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Spy Game (Getting Away With It)

by Gary Gordon

Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that Lebanese friends had children who celebrated Osama Bin Laden as a hero, like Robin Hood.

While the notion may seemed farfetched, remember outlaws Jesse James and Billy The Kid are celebrated by kids and grown-ups in America, and are given Robin Hood status by many..

James, the reasoning goes, was justified in robbing banks and the killing that went with it because he was the victim of the “Northern Aggression”, known to the rest of us as the United States’ response to the Confederate rebellion. It is alleged he gave money to the poor, and defenders insist he only robbed “Yankee” banks and never would have become an outlaw if Lincoln hadn’t meddled in the South’s secession.

Billy The Kid, the reasoning goes, was also a victim, merely having been on one side of the brutal Lincoln County War-- the anti-corporate, rugged individualist side that didn’t have the money to pay off the right government officials..

And Bonnie and Clyde were also just responding to the bankers who stole everyone’s land during the Depression.

It gets murky, if you’re a fan of Robin Hood and hate banks; especially murky if you’re one of those diehard rebels. Then there’s the folks who just find outlaws more attractive or interesting than law abiding folks.

Throw in Sam Adams and the Boston Tea Party, John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry, the gallery of folks who fought against authority from Hazard to Flint to Mississippi and Chicago to D.C.to Waco to Ruby Ridge, add the civil disobedients and the not so civil saboteurs, ecotage activists and underground bombers, and things get even murkier.

Add CIA assassins and government destabilization specialists, Phoenix program black ops agents, COINTELPRO operatives (including undercover agents provocateur), Watergate burglars working on the President’s re-election committee’s dime, lying NSA officers like Oliver North, war criminals like Henry Kissinger and Robert MacNamara, brutal cops, movie hero robbers like Butch (Paul Newman) Cassidy and The Sundance (Robert Redford) Kid, and Danny Ocean & his gang (Sinatra or Clooney et al), robber barons, rogues, shrewd (slippery) politicians, movies about con-men heroes (Redford and Newman in The Sting) to the mix and the difference between heroes, villains, terrorists, revolutionaries, perps and victims gets too murky to sort out in a single essay.

So let’s enjoy the bottom line: with very few exceptions-- the Nazis come to mind-- we like folks who Get Away With It.

When Danny Ocean hits those casinos in Vegas, like he did years ago and like he will this December, we’ll be rooting for him.

We like Michael Corleone when he lied to his wife, killed the police captain, and tap-danced with the Senate Investigation committee.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s good guys or bad guys, if they break the rules in their pursuit or escape, we dig it. In movies as in real life.

So before I get to Spy Game, let me return to that golden year of 2000, during which most movies made the travails of parking and traffic seem exciting,

One of the few movies that stood out, that breaks the above paradigm, was The Contender. This taut political thriller, set mostly in D.C., starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman, doesn’t let the schemers get away with it.

Joan Allen, in a superb performance, plays a Senator who is nominated by President Bridges (another superb performance) to be Vice President. Oldman, a Congressman who dislikes Bridges and Allen, prefers William Peterson for Vice President, and with the help of Congressman Christian Slater, sets out to block Allen’s nomination. His toolkit includes the politics of personal destruction, as Allen is accused of having particpated in a wild sexcapade at a fraternity as part of a sorority initiation while in college.

If it weren’t a Hollywood movie, I’d conceal the ending, but it’s really no surprise that Allen succeeds in getting appointed. The fun is in Oldman’s scheming and Bridges’ counter-planning. And the meat is not only in the richness and cleverness of the intrigue, it’s in the staunchness of Allen’s convictions; her brand of integrity. Like Corleone, she refuses to answer certain questions: unlike Corleone, she’s no criminal, no murderer. If anything, she is a female Bogart-as-Marlowe, with a strong, personal, righteous ethical and moral code.

It’s unfortunate that this film was treated so lightly at the Academy Awards in favor of the miserable B-movie about a gladiator who did little more than gladiate.

Now there are those who would argue that Oldman was right to raise questions about a Vice Presidential nominee, especially if a sex scandal occurred, and that in doing so he was right to violate all kinds of rules and conventions. And there are those who might slight the movie because Bridges’ speech to Congress is too eloquent to be realistic, too much like, well, a movie. Of course, those folks are either unaware or have forgotten Lyndon Johnson’s great speech to Congress, urging them to pass Civil Rights legislation. Yes, there was a time when political leaders were eloquent.

Back to Osama and Robin Hood. It’s a scary comparison. The original Robin Hood was a poor man, was not a landowner, which made his theft and redistribution of the wealth more revolutionary; later versions feature a man whose story was changed to be more agreeable to those with land: he became a wronged landowner whose lands had been stolen when he was away fighting in the Crusades. That wrongful theft justified his actions, made them more acceptable.

Bin Laden, who now fancies himself as a champion of the self-inflicted downtrodden Palestinians, is a wealthy man who says he was wronged by his country when they let the infidels in. While he was away in Afghanistan fighting Soviet infidels, his country (Saudi Arabia), let in American infidels. He was wronged.

Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Bin Laden may have given some money to some poor Afghanis and their self-described allies in the fight against the infidels, but the money was really to pay them for fighting in their crusades. Peshwahr was not Sherwood Forest. The Taliban were not merry men.

