Thursday, January 10, 2008

Espionage: Spies and consequences

....."blowback", the term used by spies to describe planted propaganda that filters back to confuse the country that first set the story loose. (page 47, Ghost Wars by Steve Coll)

Information and Misinformation -- both are tools which are part and parcel of a spy's arsenal. The spy on the opposing side also has information and misinformation as their tool set. Things get complicated when misinformation from one side is taken for information by the other side and results in further misinformation being generated.

Lies + Lies = Truth

At the core of Hal Hartley's inventive Fay Grim lie a collection of diaries called "Confessions" which may contain valuable government information. The information is equally coveted by the CIA, KGB, French Secret Service, Israeli spies, British agents, Arab informers and even some terrorists. The diaries might be gibberish but that does not matter as each side believe the information could help them in their nation's cause.

Fay Grim is unlike any other spy movie. The tilted camera and the light hearted background music give the film a stage/musical feel. On top of that, the lead characters (especially Fay played by Parker Posey) are busy dancing their way through stressful situations with such ease. After a slow 20 minutes, the film moves into a high energetic dialogue exchange as Fay moves effortlessly past dangerous spies and killers. The complicated plot is rendered with such ease that the real joy is in watching the characters move through each frame. The light hearted touch removes any barriers between good and evil as all the rival spies are portrayed in the same light. As a result, one can focus on watching this international espionage game at play without having to put a good or bad label over each character.

There are some scenes where the tilted camera works and in others, not so much. But having the entire movie shown in a slanted manner just adds to the story's bizarre appeal. Also, the tilted camera only allows the relevant details in each frame. Never before has a film filmed in Paris and Istanbul allowed so little of the street side or city highlights in each frame. And in Fay Grim this tactic works as the real interest lies in observing the characters and listening to their words as opposed to caring for which location they are in.

Note: I have never seen a Hal Hartley film before so this was an interesting viewing. The film continues the adventures of the characters first shown in his 1997 film Henry Fool. And from his interviews, it seems that there may be future adventures for this colorful set of characters.

Truth moves to the other side

Breach shows what happens when a spy starts working for the opponents. No concrete reasons are given for the CIA agent's betrayal even though a shroud of ethics, morality and religion are mixed in the story. Ofcourse, when it comes to selling information to the enemy, no reason is required by the government. It is 'Us' vs 'Them'. Even though governments on both sides are constantly trying to entice the enemy spy to divulge information.

When a blowback results in a violent reaction:

Newtons's third law: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction".

Spies from one nation train young men of a second nation to fight and shoot down the enemy of a third nation. Then the spies leave thinking their jobs are done. But the young men of the second nation need a new enemy. So they target the nation of the spies who taught and helped them.

Peter Berg's The Kingdom starts off with a violent act when gunmen and a suicide bomber kill innocent people in a Riyadh housing compound. Initially, there is no revenge reaction but a calm investigation into the identity of the terrorists. But along the way, the investigators come across more deadly enemies. While trying to save one of their own, the investigators end up killing the enemy leader in a defensive act. The film ends with a line that indicates that there will be further killing to avenge the leader's death, while also revealing that the investigators did not just go out to investigate the truth but went with an intention of revenge.

This was a much better film that I had originally expected. But it could have been a lot better if not for some rather cliched Hollywood elements near the movie's end. There is a climatic battle between the terrorists and the good guys which is well shot and engaging. However, the sequence falls into a Hollywood trap where despite the circumstances, the big Hollywood stars are unharmed. And then the one local native who was helping the American agents is killed. Why was this honest policeman killed? Well one reason could be that this man was closest to the enemy leader. But that is a weak excuse. The real reason is that the characters played by big name Hollywood stars in such movies cannot die as they are true 'heroes'. Whereas characters played by actors from other parts of the world are completely expendable.

Truth is a manufactured lie:

The cold war was a tense time when spies and code breakers were in high demand; there was plenty of misinformation out there which needed to be filtered through. In plenty of cases, this misinformation was manufactured in just one person's mind and then transferred to other people. But what if this misinformation never left a person's mind and continued to grow inside their head? The resulting mental 'blowback' could put that person in a horrifying mix of reality and delusion. The true story of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind is an example of a man trapped in his genius creations -- spies, 'big brother', hidden patterns all try to compete with mathematical formulas in John's mind.

Note: William Friedkin's Bug is a powerful example of how one person's misinformation can corrupt others.

Ratings out of 10:
Fay Grim (2006, Director Hal Hartley): 8.5
Breach (2007, Director Billy Ray): 8
The Kingdom (2007, Director Peter Berg): 7.5
A Beautiful Mind (2001, Director Ron Howard): 7.5

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