Espionage Cinema & Television in the 21st Century

Here’s a little piece I wrote earlier this year for Wes Britton’s Spywise website, where he invited spy fans from all around the world to look back at the most influential spy films, television shows and books of the first decade of the 21st Century. Due to the format the final piece took, this article had to be broken up to fit in with the other contributions – which worked well. If you haven’t checked out the series, you should head over to Spywise and read the articles.

None-the-less, breaking the article down into smaller segments did diminish the theme I was putting forward, and thought it was worth re-posting here in its entirety.

The spy film has changed quite substantially over the last ten years. Genre conventions that were established in the ‘60s have made way for a new style of spy thriller where the trusted Walther PPK has been replaced by the Motorola, Nokia, or whichever phone company has paid the most for product placement.

I would suggest that the mobile phone is the most powerful espionage tool ever. Think about some of your favourite spy films. Maybe they include Dr. No and Where Eagles Dare. They are two of mine. Remember the opening to Dr. No? After the title sequence, Strangways and his secretary were scheduled to make their regular radio transmission back to England, when Dr. No’s three blind mice assassinate them. In a world with mobile phones, routine transmissions are unnecessary. Sure Dr. No’s ‘hit’ may have still happened, but it wouldn’t have been a missed radio transmission that alerted London to the fact there was a problem. In Where Eagles Dare, during the mission, Richard Burton’s character, Major Smith reports that the radio isn’t working (Broadsword calling Danny Boy). Imagine if each of the operatives had been armed with a Blackberry. In fact, Smith’s whole ruse would have fizzled rather quickly with modern technology. The Nazi hierarchy could have ascertained the identities of the foreign agents in minutes.

Now think of all the films you have seen with enemy agents tracking down a piece of micro film. With phone technology that’s completely redundant. Now the images can be sent almost instantly. Video footage too. There’s no need to smuggle film out of a country. Just email it, or upload it. Poor old Henri Bark died for nothing at the start of The Eiger Sanction – remember that icky bit, where he swallowed the film so the bad guys wouldn’t get it – and then they cut open his throat to retrieve it? If he had emailed it, he would have lived. I have laboured the point somewhat, but you can see the argument I am presenting about phones, technology and why spy films have had to change.

Another detour before moving into the twenty-first century, I first thought it was worth revisiting three key films from the 1990s – building blocks if you will – that were instrumental in laying the foundations for the evolution of the modern spy film.

Firstly, we have Phil Noyce’s Patriot Games (1992), in which there is a small sequence where Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) is in a command centre watching via satellite, images of an incursion on a terrorist base in the dessert. This small section, at the time, was quite groundbreaking, setting the foundations for a new style of spy thriller. Ones where logic and information are the tools for power, rather than guns or gadgets.

peaceThis small snippet of hi-tech mayhem was expanded upon in Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker (1997), wherein the use of ‘intel’ and satellite imaging is quite frightening in its depiction. There is almost a ‘Big Brother’ aspect to the military’s use of technology in tracking down their subjects.

And finally, the new age of hi-tech intelligence gathering reached its logical evolution in Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998). Enemy of the State’s influence has built in momentum and filtered through the spy films and television through the whole first decade of the twenty-first century. While, Patriot Games and The Peacemaker were telling films in they both presented the use of modern technology, like satellite surveillance, as a potent tool in modern espionage; they still played out as relatively conventional spy thrillers. Enemy of the State was the first film to build the whole story around that technology. And while you can argue that Enemy of the State isn’t a really great spy film (it works better as a paranoid thriller in the style of The Pallalax View), its influence has affected the way people approach making spy films.

Now you are probably wondering what is the key difference between these three films and the spy films that went before them. The answer is simple – two words – ‘Real Time’.

The Bourne films, the Daniel Craig Bonds, Body of Lies, the television show 24 all owe their continuous intelligence style to Enemy of the State. In spy films you no longer need the briefing scene. Communications and intel gathering have evolved so much, there is no need for direct contact. It’s now done via laptop, through an earpiece, and/or a mobile phone.

Let’s look at some of the more successful espionage filmed entertainments of the ‘noughties’ and see how they played out.

The Bourne Identity (2002)
bourneRobert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity had been filmed before as a TV mini series starring Richard Chamberlain, and while it was fairly faithful to the book, it unconsciously highlighted some of the clichés inherent in the story. When Doug Liman remade it as a movie, he dumped a lot of the contrived spyjinx and turned the story into a tight, cohesive and intelligent spy drama. One of the key elements to the film is ‘knowledge’. From the moment Jason Bourne arrives at the Bank in Zurich, he is being watched. Street cameras, satellites, phone records, past associations; everything and anything is at Treadstone’s fingertips, for use in their hunt for the elusive Jason Bourne. Equally Bourne is adept at gathering intel. He may not have the resources of those hunting him, but he thinks on his feet.

