The shameful secret behind the popularity of spy movies

It seems that some tend to attribute too much credit to the goings on of shadowy operations. No wonder when we consider the longevity of the spy fiction genre.

via The Week

Shape of Walther PPK

Shape of Walther PPK (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (GNU)

Moviegoers love spies. James Bond is probably the most successful franchise in history. And when you consider all the spinoffs, descendants, books, television shows, and media-spanning imitators, it’s probably fair to say that spying is one of the top two or three subjects of popular media in America, along with superheroes and light sabers.

Most spy fiction portrays spies as noble and almost superhumanly skilled, both physically and intellectually. James Bond is always a master at whatever the screenwriters can dream up, up to and including sword-fighting with a half-dozen different kinds of blades. Jason Bourne speaks a dozen languages, fights like an MMA specialist, drives like a rally car champion, and can break into CIA headquarters without even breathing hard.

This could not be more dissonant with the reality of spy practice, which particularly in American history is chockablock with buffoonish incompetence, bloody failure, and “success” of the grimly horrifying sort.

So why do we love spy movies when they represent such a nonsensical fantasy? Because they serve as a crucial legitimation device for the modern state whose terrible reality and breathtaking incompetence we just can’t bear to face.




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  • zenonymous

    Of the characters mentioned here…they were studies in the exact opposite. In many of the films, the spies themselves become “enemies of the state” and more often than not paint an image of the state as corrupt and self-preserving. Clearly, you’ve hit no nails on the head with this one.

    • Echar Lailoken

      Just after the jump in the article, that you didn’t fully read.

      Even the Bourne movies, which are highly critical of the United States’
      security apparatus, can’t help but reinforce this perception. The
      government-trained assassins in these films are nearly omnipotent.

  • ÿ

    The Collective Unconscious just called. They want you to return all the archetypes you’ve misunderstood.

    • Echar Lailoken

      I can’t speak for Brother Elias, hoepfully he doesn’t mind, but what do you mean? This could be an interesting conversation.

      • ÿ

        But when it comes to spies, the film fiction is so removed from reality that it raises the question of why. And the answer is that we need to believe spies are supermen.

        The author is neither asking the right questions, nor correctly interpreting his answers.

        To wit:

        Many Americans fear existential threats from foreign imagined enemies, and have a deep need to believe that supersmart, supercharming, superskilled superspies beings are protecting us.

        So, eliminating the “spy” and focusing on the “spying”….

        The Lives Of Others
        In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.

        But the desire to believe that our bloated security apparatus is in fact doing something worthwhile, and with extreme competence, is also a part of the story. To know the truth — that our security and intelligence agencies are largely incompetent and pointless — would be extremely disruptive to the American self-image.

        The propaganda factor of these movies is (usually) obvious, even if at times unintentional. But it stretches belief that it too is the reason for the appeal. While watching them may very well reenforce some people’s delusions, it certainly is not the point (unless you’re a producer making a pitch for financing).

        I’m not unsympathetic to the point he’s trying to make, but this is just rubbish from conception to finish.

        • Echar Lailoken

          Many Americans fear existential threats from foreign imagined enemies, and have a deep need to believe that supersmart, supercharming, superskilled superspies beings are protecting us.

          It led to this comment by you though. So not a total loss.

          • ÿ

            Thank you, Echar. :)

            On the plus side, articles such as this inspire me to believe that I may one day write something of value that isn’t a comment on someone else’s article.

          • The Cinematika

            Please do and then submit them to Disinfo. 😉 I need more contributors! I think the more contributors the better. We need a wider range of voices.

          • ÿ

            Thanks for the invitation, Marcie. Given my interests, I can’t think of many places more suited to publish than here.

        • Echar Lailoken

          Do you feel you have the authority and hands on experience to make a judgement on what goes on in the shadows?

          I mean some people go off half cocked because they read a headline. There’s people thinking the CIA faked the 60’s hippy movement. Saying rockstars and such were there to distract and who knows what else.

          Something a friend said to me once may be applicable here. If anything, the Governemnt wants to protect us, because we are essentially their meal ticket/bargaining chip.

          What say you?

          • ÿ

            Only to the extent that I know my own shadow. Self-delusion is a powerful thing, and very rarely needs much assistance from outside sources. Obviously that doesn’t stop those outside sources from trying, but it’s more as if they are building on top of that which is already there.

            It’s often fun and distracting to get caught up in various narratives. But the efficacy of anything is whether or not it is actionable and improves your day to day experience.

            As for the hippies…most of them later became Reaganites…so the CIA thing maybe not so crazy after all? It seems to me that this is the generation that lives the whole “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain” to a tee. Granted, not all of them: just enough to get voting wrong for the last 3 decades plus.

          • Echar Lailoken

            Are you being serious with me?

          • ÿ

            The Hippie thing? No, not really. Vested self-interest explains the boomer sellout en masse quite sufficiently.

            The rest, well, it was an honest answer to question I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. What happens in the shadows covers a lot of ground, and most of it is not exactly nuclear physics or brain surgery.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I won’t deny that most of them sold out or bought into a more lucrative perception. They are likely the people who were posing to get drugs and sex anyhow. Lot’s of them were like what the hipsters are today. Rich kids wanting to slum it, because they thought it was cool. Or so the few documentaries and articles I’ve read have told me. I wasn’t there, or born yet.

