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The History of the CIA on FIlm

Since its inception as part of the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA hasn’t exactly been front and center in Hollywood films.

When it shows up at all, its on-screen representatives generally skulk along the edges and in the shadows, as secret agents are supposed to do. They keep tabs on our more famous citizens (“Malcolm X”), use innocent people as pawns (“The Man With One Red Shoe”), and hang their own agents out to dry (“Spy Game”). They assassinate foreign leaders (“Syriana”), military leaders (“Apocalypse Now”), and possibly the president of the United States (“JFK”). They can be blazingly efficient (“The Amateur”) or buffoonishly incompetent (“Hopscotch”). But they are always dangerous.

Mostly, though, the CIA just isn’t there. In “Missing,” a film by one of the most daring political filmmakers in the world (Constantin Costa-Gavras), about a coup in a country in which the CIA has actually admitted involvement (Chile), the only time the word “CIA” is used is in relation to the missing American journalist, Charles Horman, who, because he asks a lot of questions, is thought by some Chileans to be CIA. As for those U.S. officials barbecuing in Chile on the day of the coup? It’s just a U.S. military group. Why are they there? They’re not there. Why are we talking? We’re not talking. Why are you reading this? You’re not reading this.

Alden Pyle, toymaker

It didn’t have to be this way. Within a year of being rechristened the FBI in 1935, “G-Men,” starring James Cagney, hit the screens. Within a year of V-J Day in 1945, a slew of movies mythologizing the OSS, the CIA’s World War II forerunner, were playing at theaters everywhere.

But from the beginning the CIA was more interested in staying behind the scenes than being on the screens. They bought the rights to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and changed the ending of the subsequent 1954 movie to suit U.S. political interests. They encouraged Hollywood producers to use well-dressed black actors in films to offset Soviet charges of American racism.

One of the more prescient political novels of the Cold War era is Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” published in 1955, in which a cynical British journalist (Thomas Fowler) and an idealistic young American (Alden Pyle) fight over a Vietnamese girl (Phuong) during the waning days of the French occupation of Vietnam. Turns out Pyle is CIA, and the plastics he’s bringing in are explosives, and the terrorist attack in Saigon was orchestrated by Pyle’s man, General The, to discredit the communists. Pyle winds up dead but the damage is done: A U.S.-backed megalomaniac is ready to take over when the French leave.

Hollywood — with advice from CIA officer Edward Lansdale, thought to be a model for Pyle — altered the story for its 1958 screen version. Here Pyle is what he seems to be: a boy scout. His goal is what he says it is: bringing toys to the children of Vietnam. He still winds up dead, but it’s a simple case of betrayal rather than a complex case of the chickens coming home to roost. Which makes the film, yes, a little less prophetic.

“Americans aren’t brought up to fight the way the enemy fights,” the Gen. Donovan character tells his recruits in “OSS,” a 1946 thriller starring Alan Ladd. “We can learn to become intelligence agents and saboteurs if we have to. But we’re too sentimental, too trusting, too easy-going...”

You can dismiss this as Hollywood hokum, but it’s American hokum, too, part of our country’s idealized self-image. Honest Abe. “I cannot tell a lie.” Bluntness over pretense. We are the Paul Fist-in-Your-Face of countries. Skulking? How is that heroic? Overthrowing the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán of Guatemala in 1954? Where’s the action hero in that?

As a result, the agency’s now ubiquitous acronym was still unknown enough in 1963 to allow for the following conversation between Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau in “Charade”:

“Mrs. Lampert, do you know what the CIA is?”
“I don’t suppose it’s an airline, is it?”

The first identified CIA agent to appear in a mainstream film may have been Felix Leiter in 1962’s “Dr. No.” As an agent, he was perfect: bland and official. He blended in — better than he knew. In nine James Bond movies he was played by eight different actors. He was never sexy, never got the girl, always played second or third or fifth fiddle. It’s an oddity that Bond, the greatest movie spy, represented a second-rate power, but then the Bond movies are fantasies after all, escapist entertainment, and more popular abroad than in the U.S. If the hero had been CIA? Creating havoc in foreign countries? Not so escapist. Not much entertainment. The very toothlessness of Great Britain was part of its appeal.