One of my favourite sequences in the film occurs as Bourne tries to escape from the US Embassy in Zurich. First he obtains a radio and earpiece from one of the security guards on site, so he can listen as security teams search the building trying to locate him. Secondly as he makes his way through the corridors, he takes a fire evacuation map off the wall, so he actually knows where he is going. It seems so simple, yet it once again highlights the importance of knowledge.

Casino Royale (2006)
The high tech, real time style has been slowly been drip fed into the Bond series. The first noticeable sequence was in Goldeneye (1995), where Bond, Tanner and M, watch in real time, satellite images from Sevrenaya, where General Ouromov has just stolen the ‘Goldeneye’ satellite. But despite this high-tech modern opening, it is just a precursor to the usual hands-on, Bond style mission. Equally, in the pre-credit sequence of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), M and staff watch on as Bond completes a mission at an arms bizarre in the Kyber Pass. Once again, after having established a high tech, modern approach to espionage, it is then tossed aside for a traditional Bond style adventure.

Casino Royale was the film that revitalised the Bond series. I won’t waste too many words on the plot, as I am sure you’ve seen it and have your own opinion. Prior to Casino Royale, most Bond films had in place a formula wherein Bond met with M and received his mission instructions, and then once the mission was declared, he’d set about the task presented. But in Casino Royale, – and this is continued in Quantum of Solace (2008) – the mission is never really declared. M, who used to appear only at the beginning (and at the end, usually as a comic signoff), now appears throughout the whole film, working in real time alongside Bond. Each piece of information he gathers is passed onto to HQ, and equally each bit of new information gained by HQ is passed onto Bond. M and Bond are now working alongside each other. Once upon a time, Bond’s most trusted weapon was his Walther PPK. Now, in the 21st Century, it is his mobile phone and laptop.

Body of Lies (2008)
bolI’ll admit, I didn’t really warm to Body of Lies as a piece of entertainment, but I admire the films professionalism, and once again, presented front and centre is intel and communications. It is interesting to note, that Ridley Scott, the brother of Tony Scott, who directed Enemy of the State, directs this film.

Throughout Body of Lies, during key scenes in the film, in Jordan and the Middle East, field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in constant contact with his controller, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crow), who is located in the United States. It almost seems comically incongruous, if it the events portrayed weren’t so serious, as Hoffman goes about his normal life, with family and kids, all the while there is micro receiver, transmitter in his ear. In real time, at home or at work, Hoffman is virtually in the field – in another continent – alongside Ferris.

24 (2000-2009)
Leaving films for just a moment, the television series 24 fully embraced the real time scenario, but in many instances as far as the modern spy story goes, let itself down by not embracing the new technology and live-feed intelligence gathering that went with it. Instead, the time is filled with differing story threads, which play out in real time, but the stories themselves are pretty much in the old-school tradition. In fact, much of the drama in this series is achieved by the characters being out of contact with HQ.

Both Body of Lies and 24 offer a nice segue into the other major influence that has affected spy films in the 21st century — the ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of 9/11. One of the first cinematic responses to the attack on the United States was the film United 93, which was directed by Paul Greengrass. Now United 93 cannot really be considered a spy film, but one of it strengths was that it was played out in real time in an almost documentary style. There was no attempt to flesh out the characters. These were not characters – they were real people, as you would see people on a street. You do not know them, and you don’t know what is going on inside their head. If you walk past them you may hear a piece of conversation but unless you’ve been near them for some time and eavesdropping, the snippet of dialogue is meaningless. Watching the film was almost like a being a fly on the wall – most likely a wall that you were glad that you weren’t really on.

It is interesting to note that director, Greengrass’ technique would be adjudged to be suitable for cinematic espionage material, and he would go onto helm the Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum, where in which, he applied his unique directorial style.

The 9/11 attacks, not only emphasized the importance of hit-tech real time intel, but also, due to the people who carried out the attacks, made us question that attacks were no longer mounted from across the sea, but now possibly from within our homeland. The phrase ‘Sleeper Cell’ suddenly entered our vernacular. The sleeper agent is nothing new to espionage cinema. One of the best films utilising the ‘Sleeper’ plot device is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), where Lawrence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, the son of a prominent politician, who was captured during the Korean War and brainwashed in Manchuria. Other examples include Don Siegel’s Telefon, which featured numerous Russian agents scattered across the United States. Hearing a passage of poetry by Robert Frost could trigger each agent. Even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had Blofeld’s Angels of Death, and presented at the denouement in The IPCRESS File, where Harry Palmer has to fight to overcome his programming; he too is in fact a sleeper agent.

