This weekend, the new Denzel Washington action flick Safe House opens, giving him yet another chance to show the world he really knows how to pick a role. In the film, Washington plays a former Central Intelligence Agency operative who has gone rogue and is trying to take down..well, everybody. In celebration of this CIA-inspired movie, Brett, Dan and I thought it would be good to break down some of the most memorable (not necessary great) movies based on our government’s most secretive agency. It’s a genre that will likely be around for a long time, with This Means War, which features Tom Hardy and Chris Pine as feuding CIA agents, opening next weekend and The Bourne Legacy hitting theaters this summer.
Let’s expose some spies!
Salt (dir. Phillip Noyce, 2010)
Of all the Trained-by-the-CIA-to-Kill-the-CIA movies over the past couple of years, Salt might be the worst. Then again, I haven’t seen Abduction… But I might be willing to give that more of a pass because it’s meant for teens rather than adults. Salt starred a franchise-desperate Angelina Jolie, and, despite its PG-13 rating, was presumably meant for grown-ups who wanted to see a good action movie, not a shirtless werewolf boy.
What makes Salt particularly bad is that it doesn’t feel like a movie. I mean the production values are fine, the actors exist, dialogue is written, scenes flow into one another, but it still doesn’t feel like a film. Put another way, it puts on the facade of having a plot without actually having a plot. People talked in hush tones, there’s an air of a mystery and conspiracy, and there’s action set pieces, but most of the actors in Salt come across as behaving the way they do because they know the tropes of the genre rather than the characters they are supposed to be playing. They can pull off what the scene is supposed to convey without actually having the details to back it up, and the script doesn’t care much either. It’s like the “Generic Greeting” segment in Soderbergh’s Schizopolis.
This is most evident in the final fight scene between super spy Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) and the mole/betrayer/colleague Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber). First off, we know that Winter is the bad guy because we know in these movies we need a turncoat, and Winter’s the most obvious choice. Prior to the reveal, nothing he does really makes us question his allegiance, but we also know that this movie needs that character, and he’s the one most likely to fit the role. Through the magic of cinema, director Phillip Noyce makes it appear as though we’ve reach the climactic battle. The fisticuffs between the two certainly seem like the ending fight for a movie like this. But, when viewed as a whole, it does not feel connected to the rest of the film. It’s as if the filmmakers knew we needed such a clash to end the movie, so they threw it in there because the movie needed to end.
Maybe Salt could have worked better as a quasi-experimental film. Instead of trying to thread everything together, make three or four vignettes following this one super spy. We’re not told when the storyline switches over and the movie flows relatively consistently, it’s just that at some point we realize there’s a different pursuer or she’s in a different country or she has different hair. It would make as much narrative sense as Salt, but be a lot more clever.
For those looking for a good woman-led Jason Bourne bastard, I recommend last year’s Hanna, which is vastly superior to Salt and most others in the genre.
The Good Shepherd (dir. Robert De Niro, 2006)
What is it with Angelina Jolie and bad CIA movies? While Salt was terrible action schlock, Robert De Niro’s sophomore directorial effort The Good Shepherd was terrible melodrama. This plodding, 160+ minute plus film had a lot of good elements going for it- including an impressive cast, large scope, and a decent director (De Niro should go behind the camera more often)- and perhaps that was its biggest problem. It tried to do too much, and in doing so, it fell apart under its own pretensions.
Extending from 1939 until shortly after the Bay of Pigs, The Good Shepherd tells about the birth of The Agency from its origins as the OSS through the eyes of operative Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). Using a biopic-ish flashback structure, Shepherd fails where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy succeeded. Whereas Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy didn’t belabor points or feel compelled to let us in on everything that happened in its spies’ lives, Shepherd painstakingly walks us through everything that could conceivably happen in a dramatic spy film and in the life of an operative. Recruitment, missions, falling in love, falling out of love, code words, betrayal, loyalties tested, etc. Edward Wilson even starts out as a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones society just so the film doesn’t leave a single stone unturned.
