The Nationalistic Attitudes and Ideological Biases at the Heart of Espionage Films.

The depictions of enemies and adversaries in espionage films is largely and often based on the ideological perspective of the film’s country of origin, and has frequently served as a way to promote nationalistic views of a respective nation or state, and to mete out the world’s “good” and “evil” into identifiable groups. The common antagonist of espionage films will belong to a society from the opposing political spectrum of whichever setting the film’s protagonist originates from, and or works for. While this is the common situation to be found in the majority of the most influential films that depict spies and acts of espionage on an international level, there has been some nuance that has been created by some daring filmmakers who want to probe more philosophical questions surrounding governmental intelligence and surveillance. Many espionage films have also broken these conventions by instead criticizing the societies they originate from, and questioning jingoism, nationalism and the fear and division of others who come from politically, economically or socially opposing independent states. Still though, these films have consistently instilled an “us” vs. “them” dynamic is largely pushed forward and supported by superpower nations’ aims for geopolitical dominance and expansion.

The common pattern of film’s attempting to establish a righteous side and wrongful side for the audience to identify with and respectively support and oppose is one that fits in comfortably with the international policies laid out by the United States in its diplomacy, and this is further focused on by Oliver Boyd-Barrett, David Herrera and Jim Baumann in the book “Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives”, (p. 117). The film that is analyzed is the 2001 release Spy Game, directed by Tony Scott, which essentially communicates “North Vietnamese sympathizers are ‘bad’ in the Vietnam War”, as well as the idea that “East German communists are ‘bad’”, and “Islamic fundamentalists in Beirut are ‘bad’” and very strictly plays into the “US-framed list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nations’”, (p. 117). This is a fairly standard approach for many filmmakers who deal with the issue of espionage and one that is especially profound in time of world conflict or tension whether that is due to real world wars, skirmishes, political threats, terrorism or revolution. When crisis’ are plenty, espionage films often take on nationalistic tendencies which connect to audiences who may be fearful of the “others” they are told to harbour distrust towards by other major media sources.

Tom Clancy, the writer of The Hunt for Red October is an example of a notable figure within espionage fiction who wasn’t afraid to criticize both the Soviet Union and Western governments, as explained by Jefferson Adams in the book “Strategic Intelligence in the Cold War and Beyond” (p. 94). Ultimately though, Clancy’s attempts to remain objective could not be everlasting, as the 1996 novel Executive Orders was dedicated to Ronald Reagan with warm words attached to this dedication, revealing a definitive nationalist stance (p. 94). Anti-communist sentiment in film extended outside of the United States as well, with English director Alfred Hitchcock often possessing an anti-communist perspective, which is notable in the film Torn Curtain (1966) as detailed by Jefferson Adams in the same book (p. 97). The depiction of East Germany in the film is very critical of the Soviet Union and essentially has “all the trappings of an omnipotent police state”, (p. 97). Many western writers and directors were very frank in how they personally felt and interpreted the situation of the Cold War, and often embraced western viewpoints in how the stories were presented in terms of character depictions and portrayals of the real-life “enemy” or “adversary”, the Communist Soviet Union, no less.

Anti-communism has long been a staple of espionage films and the root of the stories presented in many of these films, as well as the fears perpetuated and echoed by the media in the United States particularly throughout the 20th century. The book “Citizen spy : television, espionage, and cold war culture” by Michael Kackman dives into how the public’s perception of communism in the United States was deeply influenced by the portrayals of so-called communists represented on-screen. Interestingly enough, despite the raging Vietnam War at the time, the war itself was almost completely ignored by the American film industry throughout the 1960’s, with the film The Green Berets in 1958 standing as the only big-budget film stemming from Hollywood to end up in movie theatres during this era (p. 105). Still though, “spies were everywhere in 1950s American media culture. Villains and heroes, they emerged from the shadows just long enough to affirm America’s worst fears of Communist infiltration”, and this fear extended to the literal film sets themselves, “as Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee proclaimed that a vast Communist conspiracy threatened to undo American democracy” (p. 1).

Although there weren’t many films that directly dealt with depicting communists on screen in the 1960’s, the paranoia engulfed the public through other forms of media, and this would have leaked into the messaging of other films not directly dealing with the Cold War as well, in terms of how characters were represented and the messages that were considered appropriate or inappropriate, something only exacerbated by the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The nation of the United States of America was being pumped full of propaganda in order to keep its citizens loyal and prepared for any potential threat of a full scale war with the Soviet Union, and individuals fears of being wrongfully labelled as a spy or communist sympathizer would have bled into the way filmmakers would have decided to treat the topic at hand in their films, which were met with a level of intense scrutiny through censorship. How did this censorship in the United States compare to censorship in the communist nations that were depicted as the utmost of nemesis’ in American films? Were there similarities in how the United States was portrayed in the eyes of non-western, non-capitalist countries?

To reverse the perspective of how enemies and adversaries are depicted from a western perspective, to how they are treated through the lens of the east, Min Yang’s article “Spy, Abjection, and Post-Socialist Identity: Chinese Neo-Spy Films since 2009.(Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency)”, looks at the evolution of espionage films in Chinese cinema. As Yang explains, historically, Chinese cinema treated espionage films by relying on conventions that “included the idealism of sacred Communists, sloganistic language, and formulaic plots” (p. 92). The director Gao Qunshu, however, created a big impact in the country’s national cinema as a contemporary filmmaker who flipped the typical themes of Chinese spy films on its head and instead presented the film The Message “with a nuanced plot, character-driven acting, and a stunning combination of brutal and sensationalized tortures and sexualized bodies” (p. 92). Yang goes on to argue that following the year 2009 and the release of The Message in China, the neo-spy genre was born and the newly imagined characters of these stories are written to “interrupt public lives of Chinese people forcing them to reevaluate, imagine and re-imagine history defined by propaganda education on one hand and to articulate the fluidity, ambivalence, and instability of Chinese people’s identities that are contingent on the social, economic and political development in the new century on the other” (p. 93).

