The amazing thing about the first Austin Powers movie was that it didn’t have to change much from the original to make it hilarious.
I didn’t fully realize that until “Thunderball” became available on one of my streaming services some time later, and I watched it for the first time in decades. A lot of the silliest tropes — the villain with his cat, the assistant villains sitting around a table and the head guy pushing a button that sent them to their deaths when they displeased him, and other things — were copied almost frame by frame. And it was just as silly in the original, although perhaps not as enjoyably funny.
Of course, no one had to remind me that about such things as putting the hero into an unnecessarily elaborate death trap and walking away, trusting it will work. We had all seen that many times. And “Austin” had a lot of fun with it.
But all the Bond films were like that. And so were other things my generation grew up on, from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to “The Avengers.” Austin didn’t add much more than a goofy grin. And it worked.
And yet audiences continue to shell out money for Hollywood’s completely ridiculous notion of what a “spy” is. You know the recipe. A Hollywood spy is pretty much always:
- Extremely violent, and outrageously good at it. You know it’s a “spy” film if the hero is posing on the poster with a handgun — sometimes held pointing at the sky, other times directly at the camera. Why the “spy” needs a firearm is somewhat bewildering, because he or she is so fantastically skilled at unarmed combat. It doesn’t matter how good the opposition is, or how well-armed, or how many there are, the hero will overcome them without breaking a sweat — usually while making corny jokes. That is, until the climactic scene, in which someone — maybe the chief villain, more likely his superhuman assistant — gives the hero a real challenge, for dramatic purposes.
- In fact, the “spy” is pretty much a superhero, with inhuman abilities that extend beyond fighting, to driving a wide variety of hot cars and other vehicles, manipulating technology, etc.
- Good-looking, whether male or female (and if female, extremely sexy and usually dressed provocatively). Which is convenient for our hero, because the “spy” is as sex-obsessed as a 14-year-old boy, but unlike that boy, gets plenty. Which is why that demographic tends to love these films. (That could be me!…)
- Does almost nothing that an actual, real-life spy would recognize as intelligence work, such as collecting, you know, information. Or building a network of agents, or leaving chalk marks on lampposts, or clearing dead-letter boxes, or any of those kinds of things that can mind-paralyzingly dangerous, but aren’t that exciting for 14-year-olds to watch.
And when you add it all up, all the glittering, exploding cliches actually get pretty boring in the aggregate, no matter how much expensive property is destroyed in the chase scenes.
And in a way, everyone sort of knows that it’s a joke — I guess. Because all sorts of comedies get made using this material. Long before Austin, there was “Get Smart!,” and for that matter the first film iteration of “Casino Royale,” and today there’s… well, just look:
Which is fine, if you don’t mind monotony in your comedy. Hollywood has seen the absurdity in its own caricature of espionage, in fact, since the beginning of the genre, as you can see if you Google “1960s spy comedies.” Even Graham Greene himself mocked the form before James Bond really took off on the silver screen. (Of course, being Graham Greene, he did so masterfully.)
And yet, there is nothing at all funny about intelligence work. In fact, in real life it can be more than a little depressing, in its gray, sordid day-to-day exploitation of human weaknesses. But in the hands of the right creator, it can be fascinating.
There have been a few, a very few, serious spy films (and TV shows) over last few decades, and the best do what the best spy novels have always done: Dig down very deep into the complexities of the human mind, the human soul — the lies, the contradictions, the moral ambiguities, the psychological conflicts, the betrayal. The cover story, the fallback story, the real story, and the interplay between them all.
And there’s almost never an explosion or a car chase. In the most realistic such stories, the hero never so much as touches a gun. You know where some of the most suspenseful moments in John le Carre novels occur? In meetings. Irritating, apparently boring, bureaucratic affairs around a table in a conference room (“Stupid bloody cabaret” said a key character of such a gathering in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). But they can be tense as all get out, and lives can hang in the balance.
The truest spy stories are mystery tales in which you’re often not sure, at the end, whodunit. Ever see the rather obscure “Yuri Nosenko, KGB,” starring Tommy Lee Jones? It’s based on the true story of a KGB officer who defected to us in the early ’60s. Or did he? People still debate what was really going on — was he a defector, or a plant sent to deceive us about Russian involvement in JFK’s assassination? (I think about that movie a lot when I hear people say with such certainty, “Bush lied, people died,” simply because he apparently chose to believe the wrong bits of intel among contradictory accounts that were available to him. It’s just not that simple.)
