May 3, 2013

CIA Reviews of Spy Books and Movies

In a fascinating piece for The Telegraph, Dead Spy Running author Jon Stock reports on an internal CIA newsletter that publishes reviews by serving Agency officers of popular spy fiction, films and television. (Read an all-review issue from 2009 here.) I found it particularly fascinating to read a pseudonymous CIA psychologist's highly perceptive take on the neo-Eurospy flick Taken (excerpted below) in which she finds some surprisingly relatable content in a ridiculously heightened reality.
Although based on unrealistic operational and relationship scenarios (most of us are not granted the opportunity to fix our damaged family relationships by becoming a one-time hero), the movie touches upon the hidden and quite common fantasy that a person can remedy significant family upheavals resulting from challenging and time-consuming careers or other distractions by ironically employing unique work-related knowledge and skills to rescue the estranged loved ones. Furthermore, Hollywood’s propensity to glorify the world of espionage as dangerously sexy—but hidden from most people living mundane lives—appeals to our fantasies on another level. While at times the world of espionage is indeed both dangerous and exciting, our loved ones tend to find our opaque and mysterious work unpredictable and frustrating—even if in real life our work and the skills we employ are often not all that far removed from those employed by ordinary people in ordinary, fully transparent jobs. In this sense the price Neeson’s character pays in his personal life refers to very real dangers to relationships caused by a covert lifestyle, not to wildly overimagined operational dangers portrayed in the movie.

In the end, therefore, Taken indulges us with fantastic tradecraft, dangerous psychopathic villains, and epic operations and portrayals of awed and grateful family members that have very little connection to reality, yet are very fun to imagine.
The most interesting takeaway for me was how positive most of these reviews are. I would have expected people actually engaged in the business of intelligence to be dismissive and derisive of fantasies like The Bourne Identity, Burn Notice, or Anthony Horowitz's premiere Alex Rider novel, Stormbreaker. But the CIA reviewers enjoyed all of those. Less surprising are their takes on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (read my own review here) and The Hunt For Red October. (There's also a humorous piece in which a number of recent trainees fresh off The Farm review The Recruit. They aren't all so positive.) Anyway, the journal offers a fascinating point of view on popular spy fiction, and is well worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary spy authors writing about le Carré, you can also read Olen Steinhauer's review of A Delicate Truth at The New York Times.

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