1. Langley, we have a problem…
Last week I went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird’s well-received addition to the decidedly uneven Mission Impossible franchise. While my opinion of the film is that it is really nothing more than a competently made action film, the film’s central plot conceit is absolutely fascinating for what it says about how we perceive the workings of government. Take a look at the trailer and you will see what I mean.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol trailer
The key passage is this:
An hour ago, a bomb blew up the Kremlin. The President has initiated GHOST PROTOCOL. The entire IMF has been disavowed. Now I’ve been ordered to take you to Washington where they will hang the Kremlin bombing on you and your team… unless you were to escape after assaulting Brandt and me. But if any one of your team is caught, they will be branded terrorists out to incite global nuclear war.
In other words, something disastrous happens in Russia and the President responds by a) summarily shit-canning an entire intelligence agency and b) blaming the disaster on one of that agency’s most respected employees before singling him and his team out for prosecution in what sound a lot like a series of show-trials designed to placate the Russians.
2. The problem is in Human Resources
There are two obvious sets of problems with this particular choice of policy:
The first is that it is insanely wasteful. Presumably the US government funds the IMF and presumably they have spent billions of dollars not only on training IMF personnel but also on setting up the kind of infrastructure that allows the IMF to operate in the field (and that’s without discussing how much it costs to build magnetic gloves and photo-realistic latex masks). Now, because of an unexpected series of events that really did not have all that much to do with the IMF, the President has frozen all of the IMF’s assets and sent all of its agents and support personnel to the unemployment office. That’s tens of billions of dollars wasted.
The second is that, far from being an off-the-cuff overreaction to an unexpected series of events, the Ghost Protocols had their own code name implying that they existed as a policy document prior to the events at the Kremlin. In other words, someone must have called someone else into their office and asked them to come up with a policy for dealing with a certain kind of problem. This underling would then have gone away and had meetings with analysts and senior officials before typing up a set of recommendations including show trials and sacking every employee of an multi-billion dollar intelligence agency. This underling would then have had a meeting with their boss who would have passed the report up the chain of command to someone else who will have gone ‘Yes… shutting down the entire IMF sounds like an eminently sensible solution and show trials are always a good way of solving problems’. This person will then have handed the recommendations down to Human Resources who would have amended employment contracts to reflect the fact that summary dismissal, betrayal and scapegoating are all accepted parts of the IMF’s internal disciplinary procedures.
In other words, both the US government and its intelligence services are intensely bureaucratic entities that assume betrayal, irrationality, wastefulness and hysteria are the best responses to an international crisis. No wonder the US intelligence services dropped the ball on 9/11, who else but an idiot would choose to work for an organisation that betrays and scapegoats its employees at the first sign of trouble?
3. The Problem has Always Been With Us
The most striking thing about this plot device is that it seems entirely believable that the US government would turn on its own agents. One explanation for the credibility of this plot device is that the duplicitous nature of intelligence work has long been a pillar of the espionage genre. For example, if you look back to the first ever ‘spy novel’ Robert Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), you will find a sub-plot in which a protagonist is forced to choose between protecting his country and protecting the family honour of the woman he loves. This tension between duty to the state and duty to one’s principles is also a recurring motif in the spy novels of Graham Greene. For example, in The Confidential Agent (1939), a foreign intelligent agent is sent to Britain to negotiate a trade agreement on behalf of his democratic government. However, once in the field the agent finds his attempt to serve his country plagued by agents deployed to serve the interests of his country’s former aristocratic rulers. This tension between different moral systems is particularly well captured in Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (1948), in which a character tries to do the ‘right thing’ only to be forced further and further into the mud by the weight of what he believes are moral obligations. While Greene explored these moral tensions through the lens of Catholicism, John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) explored them using the lens provided by the values and relationships that comprise membership of a particular social class. Indeed, Bill Haydon’s true betrayal was not of his country or of his colleagues but of his old school friend Jim Prideaux.