But all the examples cited above have one thing in common. Each of the ‘Sleepers’ has been brainwashed. They actually do not want to carry out their tasks. But what made the 9/11, and subsequent terrorist attacks, so chilling is that the ‘Sleepers’ had not been brainwashed (well, not in the traditional sense – that’s a debate for another time). Here the ‘Sleepers’ lived among us and where prepared to kill the very people that they lived and worked with every day. Of course, such a potent psychological concept – and the resultant paranoia that it brings with it, would make its way into films and television.

Of course, this can manifest itself in two ways. The innocent, who is suspected of being a sleeper agent as we find in the film Rendition. Or alternately, featuring the person, or cell that is functioning with the community, such as Showtime’s amazing television series Sleeper Cell.

Rendition (2007)
rendRendition received quite a cool reception from some quarters upon release. Many people questioned its factuality and it’s depiction of realism. The truth is that Rendition is not intended as a ‘realist’ piece of cinema. It is a morality tale, questioning the path that the West was taking in its ‘War on Terror’ campaign. If you look at the characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep; their character names hint that this is simply a fable to make you ‘think’ about what is going on. Incidentally, Gyllenhaal’s character is named ‘Freeman’ and Streep’s is ‘Whitman’. When you consider that the story is about the arrest and removal of an Egyptian born American, to a foreign country under suspicion of terrorist acts, then names like Freeman and Whitman almost slap you in the face with their blatant symbolism.

The film is a morality tale, and what makes it work, and not make it a ‘fairy tale’ is the central performance of Omar Metwally as Anwar El-Ibrahimi; the aforementioned Egyptian born American. El-Ibrahimi’s journey as a harrowing one, and while at times that may make the film hard to watch, it also makes this film, one of the most powerful in the last ten years.

Sleeper Cell (2005-2008)
Showtime’s Sleeper Cell – the first series anyway – was an amazing piece of television, presenting, as it did, maybe not a balanced, but a unique and different view of terrorism. In the show, each terrorist is presented as a fleshed out human. Why they have chosen the path they have is explored, and how they fit in to US culture is depicted rather chillingly. One moment a character maybe teaching math at a local high school’ the next he is planning a deadly anthrax attack on the local shopping centre.

sleepThe series is bound together by two central core performances. The first is Michael Ealy as Darwyn Al-Sayeed, a deep cover CIA agent whose mission is to stop the terrorist attack the sleeper cell is planning to perpetrate. Ealy’s character is dragged through the wringer over the course of the series, and each emotional bump in the journey packs a wallop. It doesn’t hurt that Ealy is a good-looking guy with piecing green eyes. Then there is Oded Fehr as the utterly charming, charismatic and deadly Faisal Al-Farik, the leader of the terrorist cell. Farik maybe the most evil character in the series, but there too is much duality to his character. Whilst not planning terrorist attacks he is seen as the coach to a junior baseball team. That in essence is Sleeper Cell’s major coup; it makes evil men, at times seem rather likeable and normal. If you met some of these characters in the street, you may even like them and consider them friends, without knowing what atrocities they may be planning.

In some ways, Sleeper Cell presents an explanation as to why and how the events on 9/11 happened. It’s a question many of us asked – ‘How!’ and ‘Why?’ Sleeper Cell is one of the few shows to address these questions, and as such makes it possibly one of the most important shows of the last decade.

As we move into the second decade of the Millennium I can only speculate as to what we’ll see in espionage cinema and television, and the most likely tact will be to continue as it is going, embracing new technology and surveillance techniques as it goes. But then again, much of this is cyclical. Maybe people will become fed up with realism and crave escapism once again and with it we will get outrageous fantasy stories. Or maybe around the corner there is an emotional character piece that will influence films for years to come. Whatever transpires, espionage cinema will continue to do what it has always done – thrill, inspire, disgust, amuse, horrify, question our morality, unite people, cause conflict, tell the truth, spread lies, analyse the politics of the day, and most of all ‘entertain’.

smallbugDavid Foster lives in Melbourne Australia where he works as a Graphic Designer. In his spare time he studies Film and Communication at the University of New England and writes for his espionage themed blog, Permission to Kill.

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