Spy Game and Notorious
Alfred Hitchcock had a pretty good sense of the landscape of the just before and just after World War II. His 1940 film not only foresaw the march to War, but of the need to get the US involved in the War, ending on a call to help the allies. Notorious, from 1946, foresaw some of the implications of Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers without a sanctuary in Europe and facing treason trials in the US.
Notorious (1946) opens on a treason trial in the US for a Nazi sympathizer and the recruitment of his daughter, played by Ingrid Bergman, by a US spy agency to apprehend a Nazi friend of her father’s in Rio. Along the way she works with her handler played by Cary Grant, ultimately falling in love with him. It’s a movie of great performances from both actors, both are perfect in their roles.
In order to fully infiltrate the Nazis that had fled to South America, Bergman’s character marries the Nazi in question in order to learn more about nuclear aspirations by the Boys from Brazil. This was a kernel of story that inspired Hitchcock to make this movie. He originally wanted to make a movie about a con artist that marries their mark as part of their scam and the story evolved into a spy story in the process of writing. Bergman’s character suffers from an illness while she is married that the spy agency attributes to a previously established drinking problem that had made the room spin for the audience in a thrilling camera move. The for the Nazis is established to stem from the wine cellar, Bergman steals the key to the cellar in a suspenseful party sequence. The cellar seems to be a fruitless lead until Bergman and Grant accidentally break a wine bottle exposing black uranium sand all over the floor. They realize the illness Bergman had been suffering from during the marriage was not alcohol related but poisoning from uranium on the premises.
Grant steals away with Bergman to save her from her poisoning leaving Bergman’s husband to be exposed to his fellow Nazis for blowing their cover to the Americans. The recent film Operation Finale tells the story of the very real capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann to be secretly extradited from Argentina to Israel in the 1960’s. The real stories of Nazis in South America inspired very fictional stories like the 1980’s movie The Boys From Brazil about young boys that are clones of Adolf Hitler that are secretly being raised across the US to become forces of evil.
This story of an intense bond between a spy and their handler and a spy whose love life becomes dangerous reminded me a lot of the Tony Scott movie Spy Game (2001). It’s the story of a retiring Robert Redford who learns that the spy he trained and handled played by Brad Pitt has been captured by the Chinese while on a rogue mission. This gives a bit of a history of spying in the second half of the twentieth century through these fictional characters.
Through their relationship we see Pitt as a soldier in Vietnam, then as he is becoming a spy in East and West Berlin, he becomes established in the Middle East where he falls in love with an aid worker, then he leaves the world of spies in a Chinese Prison. This is a bit of a trip through the second half of the 20th century in US intelligence, the Cold War, constant turmoil in the Middle East, and emerging issues with China.
This came out in 2001, months before 9/11, and because of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attacks, it’s quite fitting that the Middle East is featured, but that the running story-line is in China is pretty interesting, too. Between the March 2001 release of this movie and 9/11, an American spy plane went down in China. The plane had collided with a Chinese fighter jet, the Chinese pilot went missing, presumed dead. The crew of the plane destroyed every piece of sensitive equipment onboard then was held captive in China. The 24 Americans were interrogated and detained in China for ten days until the US Government released a statement diplomatic enough for the Chinese Government to save face. It was enough for the incident to be completely forgotten by 9/11, just five months later.
I was recently watching through a few of the movies based on the writings of John le Carre, a spy writer, who, like Ian Fleming, came into writing after being a British spy in real life, but unlike Fleming, tried to base his spy novels in reality. Due to this closeness to reality, le Carre took up a pen name for his safety, but after his first book gained popularity his real identity was figured out and his cover was blown. He kind of regretted over complicating his pen name through a several decade writing career that has transitioned into the War on Terror.
He didn’t quite get the key issue at hand right in the 2001 adaptation, The Tailor of Panama. It focuses on post-Noriega Panama and the US handover of the Panama Canal. Coming out before 9/11, this hardly anticipated the geographic focus of current events, however, it did foresee the bastardization of intelligence reports to mold them toward a conclusion. The titular Tailor, played by Geoffrey Rush, has connections to everyone in Panama and relishes the attention of MI-6 agent Pierce Brosnan, new to the country. Brosnan’s character is desperate for juicy information that could accelerate military intervention in Panama, intentionally pressuring Rush into fabricating information. Such a situation ended up playing out just a couple of years later in Iraq in the real world when an informant that went by the code name “Curveball” greatly exaggerated both his involvement with the Iraqi weapons program and their capabilities, perhaps because he wanted to feel important. This was the key evidence for the Bush administration for War in Iraq, and Curveball’s claims ultimately were found to be unsubstantiated.
In Spy Game, Brad Pitt’s character fakes his own death, get sent to a Chinese prison, and is later extracted by a US team financed by Robert Redford’s retirement fund. The whole exercise was a plan by Pitt to get his girlfriend out of prison, and every goes on to live happily ever after… except Pitt who probably has heart problems from faking his death and pain problems from being tortured, and Redford who presumably has to take a job bagging groceries through his retirement years to make up for his lost retirement fund.
While Notorious also has a loving relationship between spy and handler, the relationship in Spy Game is much more of a father-son relationship. Redford’s character fakes marriages, perhaps four, in order to maintain a cover, either as a spy or as he is making up a story to the CIA investigators. Pitt’s character does not abandon a personal life as Redford did and he has to leave the CIA to enjoy that life. Redford finds himself retiring without another life to live, especially when his Carribean plans get sent off to China to pay for a black out that will be just long enough for “Operation Dinner Out.”
All three of these spy movies had a little bit of a sense of the intelligence landscape that was coming in their changing worlds. Yet, the most popular spy movie series in the world, James Bond, has a pretty bad track record. It was another Pierce Brosnan movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, that came out about four years before 9/11, and the key piece of technology that could not get into the hands of the bad guys was accurate GPS technology. In that case, it was a matter of months before that technology was accessible to the general public so that we wouldn't miss our turns again. And there hasn't been a single case of a Garmin being used for missile targeting.
Next Month: A submarine double feature of Lifeboat (1944) and Greyhound (2020).