The question came about 5 minutes into utterly trivial ‘Salt.’ Americans grovel before a larval Counter-Intelligence State (a term the deservedly respected, former DIA veteran John Dziak so aptly used for the Soviet Union). America’s tolerance for militarization and threat-addiction is so high now it shrugs off formerly toxic-level dosages without notice. So why can’t it make a good spy movie?
What’s the criteria is a valid first question. We’re excluding generic action-adventure blow ’em ups relying on buzz words to fill holes, mask discontinuity or fill time as mere exposition.
So no to Bourne vehicles and their Bond mimics, ‘Casino Royale’ and the inexplicably titled ‘Quantum of Solace’. Another genre. (We count ‘American made’ as Hollywood, so while Eon Productions is a British vehicle, MGM is the (now moribund) studio). Same for Ridley Scott’s tedious ‘Body of Lies’ (another hollow actioner using buzzwords and lazy characterizations to obscure the MacGuffin), fluff like ‘Knight & Day,’ the above-mentioned Jolie flick or the generic stuff that blends into one bad cable afternoon -‘Enemy of the Mercury State Rising’, etc.
DeNiro’s ‘The Good Shepherd’ is perhaps the most notable effort. We believe it failed simply as movie and purported character study. We find grating its self-congratulatory pastiche of some true life personalities, cloying inside-jokes and smug self-references and ostentatiously understated pornographic use of tradecraft to demonstrate that because Milt Beardon and others were around, De Niro was an honorary ‘made man’.
At least it tried to tell some hard truths about class, privilege and the prevailing social contract. Perhaps the most important service portraying the reality of emotional havoc and violence clandestine service often meant to families, especially children back then. (This at a time when ‘clandestine’ meant more than ‘waiting in the green room for the next segment’ or punching the clock for a later book deal.)
‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ doesn’t fall neatly into the ‘spy genre’. It was more or less a stylized docu-drama. Still, although Tom Hanks wasn’t able to summon Wilson’s full Texas-persona, it gets points for hitting the major notes in time and in key.
The cable show ‘The Company’ provides excellent entertainment even if correlation to actual events (also fictionalized in ‘Shepherd’) went out the window. Keaton, for example, as both actor and as the ahistorical part was written, is so much the anti-Angleton they might as well have cast Jim Carrey. But if we had to choose which DVD to be stranded with on an island, ‘Shepherd’ goes into the shredder first.
‘Syriana’ is simply an incoherent mess. Although like ‘Shepherd’ the Clooney-son dynamic is not inauthentic.
So what does work? Mostly, non-American productions and mostly television, so technically not movies either. Here’s our favorite list:
1). ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’: Alec Guiness and cast, script and production are brilliant. One is immersed into intelligence services, people and society from the most intimate detail to sweeping commentary all within a bitingly accurate social context. Many Americans serving at the time despised its world-weariness and cynicism – which says alot then and even now.
2). ‘Smiley’s People’: Not in the same league with TTSS in original written form, the screenplay and cast are still riveting.
3). ‘Reilly Ace of Spies’: Great cast, terrific script – and Tom Bell is the best Felix on screen to date. As one imagines he could have been as he realized too late what he has allowed to happen to himself and Russia.
4). ‘Topaz’: Because of Hitchcock, people tend to view this as a suspense movie. We thought it good entertainment within its time piece and its non-clumsy references to real world events. If Topaz counts, then we’d add the original (only) ‘Manchurian Candidate’.
5). ‘The Hunt for Red October’: Perhaps this doesn’t belong on the list. It is largely an action movie. The only decent Clancy movie (and book). One soon forgets the absurdity of Connery’s wig and accent and can follow well drawn characters acting plausibly within semi-realistic dynamics. Of course, it’s ludicrous beyond the telling of it that any analyst (Jack Ryan) would be doing 98% of what he does (OK buying the teddy bear at the end is within reason). More important are the Soviet aspects, perspectives and even dialogue. All ring true for the Stiftung. Plus, Harrison Ford isn’t in it.
6). The Prisoner (original only): Number Six. Also extrapolated from actual British sequestering during the war.
We’re sure there’s more. What have we missed? Are we wrong about American movies?