Bond’s success led to a massive influx of on-screen spy organizations — ICE for Matt Helm, ZOWIE for “Our Man Flint,” IMF for “Mission: Impossible,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” — but not for the CIA. Agency heroes were relegated to B-flicks, like 1965’s awful “Operation C.I.A.,” starring a young Burt Reynolds let loose in Saigon, where, apparently, they speak Thai.

As the sixties progressed, more and more of the CIA’s operations were being outed, and they didn’t exactly make us look good. Assassinating world leaders? Trying to make Castro’s beard fall out? Spying on Eartha Kitt and other U.S. citizens? Just who were these clowns anyway? They seemed less defenders of the American way and more like the Keystone cops of the Cold War.

Which, of course, is about the time they finally began to appear onscreen.

The Keystone cops of the Cold War

This is how I first encountered the CIA: as the bumbling super-patriot Col. Flagg on TV’s “M*A*S*H,” and as the hipster agents played by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in their over-obvious attempt to re-make their “M*A*S*H” film success: “S*P*Y*S.” I remember a 1975 “Smothers Brothers” sketch in which Pat Paulsen, playing a CIA director, tries to spin the CIA’s role in a more positive manner — all the while receiving phone calls and painting “Xs” over portraits of world leaders around his office. The laughter it provoked was knowing; dig a centimeter deeper and it’s not so funny.

That’s always the problem with CIA comedies. In “The Man with One Red Shoe,” Dabney Coleman plays a deputy CIA director who says, “I haven’t felt this good since I overthrew the government of Chile” — a line which probably doesn’t play well in Santiago. “The In-Laws,” starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, is a glorious exception.

1970s CIA dramas, on the other hand, tend to be chilling and heavy-handed. Go down the CIA hole and all the lines blur: between right and wrong, truth and fiction, in and out. If someone wants in, they’re told they can’t come in. If someone wants out, they’re told, “Where might ‘out’ be?” It’s all very “Alice in Wonderland.” Who’s pulling the strings? Who can you trust? Not the CIA — they kept trying to kill their own: Burt Lancaster in “Scorpio,” Robert Redford in “Three Days of the Condor,” John Savage in “The Amateur.”

“You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” Redford asks incredulously in “Condor.”

Craig T. Nelson puts it more cynically in “The Osterman Weekend”: “The truth is a lie that hasn’t been found out yet.”

Even the good guys and bad guys blurred together. In “Scorpio” Lancaster compares new CIA agents to KGB agents. In “The Amateur,” a Holocaust survivor compares them to the Gestapo. “When I first worked for the agency, its use seemed so clear,” says field agent Walter Matthau in “Hopscotch.” “Now you need a scorecard to know who the players are. Even then it’s fuzzy.”

In “Condor,” the quintessential 1970s CIA drama, CIA director John Houseman sums up the decade when he’s asked if he misses the kind of action he saw in the intelligence field before World War II. He responds, in that impeccable Houseman voice, “I miss that kind of clarity.”

Jack Ryan to the rescue

As we all did. That’s what the Reagan years were about, right? Re-establishing clarity? Evil Empire vs. Morning in America? Yet our on-screen CIA remained fuzzy. It continued to use innocent people as pawns in power games: Rutger Hauer in “Osterman,” Tom Hanks in “Red Shoe,” Beatty and Hoffman in “Ishtar.” Its best agents were always ex-agents: Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal and the like. Men no longer beholden to the morally suspect and idiotic policies of their bosses.

Jack Ryan changed all that. In “The Hunt for Red October,” in 1990, he’s an analyst, not a field agent, but he still jumps into the fray — or, in his case, into the frigid North Atlantic. He’s smart. His boss, James Earl Jones, is smart. Hell, the agency is smart. This had never been done before. A team of smart CIA agents working together to prevent a war?

