The new icon of Hollywood is not a celebrity or a movie franchise—it’s the CIA. In 2012, the year’s most award-winning and popular “quality” films—Argo, Zero Dark Thirty—as well as 2012’s best television show (Homeland) were all about The Agency, usually bathed in quite a positive light. Why have the upper reaches of the entertainment business started to love the CIA, after years of offering more troubling images on screen?
One answer is that it has been a decade since the invasion of Iraq, and it would seem that the Iraq War itself (Abu Ghraib, civilian deaths, trillions of dollars) has sullied the image of the US military. It has apparently become so tainted that Hollywood believes it can no longer assume officers are gentlemen. Military pilots no longer serve audience desire for moral clarity, as in the age of Top Gun—today, the star performers of the Air Force are pilotless drones, for one thing. And generally there are fewer soldiers and veterans on screen than after other recent wars; no equivalent of Jon Voight in a wheelchair in the Vietnam film Coming Home or World War Two’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which starred an actual double-amputee veteran.
Instead, today’s films have all-knowing agents, who tap, bug and lie with impunity yet somehow always wind up heroes. In Argo, it’s CIA operative Tony Mendez, smuggling American embassy workers out of Iran after the revolution. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a CIA employee who successfully hunts down Osama. If we throw MI6 into the mix in Skyfall, it’s a more realistic James Bond saving the agency itself from a plausible threat.
Venerating the CIA and secret agencies in the movies makes for lively, sensational cinema and TV, and seems consistent with their enlarged role in our military policy, through the massive increase in drones. But this glorification of spies is problematic. For one thing, it’s out of step with public opinion. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 53% of the public are “very concerned” that drone strikes may endanger civilian lives. And on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, 53% of the population considers the war a mistake, according to a Gallup poll.
The new Hollywood CIA love fest not only flattens that public dissent. These shows and films are also celebrating people whose actions are usually clandestine. That means Hollywood has now become another front that supports opacity and secrecy. It smiles at the moral ambiguity that is inherently part of any undercover work. Spies played by Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain and Daniel Craig are presented as the only people we can turn to for national protection. And we mustn’t forget the only woman who can save the free world in the show Homeland, played by mad-eyed, cry-faced Claire Danes (the excellent new FX show The Americans takes a different but related position: Noah Emmerich plays a counterintelligence agent for the FBI who in the Cold War early 1980s has the decency to try to save the beautiful Russian mole he is sleeping with). Celebrities thanked those in the service in their awards speeches this year, as if traders in secrets are great humanitarians as well. This reveals a troubling amnesia about all the things the CIA has gotten wrong.
There are good reasons why we shouldn’t venerate the CIA, including torture, rendition and drone killings—all of which arguably create more problems for us than they solve. The CIA is also part of the surveillance state that threatens our privacy as well as our fourth amendment rights.
Yet the CIA’s newly burnished image continues to get shinier. This is also a result of more ex-spooks peddling their self-flattering stories in memoirs, from George Tenet to Mendez, the CIA-employed main character of Argo. This upscale cottage industry has made it more likely that the CIA itself is portrayed as a hero rather than a villain.
Spies have often been heroes—take James Bond. And as Frances Stonor Saunders writes in The Cultural Cold War, the animated film Animal Farm in 1954 was funded by the CIA. But Ian Fleming notwithstanding, there have been periods in which intelligence operatives were far likelier to be represented as evil, duplicitous or simply eager to invade people’s privacy. Take Three Days of the Condor, set in the early 1970s, where an agent named Turner (Robert Redford) gets involved in an ethically murky battle with Higgins, the deputy director of the CIA’s New York division. “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” Redford’s CIA researcher character says, amazed, to his corrupt agency master.
Of course, there is a limited history of countries, including the US, that make movies that directly or indirectly implicate their own intelligence services in real-world crimes or misdeeds. But despite the occasional Hunt for Red October-type of film, more serious American films have tended to offer a skeptical and even paranoid picture of the CIA. The agency wrongly surveils Malcolm X in Malcolm X and murders foreign leaders in Syriana. It brings us closer to the Vietnam War in The Quiet American. The CIA also apparently killed JFK, according to its screen version via Oliver Stone. As played by John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire, CIA assassins in general are mad—and also try to kill the President (MI6’s agents were equally ominous, if we are to believe every John Le Carre adaptation).
Yet today, American spies are far less likely to be shown as ethically suspect, especially in the sort of well-crafted, even urbane, films and TV shows that are to the taste of middle-brow liberals. In an era where even a Great Gatsby adaptation has to be made in 3D if it hopes to attract viewers, few want to make films about moral ambiguity or pony up the money to put a difficult war on screen (The Messenger, the best Iraq film besides Three Kings, starring Woody Harrelson as the man who tells families that their loved ones have died in combat, was largely unseen).
One day, though, all of these well-made, CIA-loving films could result in a true and nuanced film. Maybe that movie will depict how the agency ignored the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction (Tom Engelhardt had other suggestions for CIA “torture porn” that might appeal to Hollywood producers). Perhaps another film will be based on declassified agency files of drone attacks on American citizens, which will be made public some day in the near future, as the ACLU has recently requested. I’d be happy to see it.