            By the shadows, I mean stuff so buried by strange loops that the people involved are probably buried too. Or I don’t know. So many people appear like they know what is going on. I don’t understand how they would.

          • ÿ

            For me, it is something of study of comparing that which is within to that which is external. There are guideposts and travelogues of these shadows or strange loops, or what have you. But at the end of the day, the limitations are obvious: I am my perspective and only my perspective.

            Basically, I think our insight can tap us into some pretty amazing stuff. I just don’t know if anyone is competent enough to apply it. So far, I would grade myself “not competent”.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I don’t know!

          • ÿ

            See, I’m too long-winded to answer that simple.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I like short and sweet. Best if it’s applicable, and harder to misinterpret or fuck with.

            Sometimes I read stuff, and I think to myself. Wow, you could have said that with a paragraph. I don’t mean you. Maybe I grasp stuff easier than others, maybe some people want more words?

            we went way off course. Caffiene has me rambling 😀

          • ÿ

            I feel you on that one. Most journalism, for instance, lacks substance beyond the headline, and even then…

            When I get too terse, people tend to think I’m being blunt or an ass or both. Written form gives me too much editorial control and hence I digress…

          • The Cinematika

            See, I have an issue with that hipster theory. My generation (I’m a Millenial) has been hit pretty hard in this economy. There’s no denying that there are rich hipsters living in gentrifying/gentrified areas, but sometimes it’s truly all us Millenials can afford.

            Besides, if you notice that once an area is truly gentrified (say Williamsburg in Brooklyn), a lot of the “hipsters” move on to other areas (say Bushwick or Bed Stuy). I would say that’s not because they like living farther from Manhattan, where they most likely work, but that it’s all they can afford. I don’t think many people would choose to live in the hood.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I am sure you are right. I am far removed from hipsters. Living in the hood has it’s pros, but the cons outweigh them. :)

  • BuzzCoastin

    Uncle Homeland uses movie content as propoganda!?!?!?!?
    that’s pretty hard to believe
    more likely these spy flicks & novels are harmeless diversions
    with no more intent than to entertain a hard working citizen

  • VoxMagi

    Actually,…the spy on which Bond was based was a drinking, gambling, womanizing high roller who told bold faced outrageous lies to the enemies he was conning and infiltrating, The later Bond movies have developed an almost campy sensibility…but the earliest films more or less captured the ‘devil may care’ attitude that Ian Fleming commemorated as characteristic of Bond (and his quite real inspiration.)

    Now…if we cherry pick and compare modern over the top nearly sci fi spy fiction exclusively against the legendary blunders of CIA history…we get a pretty stark difference…but this is a bit like being shocked that Hollywood acts like Hollywood. ANYTHING that filters thru the tinseltown process gets gussied up and transformed into a nearly campy mockery of the original material.

    The bad news is that spy work, done well and competently, is actually kind of boring…because when it goes right…nobody shoots at anybody. Maybe money changes hands or documents make their way from person to person…but its not exactly the stuff of legends. No one notices or cares unless Michael Bay gets dialed in to generate some ‘splosions

    • ÿ

      Shove your brand new BMW up your ass.

    • ÿ

      I don’t know about that. I found Argo compelling. But I’m struggling to think of another spy movie not involving copious amounts of violence where the spying aspect is compelling. Manchurian Candidate, maybe?

      • Echar Lailoken

        I can think of a couple. The Conversation and Munich.

        • ÿ

          Hmmm don’t think I’ve seen The Conversation. Munich I’ve been hesitant to see because of the subject matter. Good Shepherd put me to sleep.

          If I lower the bar a little, I suppose I could include Spy Games and The Recruit.

          • Echar Lailoken

            The Good Shepherd be long, yo. Check out the conversation. It’s slow, but quirky.

          • ÿ

            Sounds like it’s in the vein of The Lives Of Others (or vice versa). And it’s streaming? Queued.

            Oh, and duh, I think The East would qualify here. Appreciate the rec, too, Echar.

          • Echar Lailoken

            True, kind of a twist on spying. You are welcome.

        • mannyfurious

          Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Breach, Michael Clayton, The American, Syriana, The Falcon and the Snowman. There’s quite a few, actually. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch. The funny thing is that pretty much all of the movies I just mentioned have been accused of being “boring” by most people, even though all of them have their virtues re: what realistic “spy” work is like. I enjoyed all of them, personally.

          The only “action” spy series I’m a fan of is the Matt Damon Bourne films.

          • Echar Lailoken

            I’ve been meaning to watch the Falcon and the Snowman.

          • Echar Lailoken

            The Limits of Control is another.

      • VoxMagi

        or for the world of political assassination by covert op..Day Of The Jackal (the original). The director chose to work largely without musical score…so that all attention would focus on the unfolding visual elements. No super heroic feats, no splosions…just a highly trained killer working his way toward a target. Good movie…because it didn’t try to be over the top.

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