Prior to this, many of the biggest Chinese espionage films from the 1950’s to the 1960’s focused on nationalistic heroes who were dedicated to the communist ideology and willing to sacrifice their own lives for it (p. 94). In many of these films, with examples given, including At Ten O’Clock on the National Day (1956), The Silent Forest (1957) and The Case of Xu Qiuying (1956), the antagonists of the film were largely spies who had anti-communist agendas who were attempting to infiltrate the country and bring down the Chinese government but were ultimately prevented from doing so due to “the collaboration of common citizens and communist decetective” who were able to intercept the spies’ operations (p. 94). These examples of classic Chinese espionage films and the ways the filmmakers of the time handled the threat of foreign spies and western intelligence gaining access to the country with aims to deconstruct or damage the foundation of the country ring extremely similar to the way that American espionage films treated the same issue from the opposing perspective. In both cases there is a deep distrust of the opposite side between the capitalist west and communist east, and a desperate attempt to control and maintain the status quo and avoid any hint of a revolt or change within the system coming from the people living and working within it.

In the article “Espionage in British Fiction and Film since 1900: The Changing Enemy by Oliver S. Buckton, Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film by Phyllis Lassner”, Mark David Kaufman explains that fiction based works that centre around government intelligence and the use of spies is largely responsible for how the general public understands this very hidden aspect of diplomacy and international relations. Kaufman explains this phenomena in-depth and is quoted “Buckton’s study traces how espionage fiction both registers and shapes our conception of the hostile other, from German invaders in the years leading up to the First World War to Islamic extremists in our own time” (p. 112). Kaufman also goes on to describe how real world fears and paranoia surrounding tyranny and rising authoritative heads of states around the world seen through the lens of democratic societies is often mirrored in the plots of espionage focused films, and had been the case since at least the 1930’s (p. 112). This is of course due to the eventual occurrence of World War II, a conflict that was undoubtedly sparked by authoritarian governments, particularly Fascist Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler’s attempt to dominate the world.

There is also an argument that has been made, in particular from the scholar Robert Lance Snyder in the article “‘Arabesques of the Final Pattern’: Len Deighton’s Hard-Boiled Espionage Fiction”, in that spies themselves might actually simply just be government officials who have been given the assignment of furthering their country’s interests, as well as economic and geopolitical gains, with support from the respective society’s dominating corporations and business organizations (p. 5). This stance is taken by pointing to the 1963 novel Horse under Water and the character Smith specifically, with the quoted statement referenced “No one owns a spy, mister,” I told him. “They just pay his salary. I work for the government because I think this is a good place to live, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll be used as a serf by a self-centred millionaire. What’s more,” I said, “don’t give me that ‘fatal’ stuff because I’ve taken a postgraduate course in fatality.” This quote from the novel opens up a fairly unorthodox take on espionage and a perspective that could potentially change how the public views their societies’ adversaries or enemies, offering instead a view of spies as individuals who are simply employees of the government and serving a role within a greater game that extends beyond their own individual desires or control. This idea has been further explored in preceding films throughout the decades and has broken the stereotypes surrounding foreign spies as inherently villainous. As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected and borders continue to fall and ideologies and economic systems continue to evolve and blend into each other, there is some reason to believe that the way spies and agents of espionage are presented on-screen will continue to change and become reimagined.

Enemies and adversaries in spy and espionage films have recently taken a turn towards depicting antagonists as belonging to the realm of the “hacktivist”, such as in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall (p. 148) as noted in the article “How Safe Do You Feel?”: James Bond, Skyfall and the Politics of the Secret Agent in the Age of Ubiquitous Threat” by James Smith. The film was produced and released in the midst of the NSA leak scandal, which was a point in recent history that explored the idea that “government reports into torture suggest we should view the world of intelligence with greater scrutinty than ever before” (p. 148). In the film, modern day society is one that remains incredibly at risk to cyber espionage and everyday transportation and technology systems are ideal targets for the main enemy to conduct attacks (p. 148). The main antagonist, Raoul Silva, is presented on-screen “as a master computer hacker who steals MI6’s closest secrets and leaks them on the Internet”, and the film also incorporates real-life events surrounding WikiLeaks and was able to predict the actions of Edward Snowden, who would go on to leak highly classified information to the international community only months after the film hit was officially screened and distributed (p. 147).

Bibliography

Espionage in British Fiction and Film since 1900: The Changing Enemy by Oliver S. Buckton, and: Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film by Phyllis Lassner (review) (mtroyal.ca)

“Arabesques of the Final Pattern”: Len Deighton’s Hard-Boiled Espionage Fiction — Document — Gale Literature Resource Center (mtroyal.ca)

Spy, Abjection, and Post-Socialist Identity: Chinese Neo-Spy Films since 2009. — Document — Gale Literature Resource Center (mtroyal.ca)

“HOW SAFE DO YOU FEEL?”: JAMES BOND, SKYFALL, AND THE POLITICS OF THE SECRET AGENT IN AN AGE OF UBIQUITOUS THREAT — ProQuest (mtroyal.ca)

Citizen spy: television, espionage, and cold war culture (mtroyal.ca)

Espionage in Fiction and Film — Mount Royal University (mtroyal.ca)

SAGE Books — Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives (mtroyal.ca)

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