nI’ll be real clever, I thought. I’ll look back at the long history of cinematic spies and find a correlation between geopolitics and how seriously we want our spy flicks. Witness the present: With the United States seemingly hopelessly quagmired in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollywood—in partnership with the Brits, pretty much our only friends left in the “coalition of the willing”—gave us a major reboot of superspy James Bond. If you haven’t seen 2006’s Casino Royale, you’ll want to check it out before you see Quantum of Solace—in part because it picks up only hours later in story-time, but also to find yourself astonished at how intense, grim and stripped of all campy cheek a Bond movie can be and still be Bond. n
Dire news from the War on Terror means dire ’tudes from our cinematic spies. Score one for me.n
Then again, Steve Carell gave us a snarky boot in the Bond with this spring’s big-screen transfer of 1960s spy spoof Get Smart. Goofy and sweet, it’s the diametric opposite of the new Bond. Audiences lapped it up, too. Score minus one for me.n
The truth is that spy flicks over recent decades seem to wax and wane from somber to funny and back again without regard to what the media tell us is the state of the world. In perhaps the darkest days of the Cold War, in the ’70s and early ’80s, we had both the solemn meditation on the dangers of surveillance to the surveillor in Francis Ford Coppola’s bleak 1974 thriller The Conversation and the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker 1984 yucker Top Secret!, in which Val Kilmer was the silliest secret agent of World War II. Maybe the 1960s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and mutually assured destruction and all, were the darkest days of the Cold War. Then we had the nutty fun of TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., every episode of which was recently released on DVD, 41 discs in a hilariously apropos metal attaché case. It’s still a hoot today, perhaps because it seems so innocent a reflection of such a dangerous time.n
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union fell in 1991, just about when the adventures of Jack Ryan, CIA analyst and reluctant field agent, kicked off. Sure, the Soviet-era paranoia of 1990’s The Hunt for Red October quickly gave way to plots revolving around other geopolitical brushfires the sprang up in the wake of the end of the Cold War (1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. But if movie audiences were looking for a respite from reminders of how precarious realpolitik around the world can be, they weren’t finding it at the movies in the 1990s.n
It’s notable, though, that the ’90s were a relatively fallow time for James Bond, with the superspy seemingly out of his element in an era of relative international quietude. Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as Bond, from 1995’s GoldenEye to 2002’s Die Another Day, feels like minor Bond, as 007 treads water. But only Bond’s particular brand of camp was off the table; 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery introduced us to the character who might be the most absurd spy in cinematic history, the perfect symbol of a time that felt safer than perhaps it was.n
Still, I can’t help but feel that, Maxwell Smart aside, the post-9/11 years have been dominated by espionage movies that want to be more serious than silly. The Mission: Impossible flicks are more “gadget porn” than anything else, but the Jason Bourne trilogy was a harbinger of Bond to come. Last year’s The Good Shepherd, too, harkened back to The Conversation in how keenly it examined the impact a life of paranoia has on the paranoiac. It seems that it’s mostly the kiddies these days, with the Spy Kids series and Agent Cody Banks, who are getting much of a respite from real-world worries in spy movies. Though there is a Get Smart sequel already in the pipeline ...