What makes recent films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocols different to old genre staples is the fact that these films assume the moral relativism of intelligence work to be standard operating procedure for most intelligence agencies. For example:
In Philip Noyce’s Salt (2010), a loyal employee of the CIA is accused of being a double agent. Despite some initial scepticism, the CIA wind up accepting the accusation entirely at face value and so decide to assassinate the agent resulting in a series of high-octane gunfights and chase sequences. The film ends with an FBI agent effectively giving the agent carte blanche to carry out a vicious purge in which all corrupt members of the CIA will be summarily executed. Thus Salt features not only the CIA turning on its own agents, but the FBI turning its back on the CIA so that a disgruntled former employee can murder her former bosses.
In John Badham’s Point of No Return (1993) – a remake of Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990) – a drug addict is rescued from a death sentence and trained to be a government assassin. Once sent out into the field, the assassin decides that she wants to leave the service at which point another government assassin is brought in to ‘clean up’ both her assignment and her. This ending of the film differs substantially from that of Nikita where the assassin’s handler sits down with her boyfriend in order to discuss the assassin’s departure from the service after her calamitous final assignment.
In Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011), a CIA agent is ordered to kill a genetically engineered child. Rather than kill the child, the agent escapes to a northern wilderness where he raises and trains the child as his daughter. When the time comes for the child to enter human society, the CIA attempt to murder not only their agent but also the child resulting in her rejecting not only the life of a normal human but also the life of an agent.
In Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002), a CIA agent fails in his mission to illegally assassinate an African dictator. When the agent reappears with no memory of his previous life, the CIA sends a team of assassins to murder the former employee in case he goes public with the agency’s policy of illegal covert assassination.
An interesting corollary of this trope is the slightly different convention that traitors to the intelligence services are in fact acting out of loyalty to a set of principles that the services have themselves betrayed. For example:
In Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), a young man begins his apprenticeship at the CIA by twice betraying his mentor who turns out to be a member of the British secret intelligence service. When the mentor dies, he warns his protégé to leave the business before his morality is utterly corrupted. Decades later, the protégé (now a leading light in the CIA) is forced to choose between the pseudo-familial bonds that tie the agency together and the blood ties that exist between him and the members of estranged family.
In Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), the head of the British intelligence service mounts a disastrous operation designed to reveal the identity of a suspected double agent. When the political repercussions of this disaster are felt, a senior official is forced to choose between his loyalty to the old chief and his ambition to continue working in the service. Years later, the senior official is recruited back into the service where he spearheads an investigation designed to expose the service’s leading clique as being part of a Soviet plan to use the special relationship between British and American intelligence to gain access to American state secrets.
In Tony Scott’s Spy Game (2001), a senior CIA official grooms and recruits a young operative. Decades later, the young operative finds himself trapped in a Chinese prison when an operation goes wrong. With their eyes on the bigger picture, the official’s bosses prepare to leave the operative to his fate forcing the official to choose between the comfortable retirement that comes from life-time loyalty and remaining loyal to the young man he lured into this life. Needless to say, the official chooses loyalty to his friend over loyalty to his agency.
In Billy Ray’s Breach (2007), a young intelligence operative is assigned to monitor the activities of a veteran agent suspected of being a Russian informant and a sexual deviant. When the young operative finds no evidence of immoral conduct, the agency expresses its willingness to smear the veteran agent in order to ensure a conviction. While the veteran does indeed turn out to be a Russian agent, the young operative’s experience of the agency’s attitudes towards its own employees so embitters him that he decides to resign from the service.
Audiences accept the existence of the Ghost Protocols because they are used to thinking of the US government as wasteful and the US intelligence services as morally corrupt. How could any country hope to protect its citizens when clowns like these are in charge?
Part of what makes these kinds of media depictions so interesting is the impact they have on real-world politics. For example, when the BBC launched its glamorous spy series Spooks, MI5 reported an increase in job applications. If positive depictions intelligence work result in more people seeking jobs in that sector then what effects might negative depictions have? It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to expect that, by systematically portraying the US intelligence services as incompetent and disloyal, Hollywood may actually be driving away potentially gifted spies. Needless to say, nobody worth hiring would ever confuse the Mission Impossible films with some kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary but if cigarette adverts have taught us anything it is that image management seldom functions on a rational level.
