Movies are, as with many forms of media, a reflection of our desire to indulge in escapism. The challenges are more exciting, the actors more attractive, the romance sweeter. That is of course one of the reasons that we love espionage movies: what could be more exciting and dramatic than imagining ourselves as international spies, with beautiful women at our side and dashing, Monaco-based enemies to overtake?
Alas, what little I know about espionage paints these tales to be, well, exaggerated. Real spies often spend less time in tuxedos than they do simply waiting, sometimes for years, and sometimes with nothing to show for their efforts even then. (Consider the group of Russian spies who lived in America for ten years under the so-called “Illegals Program” and reportedly never even obtained any classified information.) It may be a dangerous job, with exposure of your role leading to any number of unwanted outcomes (With the prisoner swap that the Russians underwent probably the best possible one), but the vast majority of spies, both official and non-official, probably never experience anything as dramatic as making it through Checkpoint Charlie by the skin of their teeth, or what have you. (And, now that I type this, I realize that someone really needs to make a location page for Checkpoint Charlie.)
Films, of course, will almost always opt for the dramatic and the dangerous over the sometimes prosaic realities of spy work, but that doesn’t mean that many espionage-based films don’t at least try to portray espionage as something other than glamorous gunfire. Many of them are based on real events, at least in part: think Breach or Rendition or Syriana, although it’s likely that the real best stories from the last fifty years of espionage are likely to be classified for a long, long time.
This week, as we look forward to the release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a spy film that focuses on a complicated molehunt inside the British external intelligence agency, MI6, we're going to look at films that take a more "realistic" look at espionage, however you may interpret that. TTSS is not a story about gunplay and spy gadgets; one of the most exciting scenes in the book it's based on actually focuses on a man going through files in a library, to give you an idea. We’re not going to be talking about James Bond or Jason Bourne here; instead, we’re going to be looking at movies that at least attempt to portray some of the more realistic (if fabricated) complications about modern espionage. I’m still getting in feature ideas from our freelancers, but so far, we have Andrew Gray chiming in with historically accurate intelligence operations from WWII and previous as portrayed in films like The Man Who Never Was and Lawrence Of Arabia. Matthew Floratos will look at the more gritty style of spy film that we have in the 21st century, and how real-world events (9/11 among them) might have impacted that shift. I’ll be chiming in with a Besties for Spartan, which, even though it might feature a fairly ridiculous plot, also has a story influenced by the real-world experiences of special forces operatives.