Spies in pop culture mine our worries

THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY and its ever-present story lines of spies and lies are all over the media these days.

The release of New York Times reporter Tim Weiner's history of the agency, Legacy of Ashes, last month was met with critical acclaim, while a whirlwind of Page 1 stories greeted the CIA's release of its own 25-year narrative of coups and assassination attempts, known as The Family Jewels. In all, more than a dozen books about the CIA have been published in the past six months.


Earlier in the year, Hollywood offered moviegoers two major feature films steeped in the shadowy realm of espionage: The Good Shepherd, which charted the history of the agency through a character played by Matt Damon, and Breach, starring Chris Cooper as an FBI agent-turned- spy at the hands of the CIA's arch-enemy of the Cold War era, the KGB.

The cinematic beat goes on this weekend with the premiere of The Bourne Ultimatum -- the third in a tremendously popular trilogy of films featuring Damon as a rogue agent being hunted by the CIA that trained him. Robert Ludlum's paperback version is on the best-seller list.


Tonight, TV weighs in as cable channel TNT begins a sprawling, six-hour miniseries, The Company, dramatizing key events during the first four decades of agency history (from the end of World War II in 1946, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989).

Produced by Tony and Ridley Scott (Top Gun and Gladiator), the film stars Michael Keaton (Live From Baghdad), Alfred Molina (Frida) and Chris O'Donnell (Scent of a Woman) in the medium's most ambitious exploration to date of national spycraft and the bureaucracy that has grown up around it since World War II.

There is a reason for so much big-screen talent behind and in front of the camera: The Company was envisioned and developed as a feature film, according to screenwriter Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) who adapted the script from a best-selling novel of the same name by Robert Littell.

But after months of bumping heads with the other CIA-themed film in production at the time, The Good Shepherd (and its cast of Robert De Niro and Angelina Jolie), the producers decided to take the TV route, Nolan says.

Historic sweep

It was a sane choice, given that The Company tells much of the same history -- from the CIA's cloak and dagger work in a divided Berlin, to the debacle of an invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs -- through a similar strategy of focusing on the coming of age and graying of one agent.

Going small screen was also a wise artistic choice, because with six hours, The Company has the time to create the kind of historic sweep associated with mini-series from the golden age of the genre, such as The Winds of War (NBC, 1983) or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979).

Ultimately, the TNT mini-series is more like the melodramatic Winds of War than the brilliantly ironic Tinker, Tailor, which is unlikely to ever be matched as a spellbinding made-for-TV spy saga.


Still, The Company should be cable-TV catnip for those who cannot get enough of the agency -- an audience that appears to be growing based on the current pop culture preoccupation with all things CIA.

And that's the question: Why, in a nation where the average memory span seems to reach no further than Lindsay Lohan's latest arrest, is there a mass audience for such historical storytelling? Why do millions of us still gather around the media campfire to hear these paranoid tales of heroes and villains engaged in a never-ending dance of betrayal, deception and death?

Thomas Blanton, a leading chronicler of the CIA, says spy stories about the agency resonate with the deepest fiber of our moral being and national psyche.

"This is a genre that speaks to core human conundrums about loyalty and betrayal and means and ends," says the director of the National Security Archive, a Washington-based, nonprofit research organization that helped force the release of The Family Jewels through its Freedom of Information requests.

"Means and ends have been the foremost religious, ethical, moral issue since we began to philosophize, and what we, the American people, and our government have created in the CIA is an institution imbued with human characteristics that acts out our national debate about means and ends. You could call it an institutional anthropomorphosis."

Moral compass The tales of the CIA are really stories about us -- about our national character, Blanton says. They are a way of symbolically asking ourselves whether we have become as evil as our enemies in the battle against them.


That shared inclination to use spy stories as a moral barometer was vividly displayed in TV series such as ABC's Alias and Fox's 24 that featured federal agents involved in scenes of torture. The graphic depictions sparked newspaper stories and cable TV debates about the ends to which we as a nation should or should not be willing to go in our war against terrorists.

O'Donnell, who plays the fictitious agent at the core of The Company, thinks the heightened interest in the CIA today might be connected to shared anxiety about how America came to be in a place of such great international jeopardy -- and how best to behave in the war against terrorists.

"The Cold War is over, but we're suddenly involved in another war that seems much more confusing -- and I don't just mean the war in Iraq. I mean the war on terrorism," O'Donnell says. "Who is our enemy?"

David Martin, author of Wilderness of Mirrors (Harper and Row, 1980), a non-fiction book focused on two of the CIA agents featured in The Company, is certain that the war on terrorism and the secrecy with which it is largely being conducted are responsible for the CIA weighing so heavily on the public mind these days.

"Sure, this is the war, which [Vice President Richard] Cheney said is being fought on 'the dark side.' The CIA has been in the news with the secret prisons and the allegations of torture, so, for people who want to believe the worst about the CIA, it's all out there in the current events. And unearthing the scandals and the failures of the past will further feed that appetite," says Martin, national security correspondent for CBS News.

Nolan, the screenwriter, says there is dramatic power in shining light on the dark side, and that is what he tried to capture in The Company.


"There's a lot of All The President's Men feeling when I read a book like The Company. It's about finding out that the people in charge do not always have your best interests in mind when they're doing the things that they're doing," he says.

"I mean, the methods they use to get where they're going just seem pretty unsavory. What have these guys who have so much power been doing behind closed doors?"