I, Spy

Dennis Harvey December 19, 2006

Spies have been frequent movie characters for several reasons — the potential for action, intrigue and violence for starters — but one big attraction is that really we know so little about them. It’s the nature of the job to be secretive, naturally. This is fortunate for filmmakers, in that it allows them to apply just about any fanciful logic to the profession. How many degrees of separation are there between, say, the more outlandish James Bond adventures and such outright spoofs as the “Spy Kids” and “Austin Powers” series? Not too many. By comparison only, the “Bourne Identity” flicks and those adapted from Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan tales come off as kinda-sorta realistic — though one suspects the lives of real spies are a hell of a lot duller, with lower body counts and way fewer spectacular explosions.

Not many movies have seriously approached the Central Intelligence Agency, which in the popular imagination tends to be something labyrinthine, dusty, booby-trapped, and questionably trustworthy — a Kafka-esque institution rather than one of derring-do or flag-waving democracy in practice. Probably most folks think about it (if they think about it at all) as a necessary evil, which makes it less than ideal fodder for popular entertainment.

Conceived during WW2 and founded shortly after the war, the CIA found its public image and reputation getting unwanted negative attention from at least the early ’60s onward. The bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and Agency involvement in Watergate a decade later were preludes to a near-nonstop series of scandals and dark rumors that commenced in the early ’80s. These are all unpleasant, complicated, still-debated matters, hence not very appealing to studios and audiences who prefer simple good-vs.-evil conflicts, easy-to-follow narratives, and feel-good messages.

As a result, “The Good Shepherd” (which opens this Friday) is an unusual Hollywood project in many ways. Only the second feature directed by Robert DeNiro — his first was the much smaller-scaled “A Bronx Tale” 13 years ago — it’s a long (nearly three hours), somber dramatization of the CIA’s earlier years.

The film views them through the career of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a fictive figure who’s first drafted for intelligence work while a student at pre-WW2 Yale, then rises to Agency prominence during the peak Cold War years. Immersion in top-secret work naturally creates problems with his neglected wife (Angelina Jolie, a most unlikely object of marital disregard) and the son who eventually follows him into intelligence service. The script by Eric Roth (of “Munich,” “Forrest Gump” and — gulp — “The Postman”) frames a chronological march of personal and historical events in the crisis of 1961, when Wilson finds himself unluckily embroiled in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Surprisingly neutral in its overall perspective, “The Good Shephard” seldom waxes critical (or laudatory, for that matter) toward operations and policies, though something sharp does occasionally sneak through. This happens most notably near the end, when one subsidiary character scoffs that with its relatively weak economic and military power, the U.S.S.R. never constituted a real threat to the U.S. — he suggests the Cold War was just a construct created because America needed the propagandic, industrial and political stimulus of a recognized enemy.

There’s not a lot of action in “The Good Shepherd,” which demands — and one might argue doesn’t generously reward — considerable viewer patience. Alleviating the subject matter’s relative gloom and a withdrawn lead performance are appearances by seemingly every actor pal DeNiro has acquired in his nearly three-decade screen career: William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Joe Pesci, Billy Crudup (who makes one of the livelier impressions), Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, Michael Gambon, Jason Patric, “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” long-absent Keir Dullea among them. Even Francis Ford Coppola is on board as an executive producer.

Reviews are sure to be pretty mixed for “Shepherd,” which just might be the longest and least-merry holiday release since Oliver Stone’s take on “Nixon” 12 years ago. But it deserves credit, at least, for serious treatment of a subject mainstream cinema has seldom approached.

If you’re looking for more movies about the CIA, “serious” isn’t a term that will come up very often. With the full freedom of genre-flick imagination, screen CIA agents have often been a larger-than-life, nearly indestructible breed. Their roster includes such he-men as Mel Gibson (“Air America”), Steven Seagal (“Belly of the Beast”), Burt Reynolds (“Malone”), Kevin Costner (“No Way Out”), Al Pacino and Colin Ferrell (“The Recruit”), to name just a few.

Robert Redford has been in or running from the CIA no less than three times: Incurring the Agency’s wrath by exposing Watergate in “All the President’s Men” (1975), as a low-level intelligence employee hunted for “knowing too much” in the same year’s paranoid thriller “Three Days of the Condor,” and mentoring upstart agent Brad Pitt in “Spy Game” (2001). Less predictably cast CIA personnel have included Annette Bening (“The Siege”) and Robert Downey, Jr. (“Air America” again — how’d you like him handling national security?)

Relatively sober treatment of CIA operations have been incorporated into such dramas as the fact-inspired “Munich,” fictive “Syriana,” Graham Greene adaptation “The Quiet American,” and defunct TV series “The Agency” — though one could not accuse Jennifer Garner’s tube hit “Alias” of excess realism. On the opposite end of the scale, the CIA has been mocked many times over — by such comic types as Tom Hanks (“The Man With One Red Shoe”), Walter Matthau (“Hopscotch”), Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd (both in “Spies Like Us”). Curiosity seekers might want to know about Troma flick “Femme Fontaine: Killer Babe for the C.I.A,” as well as “Night of the Zombies,” a horror film in which hapless undead-plagued Agency personnel include 1970s porn star Jamie Gillis. Two of the funniest and most unique movies to send up the CIA remain under-seen cult classics: 1967’s “The President’s Analyst,” with James Coburn as a swinging shrink whose knowledge of White House secrets makes him the target for intelligence assassination attempts; and 2002’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” The latter is a George Clooney-directed adaptation of a memoir by “Gong Show” creator Chuck Barris in which he alleged recruitment as a CIA agent while at the height of his cheesy TV success.

Unsurprisingly, all these comedy and action-adventure movies say very little about the no doubt boring day-to-day routines of most CIA employees. And nothing at all about the roll-call of not-so-funny business attributed to the agency over the decades: Mind-control experiments (some based on Nazi-developed techniques) in the ’50s and ’60s; undermining leftist groups in Western Europe; occasional use of Mafia personnel; orchestrating political assassinations, coups and supporting dictatorships in various developing nations; training and arming Afghan Mujahideen, some of whom would later turn into Al Qaeda; participation in drug trafficking, particularly during the Reagan administration’s attempts to destroy Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The list goes on and on.

More recent controversies have been enabled in part by post-9/11 paranoia and the Patriot Act. They include the agency’s illegal spying on U.S. citizens, the existence of secret CIA prisons, torture of prisoners, and moneys funded to Somalian warlords. Plus of course, “finding” those subsequently non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, which gave President Bush permission to sink us into our current occupation-cum-civil-war morass. It is worth reminding that his dad, the first Prez Bush, was the first former CIA chief to hold that office. (It is also worth noting that a decade ago, a U.S. House committee report to Congress estimated that clandestine operations within the CIA break “extremely serious laws” around the world about 100,000 times… per year. That figure would probably be considered drastically low today.)

There are more good documentaries to be found on many of these scandals and conspiracies than we can name here (do the Googling yourself). Some offer the confirmation of hard public evidence, others just strong speculation and accusation. For every declassified document or whistle-blower willing to go public, who knows how many more unpleasant revelations remain well-hidden from view? Or how long they might stay that way? No doubt in another 50 years another filmmaker will make another “Good Shepherd”-esque drama about our own era of intelligence acts both justified and shockingly not.