Yet all of those things could have conceivably worked in a film about the birth of the CIA, but they didn’t because the film felt compelled to add yet another layer of doldrums on top by throwing in Edward Wilson’s family life, in particular his son, Edward Jr. In case anyone wants a history refresher, Edward Jr. turns out to be the guy who botched the Bay of Pigs invasion for us because he had father issues. While the blatantly obvious point of this subplot was to show how the elder Wilson chose the Agency over his family in a pathetic attempt to hit the notes of The Godfather, it only served to make the movie more overbloated and directionless.
And, as always, it’s not about the length of the movie, it’s about how the time is used. Oliver Stone’s director’s cut of Nixon lasts for over 200 minutes, is infinitely more fascinating than Shepherd, and features an originally cut scene with Sam Waterston as CIA Director Richard Helms that ends up being the best part of the entire film. Speaking of time…
24 (creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, 2001-2010)
2001 saw the premieres two major action espionage shows- Alias and 24. While Alias collapsed after season 2 because of the multi-year jump, 24 oscillated like a fan throughout its existence. A terrible season could be followed by a great one, a “Day” could start good and end badly, or start horribly and end decently. And sure, while CTU isn’t the CIA, it was created by the CIA in 1993 in the 24niverse.
As bad, repetitive, plot-hole ridden, and ridiculous as 24 got, it never stopped being a fun show. When it was good, it was the best action-adventure television could offer. When it was bad, it was frustrating but still enjoyable to mock, to see what stupid subplot the writers had to throw in as filler (Erin Driscoll’s crazy daughter from Season 4; Teri Bauer’s amnesia from Season 1), to recognize where the writers realized they desperately needed to switch gears regardless of what came before (Dana Walsh in season 8), and to ask “oh right, what did happen to that guy?” (Jack’s surrogate family from Season 5). And, even at its lowest points, there was always the likelihood that you would see another crazy Jack Bauer kill. According to the 24 wikia, Jack earned a total of 267 confirmed on screen deaths over 8 seasons. That’s dedication.
The benefit to a show like 24 is that every season it was able to reset and not reset. Every new Day they could eliminate the dangling plot threads that plagued the previous season or continue them. 24 had the unique ability to get rid of practically the entire cast, bring back a couple of people, kill pretty much anybody, and resurrect whomever it saw fit. More than the vast majority of shows, 24 gave us the hope that every new year could and would fix the mistakes of the previous one(s). There was always something compelling about the first minutes of The First Hours when we leaped from country to country seeing the multiple plotlines setting themselves up. And even when the show failed us, there was always the arguably iconic Jack Bauer, his computer expert sidekick Chloe O’Brian, someone doubting Jack’s allegiance, a mole or two within CTU, the high turnover rate of CTU usually due to death and often by Bauer himself, and plenty of people to slaughter.
As disappointing as the series could get, if the movie is made, there will be something geekily exciting about seeing the flashing LCD numbers and hearing those beeps on the big screen.
I should also give a special mention to the directly-connected-to-the-CIA Chuck, which recently ended its five season run with a more than respectable series finale and as an overall good show.
The Bourne Trilogy(dir. Doug Liman, 2002; dir. Paul Greengrass, 2004 & 2007)
Prior to 2002, it seemed like the only action heroes American audiences were given to root for were cocky blowhards who always had a clever one-liner ready to go (see pretty much anything with Wesley Snipes or Bruce Willis). Back then, action movies were just about blowing stuff up and looking cool in a shootout.
That all changed when we were introduced to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in The Bourne Identity. Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, Bourne is a former CIA operative who is struck with amnesia after a mission goes wrong. Directed by Doug Liman, Identity is fast-paced, constantly layering more and more information about who Bourne was.
In the first film of the now classic trilogy, we meet an action hero unlike any other we had ever seen. He wasn’t unnecessarily garrulous just to fill up pages of dialogue. In fact, he only spoke when absolutely necessary, instead allowing every other character to ramble on as he tried to figure out who he was and why killing people comes so easily to him.
When Paul Greengrass took over directing duties for the second and third films (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), the franchise went from good to amazing. With a fantastic sense of composition and brilliant eye for cinematography, Greengrass elevated the Bourne moviesto a new level of filmmaking. Of course, Bourne still kicked plenty of ass, with some of the most memorable fight sequences ever caught on film.
The reason the Bourne franchise is so fantastic is the intelligent scripts for each film and the overall story that carries from one film to the next, never feeling tired or worn out. Unlike most film trilogies, the Bourne trilogy can be watched back to back again and again and never get old.