Anyway, the other night my wife and I saw a good one: “The Courier,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It was another one based on a true story — that of Greville Wynne, the British businessman recruited by MI6 to contact Oleg Penkovsky, one of the most important spies the West ever had in the East. He’s the guy who let us know the Soviets were putting those missiles in Cuba. The possible fate of the planet lay in the plans he sent us through a complete amateur, because it was considered too dangerous for a professional to get near him (the KGB were tailing all such people). As it worked out, matters of global importance hung on the friendship that developed between these two wildly different men from opposite ends of the Cold War divide. By the end, these two strangers were willing to die for each other. And nobody had to make it up.
By the way — here’s a sort of blog post in a blog post. You’ve heard that, between streaming and COVID, movie theaters are dead? Well, true enough. What does it cost to go to a movie these days? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s ridiculous. And popcorn and a drink (which is where theaters’ profits have always come from) costs more.
Well, we rented “The Courier” from Apple for 99 cents. That’s almost as little as I paid to get into movies on military bases when I was a kid. Hard to beat. And I didn’t have people talking or bouncing on the seats around me, and I could turn on subtitles, and pause and repeat dialogue if I missed something. There’s no comparison.
Anyway, all that meandering is way too much of an intro to a very quick Top Five Most Realistic Spy Movies list. And yes, I know it seems like I’ve done this before. But you’re confusing it with “Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies” or “Top Five John le Carre novels.” So pay closer attention, people.
Here’s the list:
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — Yeah, yeah, I’ve mentioned this on other lists. Still amazing. But pay close attention, if you want to understand what’s happening.
- The Little Drummer Girl — No, not the recent TV show — the movie, with Diane Keaton. This one has gotten way too little attention over the years, but it’s about as pure a spy film as you’ll find: A reluctant agent is recruited by the Mossad (the part about the recruitment is the best part of the original novel) to go as deep as you can get into a Palestinian terrorist cell. I have it on DVD, but it was hard to find. If you can get ahold of it, see it. And yeah, Le Carre again. What can I say?
- The Lives of Others — OK, this is really marginal as a spy movie — it’s about domestic surveillance by the internal security organ of a totalitarian state, rather than the collection of information about another country — but it’s close enough, and I wanted to put it on the list just in case you haven’t seen it. Oh, yeah, it’s in German. (Yeah, Hollywood, I know: The Rock is way more bankable than Ulrich Mühe.)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — The film was really good, but you need to see the TV show, with Alec Guinness. This is my way of urging you to do that. Also “Smiley’s People,” if you can get ahold of it. OK, no more le Carre mentions.
- The Third Man — More about a murder mystery and black-market crime than espionage if I recall correctly, but the setting is so perfect — Vienna right after the war, the place where Cold War spies first cut their teeth. It’s the atmosphere, you see, more than the plot, that gets it on the list.
I’d have put “The Courier” on there, but I’d already mentioned it.
Speaking of “The Third Man” — if you try googling “most realistic spy movies,” you’ll get some excellent flicks that are not on my list because they’re not spy movies. Like “Munich.” The thing is, while you see a lot of intelligence-gathering and some interesting tradecraft and truckloads of moral ambiguity, it’s a movie about a team of assassins, not your usual sort of spies.
Which brings me to something we could discuss all day: “The Bourne Identity.” I really, really liked it (although not really the sequels), even though it contains, in refined forms, some of the stuff I despised above — the super-violent figure, who has skills rising to the superhero level. But you see, it’s not a “spy” movie. It’s a thriller about people who have been re-engineered as super-assassins. Not the same thing. It’s really more from the paranoia genre — you know, the “what if powerful people in dark corners of the government were secretly doing horrible things” genre. Like “Three Days of the Condor,” which was also a lot of fun. But not a spy movie…
OK, one last honorable mention: Have you seen “The Ipcress File?” Well, you should — just so you’ll know where Austin Powers got his glasses. It’s an interesting mix of serious spy stuff and the smart-ass attitude that made the better “comical” films work. But more than that, as I’ve probably said multiple times before, go read the book. It’s the one that turned me on to spy fiction, and I’d like to see my friends get hooked as well…