The Search for the Perfect Spy Movie

Why Do Spy Movies Matter More Now Than Ever?

As long as there have been wars, there have been spies.  And almost as long as there have been movies, there have been spy movies.  “Talkies” began just in time for the end of World War I and the lead-in to World War II.  Material abounded.  Who wouldn’t like out-sneaking the sneakiest S.O.B.s of all time?  While technically a story of resistance, Casablanca incorporates many elements of espionage and is arguably the greatest fun film of all time.  (Citizen Kane is arguably the greatest dull film of all time.)

Then the Cold War happened just in time for the sexual revolution and things couldn’t get better in the world of spy cinema.  The enemy was big, bad, and consistent.  Outright war was an impossibility, due to “mutually assured destruction,” so espionage was a necessity.  Enter Bond, James Bond.  He brought with him sex, guns, gadgets, cars, British suaveness, and a knack for getting the job done.  Plot-heavy, character-light, Bond set a new standard for the spy film.

In Hollywood, Bond spawned an endless stream of knock-offs and spoofs.  (In real life he would have fathered countless children and died of a dozen STDs.)  Spies Like Us, Top Secret, Spy Hard, Austin Powers, and their ilk are among the greatest shtick comedy films of all time.  Spy spoofs, it seems, will continue as long as serious spy films are made.

But our world has changed.  The Soviet Union ceased to exist, we fell off our moral high horse, and entered the thralls of post-modernism.  It’s not just that we wanted more action, which Mission Impossible I-III have readily supplied.  It’s that we wanted protagonists who were more human.

Casino Royale radically reinterpreted the Bond legend.  He’s an orphan, a workaholic, and can (and does) get very hurt physically and emotionally.  We come to understand the losses that have shaped him as a man.  He doesn’t always get the girl in the end.  He gets the girl in the middle and loses her in the end.  The action is still fast-paced and tense, but there is no doubt: not even Bond is Bond anymore.

The Good Shepherd promised to be “The Godfather of Spy Movies.”  It delivered, in that it is the story of a spy who loses everyone he ever loved because of the very profession he hoped would protect them.  Roth and DeNiro (writer and director, respectively) help us understand with great clarity how and why.  Edward Wilson (Damon) sought simply to serve his country, but his agency ended up becoming his Lord.  I’m not just a theologian reading that into the story, as readily apparent from the title and from his boss’s quip:  “Someone asked me why when we talk about CIA, we dont say ‘the CIA,’ and I told him, ‘You don’t say the when talking about God.'”  The pace is slow, but the characters and story are gripping, if you can follow whats happening; this might be difficult for some, since DeNiro does not go out of his way to help the uninitiate.

Breach is a rare tale of counter-intellegence.  It is even slower-paced than Shepherd, plus much of the dialog is realistically, awesomely awkward.  But the importance of its question far outweighs its lack of action: What drives a man to betray his family, his faith, and his country?  Part of the movie’s answer: he wanted “to matter.”  When his own country failed to acknowledge his worth within the agency, he turned outside.  Dateline’s answer (footage included in the special features): he didn’t do it for the money, he did it for the sake of “the game.”  Scary!

Perhaps the best integration of drama and action in spy movies has been in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.  Even if The Bourne Ultimatum does not deliver — which it may, but I hesitate, not because of any short-coming in Bourne, but rather because of the extreme difficulty of making three solid movies together — the franchise has already proven its merits.  What are the psychological effects of job stress on an assassin?  How does it affect his relationships?  What choices does he make when up against a wall?  Does he run?  Lash out blindly?  Seek cold revenge?  Forgive?  Seek forgiveness?  And when he finally achieves freedom, what then?

Why do these movies matter?  We are raised to want lives like movies: all action and excitement all the time.  When I don’t find that action, I seek some flaw in myself, because life is more boring than The Matrix.  That is the lie that most teenagers believe.  I know I did.  I want to be someone else.  Who can do that?  I want a life of action.  Who has that?  I want to make a difference.  Who can do that?  A spy, a spy, a spy.

Anyone who has ever kept a secret, knows of secrecy’s power.  Anyone with imagination understands the allure of the trade of secrets.  The most powerful man in the world isn’t the man with the most guns, it’s the man who knows the most secrets.  Yet power corrupts and action always comes with a price.  The latest batch of spy movies enthrall us with their action even as they warn us that our actions sow the seeds of our own undoing.  Never before has the spy business been so personal.