The new icon of Hollywood is not a celebrity or a movie franchise — it’s the CIA. In 2012, the year’s most award-winning and popular “quality” films – Argo, Zero Dark Thirty – as well as 2012′s best television show (Homeland) were all about The Agency, usually bathed in quite a positive light. Why have the upper reaches of the entertainment business started to love the CIA, after years of offering more troubling images on screen?
One answer is that it has been a decade since the invasion of Iraq, and it would seem that the Iraq War itself (Abu Ghraib, civilian deaths, trillions of dollars) has sullied the image of the U.S. military. It has apparently become so tainted that Hollywood believes it can no longer assume officers are gentlemen. Military pilots no longer serve audience desire for moral clarity, as in the age of Top Gun — today, the star performers of the Air Force are pilotless drones, for one thing. And generally there are fewer soldiers and veterans on screen than after other recent wars; no equivalent of Jon Voight in a wheelchair in the Vietnam film Coming Home or World War Two’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which starred an actual double-amputee veteran.
Instead, today’s films have all-knowing agents, who tap, bug and lie with impunity yet somehow always wind up heroes. In Argo, it’s CIA operative Tony Mendez, smuggling American embassy workers out of Iran after the revolution. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a CIA employee who successfully hunts down Osama. If we throw MI6 into the mix in Skyfall, it’s a more realistic James Bond saving the agency itself from a plausible threat.
Venerating the CIA and secret agencies in the movies makes for lively, sensational cinema and TV, and seems consistent with their enlarged role in our military policy, through the massive increase in drones. But this glorification of spies is problematic. For one thing, it’s out of step with public opinion. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 53 percent of the public are “very concerned” that drone strikes may endanger civilian lives. And on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, 53 percent of the population considers the war a mistake, according to a Gallup poll.
The new Hollywood CIA love fest not only flattens that public dissent. These shows and films are also celebrating people whose actions are usually clandestine. That means Hollywood has now become another front that supports opacity and secrecy. It smiles at the moral ambiguity that is inherently part of any undercover work. Spies played by Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain and Daniel Craig are presented as the only people we can turn to for national protection. And we mustn’t forget the only woman who can save the free world in the show Homeland, played by mad-eyed, cry-faced Claire Danes. (The excellent new FX show The Americans takes a different but related position: Noah Emmerich plays a counterintelligence agent for the FBI who in the Cold War early ’80s has the decency to try to save the beautiful Russian mole he is sleeping with.) Celebrities thanked those in the service in their awards speeches this year, as if traders in secrets are great humanitarians as well. This reveals a troubling amnesia about all the things the CIA has gotten wrong.