Once, there was a great divide in the great spy game- espionage stories could be either great dark literature, or they were pure escapism. John Le Carr and Graham Greene were the masters of the gritty literary spy, eschewing the action escapist spies like James Bond or the Man from U.N.C.L. E. There was real spycraft, and then there was just fantasy spydom. There was real spycraft, and then there was just fantasy spydom. The great Roy Marsden spymaster from “The Sandbaggers” summed it up "If you want James Bond, go to a library." The real spies are for real, with dirty jobs that had to be done, and with high stakes for the world.
But now, a third kind of spy thriller has emerged- the zero spy, with little connection to either the literary spy or the fantasy spy. The zero spy is a fanciful and confused cardboard concoction that exists only to befuddle the audience with an incomprehensible non-plot. Apparently the zero spy himself has no clue who he is working for or why. There is no effort to actually solve the mystery he is in. The audience leaves the theater wondering why they went to see the movie.
“State of Play” and “Duplicity,” are the newest examples of spy netherworld non-thrillers. “Duplicity,” the Julia Roberts vehicle that had so many triple-double agent plot twists that the protagonists are left by themselves sitting in a complete muddle. So does the audience. The writer's apparently treated the their characters- and their audience- as kind of rag dolls to gleefully buffet back and forth at will. First, the bad guys are the good guys, and vice versa, then versa vice, until no one cares.
What would George Smiley or Sherlock Holmes make of a plot that trivializes the Circus to the point that there is no point? The fictional characters are supposed to put their lives on the line- for nothing?
Similarly, “State of Play” pretends at first to be about the great issues of our times - government, corruption, intrigues and secrecy about to undermine our democracy, and a flailing newspaper-military-industrial complex unable to print the truth. Yet, the movie devolves into just another typical politician tripping over his own zipper. The movie forgets to deal with the big government-military conspiracy that is by no mean resolved or even explained.
It is as if Hamlet never got around to solving who killed his father, and just left the state of Denmark to continue to sink in its rottenness.
Sure, the serious spy does not win all his missions- John Le Carre's spies often look back in disbelief at what control sent them to do, and in the end, the spy might refuse, or defect, or sabotage his own mission. But the spy had conviction, or a crisis of conscience, or at least the will to solve the mystery following a solid plot. There was a reason to see the movie, and a resolution explaining the spies efforts.
We live in a troubled age, with a wealth of issues ripe for movies that matter. Do we really need another movie patterned on the television series “Alias,” where agents flip sides at least twice between every commercial? Is this supposed to be a reflection of some kind of everyman that fails to find a connection or loyalty to anything?
Some call the post 9/11 world the decade of spy thrillers. Some great spy thrillers include “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardner,” “Munich” and “Michael Clayton.” The real-life “Insider” was at its core a spy-versus-spy movie. Many of these movies directly trace back to “Three Days of the Condor,” the movie much more effectively asked many of the same questions as “State of Play.” Is there a secret CIA inside the CIA? Will newspapers tell the truth?
We live in a serious age with serious problems. There is no shortage of great material for the great spymasters and Hamlets of the world to wrestle with. That is the point and the power of great spy thrillers- to invite audiences to grapple with very real and present dangers, even if in a fictionalized story.
Spy thrillers are not an invention of the modern age. Odysseus was the consummate spy using a spy contraption greater than Q ever dreamed- the Trojan horse. Casablanca, at its core, was a story of double and triple agents, but with a wonderfully unifying plot. The Bible, Homer and Alexandre Dumas used priests and princes as spies.
Spy thriller audiences deserve more respect. It's time for an end to the pretentious non-stories of “State of Play”, “Duplicity,” and “Alias.” The world needs our best spymasters, both fictional and non-fictional, to inspire the best in us, as never before.
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