The Trouble With Spy Movies

I think I’ve worked out why spy movies are so hard to write – and often, hard to sell to an audience.

They shouldn’t be. We all love a spy: dashing, clever, constantly in danger, a chameleon changing name and appearance the way we change our clothes. They’re the person we want to be – free from the rule of law, free to do whatever it takes to save the world.

Ah yes, there lies the rub. Saving the world.

It used to be so simple. There was Them and there was Us, clearly defined by geography as well as ideology. One day We would win and They would lose, and every fictional spy’s actions took us closer to that day.

Things are not so certain any more, and that’s what’s killing the spy movie.

The problem with any contemporary espionage movie is there is no end to the problem. Destroy one terror cell, a dozen more spring up. One idealistic young recruit learns the hard way that espionage is a dirty business, and walks away; a hundred more will sign up next week. One traitor is hunted down; plenty more remain undetected. The battle is endless, and therefore meaningless.

The spying business has become just that: a business. Just like Apple or Wal-Mart, the CIA or MI5 plug away, maintaining their market share and producing the occasional innovation that puts them at the top of the tree for a while. Now, Wal-Mart is never going to wipe out every rival store: even if a rival does go out of business, it will eventually be replaced by a new start-up. Businesses don’t “win” – they stay in business, make a profit, stay out of trouble, and everyone keeps their jobs.

So with intelligence agencies. The “profit” they make is lives saved and scandals avoided, the “loss” is lives lost and scandals that leak out. As long as the profit outweighs the loss, they stay in business. But there is no winning any more.

And movies are in the business of winning.

That’s how we measure a happy ending: the hero “wins”, whether that’s by getting the love interest, reuniting their family, or literally saving the world. We want our heroes to change the world around them, obviously and permanently. But in the modern world of espionage, there is no permanent change, just another item ticked off on the to-do list.

It’s interesting that the truly successful spy movies of recent years have tried to find ways to avoid the new moral landscape. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a period piece; the Bourne movies are paranoia thrillers rather than true spy movies; Bond and Mission: Impossible create supervillains who transcend the normal scale of espionage, whose defeat can be final and definite.

Those that have stuck more closely to the traditional formula – Spy Game, The Recruit and The Harsh Light Of Day spring to mind – have found it a lot harder to capture the public imagination…

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One comment on “The Trouble With Spy Movies

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Interesting take on it, Debbie.

    Mind you, I don’t think anyone “won” the Cold War, either. I wonder if the issue isn’t less that spy battles are less winnable today so much as that our audience and cultural expectations have changed: cold war spy stories, especially Le Carre, had many shades of grey and were about winning skirmishes, not wars, but now (Hollywood) audiences want a well-defined opponent, a clear target, and definitive victory. I think what you’ve put your finger on might be less about geopolitical realities and more about audience’s (unrealistic) expectations.

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