Former CIA operations officer Mark Davidson is writing the new column, “Chalk Marks,” for the national security news outlet, The Cipher Brief. The column will explore his interest in the intersection of intelligence and espionage with literature, film and popular culture, and it promises to be quite entertaining.
His first posting responds to a frequent question he receives: “What is the best spy movie?” Of course, he acknowledges up front that the quality of the film has nothing to do with how realistic it is. He says, “I love the Mission Impossible films, but they are about as reflective of life in the clandestine service as Hogwarts is to boarding school.”
When it comes to realism, though, he has a solid recommendation from the Cold War era, which he believes strongly was the golden age of espionage—the John Le Carré/George Smiley era—a time when he says tradecraft and counterintelligence mattered most. He suggests:
The Good Shepherd (2006), directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon and a bunch of stars (trailer). While the film may be a little history-heavy (it ends in the early 1960s), it portrays “tradecraft, mindset and minutiae at a level that few films have ever attempted.” As a writer of stories, I find “mindset” vitally important. How would a character act in this particular situation? When a story gets it right, we barely notice; when it gets it wrong, we say, “they’d never do that!”
Hallmarks of this film are tradecraft, atmosphere, and how little things contribute to success or disaster. If you’ve watched Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, about disgraced MI5 agents, you’ve seen the importance of minutia again. Sometimes the complexity of the agent’s task is revealed by its going wrong. Davidson says, “The Good Shepherd is among the best at revealing the fine line between adrenaline and stress and the precipice between success and compromise that CIA officers experience every day, and how difficult it can be to know if you are winning or losing.”
In multiple scenes, Damon’s character works with CIA experts to tease information out of the unfathomable: analyzing a murky photo or sharpening a muffled recording. Davidson considers these scenes a rare and penetrating look at this vital aspect of the work. Of course 2020 technology has 1960s methods beat, but how analysts can patiently decode a less-than-optimal image or sound file “is breathtaking and the value, immeasurable.”
Davidson also appreciates the subtlety of some of the tradecraft. Signals are a good example. “An effective signal is seen only by the person it’s intended for; anyone beyond that is a problem.” He predicts that viewers will miss some of the ops acts in The Good Shepherd, at least the first time they see the film. “I missed several, and I did this stuff for a lot of years,” he says. All part of the fun!
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