In light of the calls for treasonous combative action and outright spying accusations for top-secret intelligence leakers Julian Assange and Eric Snowden, shall we look at some of cinema’s most recent dealings with espionage? Previously fueled by cold-war tensions, the spy movies of decades past were often bleak and grim reminders of things that may or may not be actually going on in the higher offices of governments around the world. From the breezy but suspenseful Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest and the Bond films of the 60′s, to the stark harder-hitting cloak and dagger films of the 70′s and 80’s (Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the Jackal, the Falcon and the Snowman), the Cold War provided many a story-line for the espionage thrillers.
However, with the fall of the Soviet Union the spy genre took a hit with audiences that would no longer feel the tension of real-world dangers from East vs. West. With the Iron Curtain lifted, the covert-thriller film-makers needed to come-up with new concepts to play around with. So, I’ll define the term “modern spy flick” as being made after 1990, dealing with a government’s personnel on clandestine operations and not relying entirely on the conflict of the Reds vs. NATO. (Sorry Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but then again, you wouldn’t have made this list anyway).
The following ten movies show how film-makers adapted to changing times, attitudes and movie-going audiences in general, and their successes prove that movies no matter the genre films can be signs of their times.
10. Goldeneye (1995)
Wait, there was a movie made from the video-game? Yes, indeed there was a cinematic Bond outing to go along with the ground-breaking first-person shooter. After the receiving less-than steller returns for Timothy Dalton’s Bond films (a real shame in my book, as he was the archetype for Daniel Craig’s Bond) EON productions was caught in litigation over the series for over 6 years. It would take a something new and inventive to reignite the franchise, stagnant after years of Roger Moore and overly comical scripts. Enter Pierce Brosnan bringing some much needed poise and intelligence to the role, missing since the days of Connery, in this tight and taught spy vs. spy thriller in which his Bond must do battle with a rogue agent bent on collapse of the western world.
The explicit allegory of the Cold War has never been so much of a conspicuous element in Bond, save for a few outings, and in fact the entity of SPECTRE was created early on to serve as the main organization of evil-doing instead of stirring up the East vs. West rivalries. More often than not East and West would team-up together against a common threat, as in The Spy Who Loved Me and View to a Kill, but Goldeneye capitalizes greatly on the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent power vacuums created. Needless to say, this is the Bond film that put the series back on track… until Day Another Day pulled the wheels off again, that is. It is unfortunate that Brosnan was never given the material after Goldeneye that could match it: it remains his best outing as the super secret-agent, and showed Bond would continue even after Cold War tensions died down.
9. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
It took four movies but the Mission Impossible series finally found its footing with Ghost Protocol. After the first mostly incoherent Mission Impossible in 1996 the follow-up, MI2 was more of a parody of action movies than the real deal, while MI3 lessened the over-bearing seriousness of the previous installments to great relief, but it is MI4 that finally put it all together in terms of staging great action and characters together. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, America’s answer to James Bond, globetrotting the world in trying to avert WWIII with his team comprised of Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg who all add unique characterizations to the mix. The plotting certainly takes a back-seat to the stunt-work here, especially in a Dubai Tower climb which Cruise provided his own stunt work for, but it still an engaging tale all the same.
At times director Brad Bird’s animation background creeps in with the CGI use, but Cruise and company still deliver on all levels, and Ghost Protocol is a stunt showcase that managed to thrill audiences world-wide, even despite being the third sequel to an over-convoluted original.
8. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
As is the way of the Hollywood arc, the success of the Bond franchise could only lead to one groovy development – a parody of it. Ripe with comedic possibilities, the spy genre had it coming for decades, and many films had tried to spoof the Bond and the spy film genre in general, from the 1967 Casino Royale to Spies Like Us and less successfully Spy Hard. The genre finally received the full treatment in 1997′s Austin Powers, in which Mike Myers took on the titular character and plays it as animatedly as possible. Offering a successful satire of both the genre and the time period, the movie spawned its own series and fan-base.
Myers playing a dual role as both Powers and his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil is a laugh-riot even if some of the stereotyping is especially dated even for the late 90′s (but then that is sort of the point here) and the film lands some seriously funny beats. Great characters, absurd set-ups and punchlines complement this romp, taking the spy formula and deconstructing it for laughs.
7. Ronin (1998)
Though John Frankenhiemer helmed some of the most politically charged thrillers of the 60′s like the The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, he never quite regained the acclaim from his hey-day with some of his 80′s and 90′s films, like the terrible The Island of Dr. Moreau. He made a minor come-back with a TV biopic on controversial George Wallace and came all the way back into his old game with Ronin. With a tremendous ensemble cast including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard and Natasha McElhone this espionage thriller takes the genre and deconstructs it to the most basic elements: group A has to get a Macguffin from group B. In this case, the Macguffin is a mysterious suit-case that is being thrown from spy to spy.
In the vein of Goldeneye, with the cloak and dagger operations taking place in the post-Cold War landscape, the term Ronin refers to warriors without masters or wars to fight for. In retrospect, given the number of civilian causalities and amount of collateral damage, including some of the most spectacular car chases/wrecks in cinema history that the “Ronin” inflicted on Western Europe perhaps the Cold War wasn’t all that bad.
6. Enemy of the State (1998)
So we all assume that in those movies from the Cold War era those covert operations were for our own good, governments must overcome enemies for the greater good, and national security outweighs personal privacy. Well, here’s Exhibit A for the defeat of that idea: in the late Tony Scott’s homage to the wrong-man on the run movie, Will Smith is passed, unknowingly, footage of an assassination of a congressman by a fellow politician (played with great sliminess by Jon Voight). Smith seeks the aid of a covert expert in the shape of Gene Hackman’s Brill to help him figure out the conspiracy. As it turns out, in full on Dick Cheney mode, the murderous politician wanted to pass a bill increasing national surveillance with the unlucky congressman standing in the way.