Things got crazier when Harrison Ford took over the role from Alec Baldwin and turned Ryan into more of a lone gunman (without a gun): fighting Irish terrorists in “Patriot Games” and Colombian druglords in “Clear and Present Danger.” Near the end of the latter film you get a preposterous scene: Ryan trembling with moral outrage as he lectures the President of the United States. Moral outrage from the CIA?

But Hollywood was simply following the headlines. If the big scandal of the 1960s was Bay of Pigs (a CIA operation), and the big scandal of the 1970s was Watergate (Barker, McCord, Hunt, et al), the big scandal of the 1980s was Iran-Contra, which, while it involved CIA agents in lesser roles, was a National Security Council operation: Oliver North and John Poindexter and the like. All morally repugnant ops didn’t have to be placed at the CIA’s doorstep. Culpability can lie elsewhere.

Even so, “Clear and Present Danger” has a forced innocence that’s hard to take — never more so than when long-time CIA administrator James Earl Jones, dying of cancer, is shocked, shocked, that his government could be involved in something as awful as covert operations in Latin America. “You thought you had a job that made a difference, that you thought was honorable,” he says. “And then you see this.” One wonders if the old man had been reading his memos.

Americans love their innocence and keep returning to it — against all odds and common sense. By the beginning of the new century, the CIA was considered harmless enough to allow for roles for kids (“Spy Kids”), teenagers (“Cody Banks”), Johnny Depp (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”) and Chris Rock (“Bad Company”). It’s a kind of new clarity. CIA? Wheeee!

Of course CIA movies for adults were still being made. For an action-thriller, “Spy Game” is a fairly realistic look at the agency. In “Syriana,” George Clooney’s CIA operative tries to cut through the crap to tell the truth about the Mid-East to “The Committee for the Liberation of Iran”. In “In the Line of Fire,” John Malkovich’s CIA assassin is the chicken coming home to roost. “Do you have any idea what I’ve done for God and country?” he asks. “Some pretty horrible things.” So now he’s doing them to God and country.

More controversially, there’s Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which suffers from length, paranoia and, above all, the smallness and creepiness of the men being prosecuted versus the vast sweep of history and power they are accused of representing. The film’s overall argument, though, removed from the sweaty, frenetic pace of the film, is actually logical. It’s “Frankenstein.” The monster we create ends up killing us. We created the CIA not only to gather foreign intelligence but to ensure that foreign governments remained the right kinds of governments. Any whiff of left-wing bias, any attempts at land-grabbing socialism, any friendly talks with the Soviet Union could be met with a CIA-backed coup.

And if the CIA felt that our own government had too much of a left-wing bias? What then?

The Bourne Shepherd

Which brings us to “The Good Shepherd.” Robert De Niro’s film is epic in length, has an all-star cast (Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, De Niro, Alec Baldwin), and is written by Oscar-winner Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider,” “Munich”). It just doesn’t work. Edward Wilson (Damon) starts out dull and then clams up. People in the movie don’t talk like people, they talk like themes. “If you lie to your friends, they won’t trust you and you’ll never feel safe,” Wilson’s father tells him. “Get out while you still can, while you still believe, while you still have a soul,” Wilson’s agency mentor tells him. We see where the movie is going but it takes forever to get there.

There’s a powerful scene involving the torture of a Russian defector that suggests parallels, for those who want them, between Cold War and War on Terror paranoia. Is our fear of the enemy blinding us to its weaknesses? Does our fear actually make the enemy stronger? Do we even know what we’re doing?

But if you truly want to understand the agency — or at least our conflicting desires towards it — go no further than Damon’s other CIA alter-ego, Jason Bourne. He’s both superhuman assassin and clean-cut amnesiac. He can kick serious ass and then blink as innocent as a newborn babe. This is exactly what America wants in a CIA agent. He does the dirty work our paranoia demands and then forgets all about it so our conscience is clean. Iran? Guatemala? Cuba? Vietnam? Chile? We just…don’t remember.

If we ever knew.

This piece was originally published 12/21/2006 on MSNBC.com.