Rob Patterson

Shady Characters

I just finished watching the first episode of The Company, the TNT miniseries, based on Robert Littell's novel, that traces the history of the CIA and KGB with a somewhat iffy stew of espionage, romance and old school ties. And it prompted thought on this particular leftist's near-lifelong fascination with the spy game as popular entertainment.

As far as entertainment goes, The Company is a somewhat seductive diversion that is ultimately undercut by its entertainment goals. Shot in gauzy, muted, noir-ish colors, it's as visually entrancing as television gets. But for all its implied gravitas -- sometimes as subtle as a roundhouse to the chin -- at a first episode glance it ultimately feels hollow and fluffy.

That's in rather bold contrast to how compelling the best dramatic and literary espionage works can be. I can trace my fascination with the genre directly to the James Bond books by Ian Fleming and the early Bond movie starring Ian Fleming, both of which opened up my maturing mind to the intricacies of world affairs, even for all cheekiness of the Bond flicks. Growing up with atomic bomb drills -- duck and cover! -- and the Soviet threat that now in retrospect has been revealed as overplayed, James Bond, both cinematically and literarily, provided both a reassurance and the excitement that a boy becoming a young man craves within a confusing and seemingly dangerous world. (As well, coming as it all did as I hit puberty, Bond also offered an enticing introduction to sexuality.)

Lightweight TV shows like I Spy and Mission Impossible followed, along with truly featherweight camp like Get Smart and the Dean Martin Matt Helm movies. The ultimate nadir that came from all of it was the inane Austin Powers flicks by Mike Myers which, as much as they seemed to score with younger generations, descended beyond camp into rotted corn.

On the other hand, I recall how the film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold -- especially Richard Burton's subtly note-perfect portrayal of MI6 agent Alec Leamas -- underscored the dangerous modern world I was growing up into. Nearly a decade later I would dip into John le Carre's fiction to become entranced with how he transformed the spy genre into high literary art as well as a primer on how the world works below the surface. A decade after that, Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and the subsequent film adaptation (with William Hurt in one of his premier roles as Moscow police inspector Arkady Renko) mixed two of my favorite popular fiction genres -- detective and spy fiction -- into bracing entertainment. And the espionage genre as well as le Carre's mastery of it proved itself especially durable after the Cold War ended and the author nonetheless transcended the milieu that birthed his oeuvre with his finest work yet.

Spies and private eyes share the central pivot of a moral actor in a morally ambiguous world. They also play on the nuance that so often gets glossed over in the worldview that both much news reporting and popular entertainment don't quite succeed in conveying. At its best, espionage fiction can be as revelatory as when I read Phillip Agee's CIA Diary, which I found in retrospect a perfect starting point for understanding the hypocrisy and meddling in our nation's foreign policy that directly resulted in the blowback of 9/11 -- that is, if you don't buy the conspiracy theories around it, which I will entertain but can't quite purchase outright even if something smells a bit rotten in the proverbial Denmark.

Conspiracy and collusion are the electricity that fires James Ellroy's sprawling masterworks American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand as well as Norman Mailer's parallel masterpiece Harlot's Ghost (the sequel to which I hope the aging and somewhat ailing Mailer will complete). They both mix espionage, politics and organized crime with such a compelling sense of alternate reality -- or maybe better, the reality below the surface of what is generally accepted as reality -- that the notion the John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy becomes even more believable than it is from all the investigative works that claim to prove it so.

It's almost ironic that the romanticized tale The Company tells comes at a time when the CIA has been further revealed in recent reports as even more bungling and ineffective than was previously thought, and Matt Damon's Bourne movies make the CIA seem as evil and pernicious as the KGB was historically portrayed. Ultimately, I'm reminded of the old opening line of The Shadow -- who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men -- as I conclude that the best espionage entertainment ultimately uncovers the secrets of the human heart and mind as much as it reveals ultimate truths about international affairs. And that is why spy stories, whatever one's political persuasion, may well be the paramount modern metaphor for the state of the human soul.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2007

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