The Recruit (dir. Roger Donaldson, 2003)
We all have our guilty pleasure movies, and this is one of mine. Is it my man crush on Colin Farrell or the ludicrous idea that Al Pacino could ever be subtle enough to actually be a CIA operative? I don’t know and I don’t care. In The Recruit, Farrell plays James Clayton, a brash young guy whose has wanted to join the CIA his entire life. He gets the chance when an eccentric recruiter named Walter Burke (Pacino) sees promise behind the cockiness.
The film is unique in its genre because we get a glimpse into what CIA training must probably be like. On “The Farm,” which we’ve heard about in other movies but have never seen, the recruits go through physical and mental torture in order to prepare for what field work will be like. Farrell’s character gets it the worst and eventually fails out of the program. Or does he? The movie takes an abrupt turn to the predictable from there, playing into one of the oldest plots in the grand tradition of CIA movies: “There’s a mole in the agency!”
In the early 2000s, the crass, Irish-born Colin Farrell made Hollywood his playground. Between 2001 and 2006 he starred in over a dozen films (most of them mediocre at best), but his run was one unlike any actor before him. In The Recruit, he’s not only a great leading man but also a believable action star, which explains why audiences couldn’t get enough of him.
Spies Like Us (dir. John Landis, 1985)
Only in the 1980s could a movie like Spies Like Us get made. Of course, it helped that it starred Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, both at the top of their games, and was directed by John Landis who was behind some of the greatest comedies in the late 70s and early 80s. The movie is ridiculous, absurd and absolutely hilarious!
Technically, this isn’t a CIA movie because the agency depicted in Spies Like Us is the Defense Intelligence Agency (nice cover). In the movie, a geeky programmer named Austin Millbarge (Aykroyd) and a conniving blowhard named Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase) are recruited as decoys by the agency to distract the Soviets from its true mission. Millbarge and Fitz-Hume go through some intense training and are literally dropped into the Middle Eastern desert. Eventually, they catch on to the real plot and end up saving the world.
The movie is filled with so many memorable scenes and lines that it will never die. Chase and Aykroyd pretending to be alien invaders to scare the Soviets is just about as stupid as you can get, but it’s also pretty funny to watch. Spies Like Us also includes one of the most memorable scenes from Chase’s entire career as he attempts to be sly while cheating on the trainee exam. The film also created a loyal fan base for whom being offered a Pepsi brought whole new meaning.
Clear And Present Danger (dir. Phillip Noyce, 1994)
At the height of their popularity, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels were adapted into some very popular films. The Hunt For Red October, starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, remains the most popular, with Patriot Games running a close second. In only four films (to date). Jack Ryan has been played by three actors –percentage-wise, he’s got James Bond licked — but in my view Harrison Ford’s will remain the definitive portrayal.
Clear And Present Danger tops my list because 1) of all the Tom Clancy movies, this one is mired most deeply in the treacherous waters of intelligence and the executive branch, and 2) its deliberate pace and grueling attention to detail recall the experience of reading Tom Clancy’s better work most accurately. I mean that as a compliment, in case I’m not being clear enough.
In this particular adventure, Jack Ryan has become a CIA Deputy Director, and hence cannot help but feel the fallout when the President Of The United States (Donald Moffat, of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Robert Altman’s Popeye) launches a personal vendetta against the Colombian drug industry, masked by a thin veneer of Constitutional doctrine. They opt to keep Jack Ryan out of the loop. Mistake. There may be some moral argument made, but if you can’t tell the one straight arrow in all of US intelligence about it, then it’s illegal, and… no, no, no!
Clear And Present Danger has a top-shelf supporting cast of mid-90s vintagem, including Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, and Willem Dafoe. It lacks the constant suspense-thriller momentum of Patriot Games, but more than makes up for it with a liberal sprinklling of action sequences in Colombian jungles, drug lord mansions, and other exciting locales.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Ryan confronts the president in the Oval Office, furious over all that has transpired. It is one of the best uses of Ford’s signature scowl – the angriest face in Hollywood. In fact, this is one of the actor’s only “angry” scenes to top the climax of Air Force One.