Into this failure to establish a favorable comparison steps the CIA. That’s the same CIA who helped overthrow democratically elected leaders like Arbenz in Guatamala and Mossadegh in Iran; who failed to assassinate Castro (after failing to preserve the dictator Batista’s reign for their partners in crime, the Mafia), who failed to identify or predict the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini or the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on. This CIA gave money and guns to Bin Laden and the anti-Soviet muhjadeen because they were unaware the Soviet Union was collapsing and thought it necessary to arm religious fanatics to fight non-religious fanatics. They failed to note the enemies of our enemies just might also be enemies. Duh.

If there’d been a movie of this, the CIA agent and Bin Laden would’ve been the can’t-get-along-at-first buddies who eventually succeed in defeating the enemy. Maybe Harrison Ford and Tony Shaloub.

Instead, Bin Laden made our drug agent Manuel Noriega look like a piker.

So the Soviet Union dies, Bin Laden is a hero who declares war on those who helped him defeat the invaders and is celebrated by Lebanese schoolchildren as a Muslim Robin Hood; Robin Hood defeats Prince John and the Sheriff of Notingham, the Brits eventually establish the Magna Carta, parliament, and, after mucking about in the Mideast organizing Bedouin tribes and warring Arab faction to fight the Turks in WWI, they establish universal health care, gun control and the elimination of capital punishment on their own island, and the CIA continues to be a villainous agency in movies even as its powers and activities expand and hopes are expressed that they succeed against Bin Laden with what they failed to do with Castro.

Robert Redford is no stranger to movies about the CIA and misuse of government power. He helped uncover Nixon’s illegal pre-re-election machinations in All The President’s Men, and, more to the point, he uncovered an illegal, renegade CIA operation (having to do with Mideast oil) in Three Days Of The Condor.

Now comes Spy Game, starring Redford and Brad Pitt, directed by Tony Scott.

It is excellent: well-written, well-acted, expertly directed; it’s scope is large, it has depth, and it has us rooting for CIA agent Redford to, well, break the rules. We want him to be the rogue agent, to sabotage what the CIA has in mind, and to Get Away With It.

Redford is not a rogue agent. His code is the Agency code. We meet him first in Vietnam, where, under orders in the closing days of the American presence there, well after the peace treaty is signed, he is overseeing the assassination of North Vietnamese military officers. It’s there he meets and acquires Brad Pitt, a sniper, who he later recruits as a contract agent for the Agency.

The story in the present involves a rescue mission in China and begins with a heartpounding ten-minute sequence, but much of the story is what takes place in the past, when Pitt was recruited in Germany and was active in Lebanon. There, after an operation that does not quite go according to plan, the mentor and his protege reveal their true differences in philosophy. Loyalty is at stake; loyalty to what is the issue.

Harking back to the Bogart-noir-Chandler films, the subtextual question is: what is your code? After all, it is ultimately code that marks the distinction between which rulebreakers and law-abiders we want to be successful and which rulebreakers and law-abiders we want to fail.

Vietnam before reunification, Germany before reunification, Lebanon during their Civil War, and present-day China are all part of the CIA’s historic chessboard. Vietnam, as always, is clear as mud. William Calley vs. Jane Fonda. U.S. betrayal of Ho Chi Minh after WWII, Diem in ‘63, and Thieu in ‘73. Apocalypse then. Germany is more clear, although why it’s a good idea to reunify a nation that started two world wars has always eluded me.

Lebanon, that’s real mud. Most people remember the Israeli incursion in ‘82 and its occupation of the southern tip of the nation; they forget the brutal civil war initiated in part by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1975, years before the Israelis got involved after determining it was the only defense left available. And most people forget Syria, which has always coveted Lebanon as part of Greater Syria, sent in troops under the guise of “liberation” and “peacekeeping”. It’s there, amidst the bloody civil war, among the battling factions, explosions, gunfire, wounded children, dead bodies, and international aidworkers, that Pitt confronts realities foreign to Redford’s paradigm, violates Redford’s code and establishes his own.

China? That’s pretty black and white. Chiang may have been corrupt, Mao may have started out as a people’s hero, but there’s no doubt about it: China’s bad. Except as a market.

Now if you’re a quasi-Democrat like Clinton, or an Oil Republican like Bush, you may condemn China’s human rights violations but you’re not really going to do anything to jeopardize their potential as a market. Why, you’ll even do everything you can to see to it they’ve got Most Favord Nation trade status. So your CIA would protect against anything that could undermine that relationship.

But if you’re Brad Pitt, contract agent, whose own code was refined in the mud of Lebanon, you might place a higher value on something other than trade status.

And if you’re Robert Redford, well, hell, you might discover a new angle on your own code that requires action to save Pitt and oppose your employer, the CIA.

And if you’re a red-blooded American who wants rogues to Get Away With It, you root for Redford to pull it off.

See, it’s not just a spy game, not just a movie... it’s a discussion about Osama and Bin Laden and Bonnie & Clyde and Robin Hood--

But it’s not just a discussion; it’s damn entertaining.

And meanwhile, over in the Balkans, will Gene Hackman break the rules to save Owen Wilson, a downed American pilot, in Behind Enemy Lines? Well, really, we can't root against Hackman anymore than we can root against Redford.

"Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding thru the glen; Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men; steals from the rich, gives to the poor; Robin Hood... Robin Hood... Robin Hood."

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