Britain has MI6 super-spy James Bond, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first cinematic adventure; the US has the Central Intelligence Agency. Since its inception in 1947 the agency has been the backdrop for dozens of films and television series and, regardless of geopolitical trends, the movies and shows keep coming.
In the past year alone, Hollywood has given us Safe House, starring Denzel Washington as an agent gone rogue in South Africa; Argo, which depicts the rescue of US embassy hostages in 1979 Tehran; and The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner as an ass-kicking assassin – a role usually occupied by Matt Damon.
The hottest show on television on both sides of the Atlantic is Homeland, in which a female CIA agent battles depression and lusty thoughts as she tries to foil a terrorist attack, which may or may not involve the object of her affection: an all-American marine who has converted to Islam following a prolonged stint as a prisoner of war in Iraq. With its increasingly outlandish plot lines, Homeland may have “jumped the shark” to use the correct Hollywood parlance for a show that has crossed the Rubicon into absurdity. This is just as well, because later this month a film will be released by Sony Pictures that shows the CIA in a rather more compelling, convincing light.
Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Taut, gripping and brilliantly executed, it makes Homeland – and most other depictions of the CIA – look like daytime soap operas. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the team that made the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, it centres on the lone, female CIA analyst who first identified the courier who would lead the agency to bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The importance of the woman’s role in locating the leader of al-Qaeda is revealed for the first time in the film, which weaves investigative material unearthed by Mr Boal – a journalist, as well as a screenwriter – with heart-pounding re-creations of terrorist attacks.
There were suspicions before last month’s presidential election that the White House had been complicit in the release of classified material to Mr Boal, and that the film would play up President Barack Obama’s role in the mission. Judicial Watch, a group that says it is a “conservative non-partisan educational foundation” obtained emails between CIA officials and the film-makers, claiming the Obama administration played “fast and loose with national security information” to help Mr Boal and Ms Bigelow. The original October release date stoked suspicions that it would further the president’s re-election chances.
As it turns out, this theory was wrong, and not just because the US release was pushed back to December 19. The president merits barely a mention in the film, which makes the CIA agents and their pursuit of bin Laden its unrelenting focus. More credit is implicitly given to waterboarding, the so-called “enhanced interrogation” technique that many human-rights activists say should be classified as torture.
Waterboarding, the film reveals, was essential to finding bin Laden: it was while being subjected to it that a terrorist suspect first revealed the name of bin Laden’s courier. These scenes can make for uncomfortable viewing but there is no moralising from the film-makers. Instead, the subtext is clear: it is doubtful that the crucial information would have been obtained without it.
Nothing diverts from the central narrative – the pursuit of any tip or lead that could light the way to bin Laden. None of the main CIA characters has a “backstory” or family life to speak of. All we see are the agents at work. Ms Bigelow cast actors not defined by mega-stardom or a public persona, instead relying, in the main, on a vast ensemble of largely British or Australian actors. This works – up to the point when James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano himself) appears as the gruff former CIA director Leon Panetta.
Yet this does not detract from a film that strikes a blow for cinema at a time when television – with shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and even Homeland – has laid claim to its crown as the most creative visual art form. Ms Bigelow and Mr Boal have broken new ground in Zero Dark Thirty, blending investigative journalism and recent history with stripped down, adrenalin-filled storytelling. Hollywood producers relying on hoary clichés about the CIA would be wise to take note.