This is one of those great rainy day thrillers, like The Fugitive or In The Line Of Fire — complete with intrigue, action, double-crosses, and a needlessly convoluted plot. Like all the best political dramas, it embodies every hateful thing we want to believe about the suits in Washington, and drops in a single upstanding and seriously pissed off citizen determined to take no more.
Hopscotch (dir. Ronald Neame, 1980)
Now for a fun one! Walter Matthau did not get a lot of memorable solo shots in his distinguished career. You’ll generally find him gamely supporting the bigger stars of films like Charade or A Face In The Crowd, or sharing the comedy spotlight with his frequent collaborator, the late Jack Lemmon.
However, he got to push his curmudgeonly charm to the very limit in Hopscotch, in which he plays a rogue spy named Miles Kendig, who decides to stick it to his superiors, basically just because they’re jerks. Ned Beatty gives his most memorable (yet, as we know, not his most infamous) performance as Kendig’s boss Myerson, whose determination to throw his weight around and put the seasoned Kendig in his place finally breaks the camel’s back. Rather than face the humiliation of desk duty or early retirement, Kendig develops a plan to publish a memoir embarrassing the CIA and divulging more than a few sensitive secrets.
Not only does Matthau get the chance to quip, mug, and sing his way through some pretty fine chase sequences, but he also gets to play the romantic lead. Once on the run, he gets in touch with an old flame, Isobel (Glenda Jackson), in Salzburg. She soon becomes his willing accomplice in all the mayhem. Director Ronald Neame crafts one heck of a film around these characters, with supporting turns by Sam Waterston of Law & Order, and Herbert Lom of the Pink Panther series. Neame coaxed a similarly offbeat role from a known face when he directed The Horse’s Mouth, which starred Sir Alec Guinness as a brilliant but severely maladjusted artist whose work is simply not meant for this world.
It seems entirely possible that Tim Dorsey, author of Florida Roadkill and the ongoing series of Serge Storms adventures, has seen enjoyed Hopscotch a time or two. While Hopscotch does not quite reach that level of reckless abandon, it is a similarly silly twist on the average crime caper or spy thriller. At every turn. Kendig improvises a last minute exit strategy to allow his escape and foil his pursuers in the most embarrassing and destructive manner possible.
At first glance, Kendig acts nothing like a spy ought to. He’s too exuberant, and even laughs at his own swell jokes. And then he hatches some brilliant plan from his years of field work and makes all the other suits look like chumps. It’s one of the least serious, and most consistently raucous, spy adventures ever made.
Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (dir. George Clooney, 2002)
This is a hip spy film based on a very strange idea, which at least one human being insists is all true. That human is Chuck Barris, whose memoir is the basis for the movie. Barris is best known as the producer of The Dating Game and host of The Gong Show, many years ago. Oh, and claiming to have been a CIA assassin at the same time.
Sam Rockwell puts in a roguish and delightful performance as Barris, a born entertainer who’s just looking for his break. His brilliant idea for a dating game show can’t raise so much as a sneeze in Hollywood, leaving him to despair in the arms of his beloved, played by Drew Barrymore. Until a Mystery Man from the CIA (director George Clooney) steps into the picture, offering him work as a deadly spy. Coincidentally, Barris gets a shot at producing his TV dream, which provides ample cover for his secret life.
As his TV career skyrockets, Barris finds himself drawn tighter into a web of danger and deceit. Sinister figures, played by Rutger Hauer and Julia Roberts, may be his allies or may spell curtains. He struggles to keep his lives separate and his brain together, and if you ever watch the real Gong Show it’s pretty clear that he was often trying to achieve this with a head full of blow. The thriller elements draw taut, as the tacky TV rise and fall story breaks it up with humor. Nonetheless, the glamor and the peril blur dangerously for Barris, and it becomes clear that someone’s gotta die.
Conventional wisdom (and most accounts besides that of Barris himself) holds that this tale is a pure fantasy, but who cares? If it were true, the CIA would make sure nobody could ever prove it anyway, right? Unfortunately the impressive execution of the movie, and the controversy surrounding the memoir, still failed to make this movie a box office success. Don’t be fooled by that. It’s a ton of fun, and you’ll want to believe it against your better judgment.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”