Released a full three years before the Patriot Act was signed, this Average Joe vs. Spy movie would prove to be chillingly prophetic in a post-9/11 world. As Voight’s character coldly states “the only real privacy left is inside your head…”
5. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Everyone’s favorite rogue agent with highly-selective amnesia gets a spot for the end of the series (at least with Damon in the lead…). Bourne movies tend to raise the stakes with every outing: the first one, Bourne Identity, established his background as the assassin who turns on the CIA after a turn of conscience; Supremacy has him act on that sudden developed conscience by asking for forgiveness of his past actions, and finally in the third installment he wants to take down the entire organization that turned him into a weapon.
Not to demean the first two films in the trilogy, but the stakes in those were just not well-established, and Bourne is usually aimlessly wandering around occasionally being targeted by his former employer. But in Ultimatum, he finally has developed a goal: stop Treadstone and its agents, and that purpose drives the film on to greater success. It is a thrilling ride, offering some resolution to the character, and cementing him as one of the finest modern movie spies of this generation – in many ways redefining the landscape of the genre and paving the way for the grittier, darker Bond we have now.
4. Syriana (2005)
In Syriana – a grim and chilling examination of the dependency on Middle-Eastern oil and its effects on a global scale – George Clooney, in an Oscar Winning role, is a agent assigned to keep the peace in the oil rich Arabic countries, or at the very least make sure terrorism doesn’t disrupt the flow of oil. From Matt Damon’s industry analyst to Jeffrey Wright’s Washington Insider the maze-like plot weaves in and out of characters and locations so quickly and abruptly making the story hard to follow but irresistible all the same. Director Stephen Gaghan takes this approach to show how easy it is for corruption and greed to flood the system when no one single person knows the entire situation, and Syriana portrays its players as little more than pawns in a greater game of back-room deals and unaccountability, no one gets away clean in the oil game.
3. Fair Game (2010)
The real-life Burn Notice, Fair Game is a lot more vicious and calculated than the fictional TV series and is based on the real-life story of former undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, played wonderfully by Naomi Watts, and her public outing as an operative by the Bush Administration. When her husband, played by Sean Penn on typical animated form, is openly critical treatment of the government in the lead-up to war in Iraq, Valerie is targeted as a means to get back at her husband’s rhetoric. The impact is obviously severe: her in-field assets are compromised, operations ceased and the family are thrust into the harsh public spotlight. Not focusing entirely on the politics behind the scene the story instead examines how a relationship survives forces far beyond the control of the two partners.
The leads show great chemistry on screen in their struggle to help each other through the ordeal and it is their dynamic that makes the story so compelling. Fair Game is very much a post-Spy film: a story that scratches away the surface and glamour of the occupation to see the personal costs and unimaginable personal effects of a burn.
2. Spy Game (2001)
In some ways you can consider it a tribute to the late Tony Scott that two of his films made the list; nonetheless, this film would have made this list no matter who the director was, and it is also probably the most underrated of the list. In Robert Redford’s last great role to date, he plays Nathan Muir a senior CIA spook on the last day on the job. Brad Pitt is his surrogate son, Tom Bishop, who botches rescuing an inmate from a Chinese prison and is immediately convicted to die in the morning. Muir has to negotiate with his superiors to organize rescue, but there is a problem: they have no desire or need to do so, and Bishop is on his own. So he now has to stall by narrating his time working with Bishop in order to devise a prison break plan, from the other side of the world. All in a days work for him…
The real core is Robert Redford as Muir and his interactions with both Bishop and the committee. As he confuses and confounds those higher up the ladder of power than him into giving him more information about the situation in China, we see through his story the complex relationship the two spies formed over two decades. From trainee to full-fledged partner-in-crime, Bishop is the archetypal naive wide-eyed recruit, who never losses his idealism. The whole thing plays out as a life or death high stakes power game, all depending on the mentor to do all that is necessary to save the student/son figure.
1. Munich (2005)
Who said that the films on this list had to be about the clandestine operations of only Western powers? Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a somber moving and violent story of the aftermath of the Munich Olympics Massacre in 1972. Knowing that the murder of 11 Israeli athletes were orchestrated by the Palestinian Liberation group Black September, Israeli Intelligence Agency Mossad sets out to kill all those involved. Avner – Eric Bana in his best role – is assigned to head a team with that goal, but he is no assassin – he is actually a technician, but ironically Mossad wants just that to lead a death-squad (he will only kill the assigned targets, no collateral hits). As Avner and his crew, including a pre-bond Daniel Craig, go down the list of targets their consciences begin to weigh heavily on them.
Serious moral issues are discussed amongst the crew, not unlike the discussion on the hypocrisy of sending an entire unit to save one man in Saving Private Ryan. Bana perfectly portrays how the mission is starting to weigh on his very soul. After getting one member of Black September another takes his place, and escalation mounts as Avner continues his psychological descent.
It is rare that these questions are brought up in an espionage thriller, what good is really being done because of these operations? How does one’s soul survive the process? When does it all end? Uneasy questions and even more unsettling answers make this the best Spielberg film since Saving Private Ryan and one of the best in the genre.
Most of the ten on this list deal with governments being too paranoid about peacetime to enjoy it. In the end the people they were mandated to protect wind-up as the enemy. It is a cruel irony, that sometimes keeping the peace is indeed harder than raging war.