4. The Problem is Self-Fulfilling
Back in March 2010, I wrote a column about the tendency of First Person Shooters to feature plots revolving around rogue states, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and an aggressively expansionist Russia. In that column, I cited a fascinating paper by Matt Carr entitled “Slouching Towards Dystopia: The New Military Futurism”. In that paper, Carr charts the influence of science fictional thinking upon actual military planning:
The report also considered ‘strategic shocks’ that would not have been out of place in the fictional worlds of William Gibson or J. G. Ballard, such as the possibility that ‘synthetic telepathy’ would facilitate ‘mind-to-mind or telepathic dialogue’ and the invention of information and entertainment devices that could be ‘wired directly to the user’s brain’. Another scenario posited that advances in genetic research might lead to the ‘super-enhancement of human attributes, including physical strength and sensory perception’ – a development that could make it possible for ‘dictatorial or despotic rulers’ to ‘buy longevity’.
This image of the city as the primary battleground of the future is a key element in the military dystopia. In these images of the ‘broken’ cities of the future, military futurism really shows its debt to science fiction, in its fusion of contemporary urban battlegrounds such as Mogadishu and Fallujah, the blighted slums of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Port-Au-Prince with the ravaged cinematic cityscapes of Robocop, Escape from New York, Mad Max and video games such as Shadowrun: feral cities, whose designers promise exciting virtual combat in ‘decaying urban wilds, war-torn cityscapes, and cancerous megabarrens’ in which ‘the usual rules and constants of civilized society don’t apply’.
The intellectual feedback process is pretty obvious: People drift into strategic planning because of their fondness for certain kinds of ideas. This fondness also draws them towards the films, books and games of science fiction. These works of science fiction then influence the professional thinking of strategic planners and thus science fictional concepts enter into the US military’s thinking about what is and is not a reasonable set of assumptions to make about the future of human society.
Watching Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocols, I couldn’t help but imagine the possibility that a politician might unconsciously devalue the content of their intelligence briefings because they unconsciously assume that the person sitting in their office spends all their time looking for ways to betray their colleagues and lie to their political masters. Once present in the institutional bloodstream, distrust is difficult to expunge thereby making it more likely that the intelligence agencies will be marginalised, refused funding and deprived of both political influence and talented staff.
Films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocols offer politicians a real chicken-and-egg problem: Are media depictions of the intelligence services negative because intelligence services are corrupt and incompetent or are intelligence services corrupt and incompetent because negative media depictions of them have robbed them of prestige? Either way, it is fascinating to note that we now live in a culture where media depictions of incompetent, duplicitous and morally corrupt intelligence services no longer raise any eyebrows.
Now, there’s a poser. I do take your questions seriously…
…partly also because the “CSI” TV shows apparently make people think that real policemen can do the work depicted by the fictional detectives in “CSI.” It might even make real police demand that they get access to the crime-solving gadgets they see on TV. Fiction does influence reality.
Which raises an unsettling question for me as a writer: Am I (to an extent) morally responsible for the stories I serve up to the public? And how do I write well without corrupting society or promoting ideas which I think may cause damage to real people?
You do realize that you challenge the old romantic ideal of the “rebellious” artist who is unfettered by social responsibility.
All ideas have a degree of mass and while some ideas are heavier than others, they all have an effect. The tendency of spy films to represent intelligence agencies as utterly corrupt is just an idea but when that idea features in so many films, all of that weight adds up.
I think the question of responsibility is an interesting one, not least when you realise that writers really don’t have much control over their ideas once they are released in the wild. In truth, there’s no guarantee how anyone will react to what you write.
heh, I love the idea of HR managers going through their checklist to make sure the GHOST PROTOCOL doesn’t violate anyone’s employment contracts.
I think part of the problem with “secret agents betrayed by the superiors” films is the fact that most hollywood screenwriters actually know NOTHING about intelligence work and so just take other films for their inspiration and so we end up with a copy of a copy of a copy or a Baudrillaudian simulacra of what intelligence work might be like.
I suppose people got sick of writings films where morally uncomplicated spies fight against enemy agents, but now the “OMG, the goodies are really baddies” script is even more of a cliche.
you see a similar thing with hitman films, where now every hitman is a witty and articulate hipster or a monastic samurai. I imagine that most so called hitmen are either bog standard career criminals or deluded bodybuilders who end up being entrapped by undercover police in pub carparks
On second thoughts, “CSI” has another effect on how the public perceives real cops: it makes them look incompetent.
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