This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”
But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012’s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.
What controversy the movies have aroused has been mainly about the torture scenes depicted at the beginning of “Zero Dark Thirty,” because the movie is hardly out to make even the brutal CIA interrogators out to be bad guys; it is noncommittal in its depiction of them and might even be said to skew the audience’s perspective in their favor by beginning the movie with the sounds of 9/11 to remind viewers of why they are willing to manhandle detainees.
But both films, while focusing on successful operations, also highlight some of the agency’s problems.
Ben Affleck and Jessica Chastain play dedicated, highly effective, if relatively junior, CIA personnel based on real-life models–he a clandestine service operative who specializes in exfiltrations, she an analyst working the Osama bin Laden file. Both are convinced, rightly, that they have figured out the solution to a difficult problem: how to get the diplomats out and how to track down bin Laden, respectively. And both consistently find that they are stymied by their own managers who are risk averse to a fault. Affleck nearly has his plan scuttled while carrying it out; Chastain has to constantly badger and harass her superiors to get them to devote the necessary resources to the manhunt amid many other distractions.
Thus both movies highlight the real problem with the CIA. It is not an agency made up of ruthless killers with goon squads standing by to dispose of troublesome agents, as shown in the “Bourne” movies. It is actually a hyper-cautious bureaucracy that too often fails to take chances because superiors are more motivated by covering their collective derrieres than by getting the job done. Thank goodness there are passionate risk-takers like the ones depicted by Affleck and Chastain who really do work for the Agency. Problem is, top Agency executives need to prune back the bureaucracy to let their stars shine.