana takes the viewer on a turbulent trip through the halls of power in Washington, D. C. to the oil fields and chaos of the Middle East. One of the themes evident in the film is the often destructive and stressful nature that espionage and undercover work entails and the effects on one's family relationship. The scenes between George Clooney's character (Robert Barnes, a veteran CIA operative) and his son are instructive. What about last year's historical based film The Good Shepherd which details the birth and early years of the CIA? Told through the eyes of Edward Wilson, a fictional character played by Matt Damon, the film is indeed a noble effort to appeal to our cerebrum. But that's just it, the film has no heart And if one could get through it without falling asleep, then one might learn a thing or two. I mean we may have found something to take the place of Ambien here.
If there's ever a spy film that I want told through someone's eyes, then let it be told through the eyes of E. Howard Hunt. Hunt will forever be remembered as the bungling mastermind of the 1972 Watergate break-in. But he was so much more than that. His own web site describes Hunt as "one of the most extraordinary, if controversial, men-of-action-and letters of our time. And who could argue with that assertion. After all, Hunt graduated from Brown University with a degree in English literature, served in WWII, was a war correspondent, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing, joined the CIA at its inception, involved in the overthrow of the Marxist government of Guatemala in 1954, involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, had a supporting role in the murder of revolutionary Che Guevara and of course implicated in the break-ins of Watergate and the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. He served 33 months in prison for his crimes. He did all of this while authoring more than 80 novels and two nonfiction books. Whew! Makes your head spin, doesn't it? And this is just the stuff on the public record.
Hunt died in January an old, feeble, broken man taking countless secrets to the grave with him. It has long been rumored that Hunt was somehow involved with the Kennedy assassination and actor Kevin Costner (who played New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's "counter myth" JFK) tried to coax and goad Hunt to reveal the "truth" about that horrible day in Dallas. Costner apparently working on a movie project of his own tried to sign Hunt on as a consultant In any event, nothing ever came from Costner's efforts. And if it means anything, Hunt is thought to be the real life inspiration behind Mission Impossible's Ethan Hunt. But don't get me started on Mission Impossible.
So for all of you filmmakers contemplating a CIA inspired film, here's my advice: please show some integrity and be true to the material. It's ok if you want to throw in one car chase scene and maybe show me some high tech spy gadget I haven't seen before and perhaps a romantic tryst with a beautiful foreign agent will suffice, but beyond that...don't insult my intelligence.