Thursday, March 05, 2009

Spy games

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?
-- Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The description of a spy above is in complete contrast to the one created by Ian Fleming and the subsequent James Bond films. Even though Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out in 1965, we still have not had a cinematic spy like Alec Leamas (Richard Burton). Leamas plays a lonely miserable spy struggling for money, who gets drunk frequently, and is not afraid to throw a punch or two. Credit for such a character has to go to John le Carré who was still a “spook” himself when the movie came out and one can see the brutal honesty involved in how the spy game is truly played. But then again, the British know a thing or two about spying since they spent centuries perfecting the art. The following dialogues spoken by Leamas’ boss Control (Cyril Cusack) show the false morality involved in the spying game and the mess such self-righteousness causes:

Our work, as I understand it.. is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus..we do disagreeable things..but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful..but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition.

You know, I’d say, uh..since the war, our methods - our techniques, that is - and those of the Communists, have become very much the same. Yes. I mean, occasionally...we have to do wicked things. Very wicked things indeed. But, uh, you can’t be less wicked..than your enemies simply because your government’s policy is benevolent.

Shockingly the above words could easily apply today as they did four decades ago.

Technology as a spy tool...or not

Martin Ritt’s film shows how local personnel are critical to the gathering of information and form the most important currency to assist spies. But in the last few decades, technology has given the ability to listen in on others conversations and follow someone’s movements. And this technology gives the false ability that one can understand the enemy. Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies shows that spy technology is useless when the enemy chooses to live off the grid and does not exchange messages via cell phones or the internet but rather meets face to face to discuss plans. In a way both The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Body of Lies show that if one needs to get information from others, then they need to gain their trust. Body of Lies contrasts this style of trust by showing how Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) opts to foster a healthy relationship by trusting the local people while his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) prefers to push people aside whenever he feels like it and is constantly looking to use people.

Another common element in both films is how the bank is used by both Leamas and Ferris to lead the enemy to suspect one of their own -- in The Spy Who Came from in the Cold a letter to the bank causes the damage while in Body of Lies it is an email that causes an innocent person to be blamed.

The Spy Who Came from in the Cold is a brilliant film that focuses more on the interaction with the characters while Body of Lies is a fascinating travelogue through the middle east depicting the complexity of the problems that lie there. As much as I enjoyed watching it, Body of Lies feels like a missed opportunity and could have been much better had it employed the framework of Syriana and Traffic. The explosions and Hollywood machismo does get in the way but thankfully Leonardo DiCaprio shines in a role akin to the brilliance he brought to Blood Diamond.

Smile..for that camera

London probably has the most CCTV cameras than any other city in the world and it is hard to escape the watchful eye of the cameras. The British TV series MI-5 shows some of the people that do their spying remotely while gathering feeds from these cameras. While the show is currently in the 7th season, I caught up with Season One which consists of 6 one hour episodes. The first episode is the weakest as it features a topic of pro-life activists. But thankfully the show started to take more risks as Season One progressed and the 6th episode depicts the complicated decisions involved in balancing the threat from two different enemies (Islamists and the IRA).

Ratings out of 10

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965, UK, Martin Ritt): 10
Body of Lies (2008, USA, Ridley Scott): 8.5
MI-5, Season One (2002, UK, various): 7.5

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