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The return of the realist spy film.

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Stieg Larsson's successful Millenium novels (2005, 2006, 2007) have become a major phenomenon in contemporary globalized culture by combining criminal inquiry with complex accounts of personal life and realism. In doing so they increas-ingly rely on motifs borrowed from the tradition of the spy nar rative as Lisbeth Salander finally faces her father, Zalachenko. In a similar vein, and despite its topical issue, Doug Liman's Fair Game (2010) tells the true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame by placing as much emphasis on her political role as on her ability to reconcile spy work with the demands of her family. In the last decade, the proliferation of these combined views of espionage, personal life and realism in such popular texts suggests their relevance to contemporary culture, and in a way that transcends the borders of, at least, Western countries. This paper discusses The Good Shepherd (2006), Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) and L'affaire Farewell (Farewell, 2009), three spy films produced in three different countries, as representative of a recent tendency of the genre characterized by this return to a realism that, already a trademark of the genre, is now inflected by contemporary concerns. Although the paper's main interest will be theatrically-released films, it will also refer to television because the 1980s BBC series based on John le Carre's novels contributed significantly to establishing the conventions of the realist spy narrative, and in the last decade the genre has flourished on the small screen.


The spy film genre moved through the 1970s and 1980s towards an increasing relevance of action and suspense, as proved by the films based on Frederick Forsyth's novels The Day of the Jackal (1973), The Odessa File (1974), The Dogs of War (1980) and The Fourth Protocol (1987), a tendency that would become even stronger in the 1990s and 2000s. 1990 saw the release of the first film adaptation of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan saga, The Hunt for Red October, soon followed by Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and The Sum of All Fears (2002). They initiated a cycle of action spy thrillers that would include the Mission Impossible series (1996, 2000, 2006) and, more recently, the Bourne films based on Robert Ludlum's novels (2002, 2004, 2007). In the 2000s the Bond franchise swayed towards action heroics with Daniel Craig, as did such films as Spy Games (2001) and The Tailor of Panama (2001). More recently, Body of Lies (2008), Traitor (2008), Taken (2008) and Salt (2010) have followed the same line.

Against this background stands out a less popular cycle of spy television series produced in the last decade. CBS's The Agency (2001-2003), ABC's Threat Matrix (2003-2004) and TNT's The Grid (2004) offered realism and topicality by placing secret agents in the new context of terrorism, but they achieved none of the success of the more fantasy-based Alias (ABC, 2001-2006), 24 (Fox, 2001-2010), Burn Notice (USA Network, 2007--present) or the miniseries The Company (TNT, 2007). As Wesley Britton comments, these examples prove that today the fantasies popularized by 007 have a stronger place in audiovisual culture than the realistic spy stories more usually found in literature. (1)


It is in this context that I would like to place three topical spy films which resemble those realistic television shows but were more popular than them. The Good Shepherd (2006) obtained close to $100 million worldwide, a modest success replicated in the same year by a film that was to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and earned about $77 million world-wide, the German Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Later would appear L'affaire Farewell (Farewell, 2009), a French film that lacked the commercial impact of the other two but enjoyed a long career on the film festival circuit. It is my hypothesis that these three films achieved this relative success because they touched on issues that were relevant to audiences, and they did so by departing from contemporary main-stream, action-oriented, representations of spy life. At the same time, they have remained far from the box-office success of films that opted for the action spy formula in recent years. In 2006 Casino Royale grossed $594 million worldwide, reaching number four on the yearly box-office list, while Mission Impossible III obtained $397 million and reached number eight. In 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum was number seven, earning $442 million worldwide, and in 2008 Quantum of Solace grossed $586 million, reaching number nine. Taken, in 2009, obtained $226 million to become number twenty, and by the end of 201 0 Salt had grossed $293 million and stood at number twen ty-one. (2) In comparison, and like their television counterparts, The Good Shepherd, Das Leben der Anderen and L'affaire Farewell didn't do so well because they partially failed to provide the experience relished by audiences. This article will analyse these films tin an attempt to throw light on some of the reasons why they may have been assigned this place as culturally relevant but at the same time marginal products.

The several cycles of the post-World War II spy film have been defined by their degree of verisimilitude and moral conviction about espionage. Influenced by the March of Time newsreels, 1940s docudramas like The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) used actual footage and were clearly propagandistic, while 1950s films like Five Fingers (1952) began to consider espionage more ambiguously. The 1960s saw the appearance of two of the most popular forms of the genre: the Bond films, based on the Fleming novels of the 1950s, and the adaptations of John le Carre and Len Deighton. Bond inhabited a world of glamorous consumerism and moral certainty, while The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965) and The Iperess File (1965) offered realism, questioning moral absolutes and the ethics of espionage. In the 1970s the political thriller replaced espionage with political intrigue and conspiracy, reflecting a mood of mistrust and fear produced by actual events in the United States. As a reaction to the centrality of this conspiracy genre, in the 1980s le Carre's novels were adapted for television in the United Kingdom, a format that allowed lengthier and more complex narratives than film. The BBC's multipart series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980), Smiley's People (1982) and A Perfect Spy (1988) returned to the realistic accounts of spy life and its difficulties, featuring protagonists who were even more ordinary and methodical than the film version of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold's Alec Leamas. (3)

The spy film shares this reliance on verisimilitude with its literary sources. It has been argued that the function of this verisimilitude is to produce simplified versions of history that reflect the fantasies of mass audiences about historical change, explained through conspiracies and the efforts to stop them. Spy stories alleviate anxieties about the individual's lack of effective agency since history is presented as the consequence of the secret agent's work. Two main versions of history would emerge from the genre, which would bear similarities to the two main cycles of the spy film mentioned above: one would see conflict between nations as inevitable, its only solution to be found in the individual, male, hero; the other would attempt to achieve greater verisimilitude by dwelling on the complexity of events and their moral ambiguity. The first trend would have its roots in the pre-1914 and World War I generation that included, among others, Erskine Childers and John Buchan, and revived in the 1950s work of Ian Fleming. The second trend, initiated in the late 1920s and 1930s by the generation of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, was refreshed in the 1960s by Len Deighton and John le Carre. (4) The heroicspy trend relies on the power of citizens to influence history whereas the realist one is far more sceptical about it, usually underscoring the power of forces above the individual.



This argument echoes cultural interpretations of spy fiction which have tended to view it as metaphor for the conflict between individual subjectivity and social organization, voicing public distrust of the distance created by the social system from the subjects that constitute it. (5) Cultural commentators have invariably noted the genre's political relevance, and it continues to be discussed as a tale of citizenship and citizens' distrust of a state that contradicts their sense of justice. (6) Spy fiction also voices social anxieties regarding work, disclosing the ways in which bureaucracy and corporate structures produce the same alienation, moral ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by secret agents. (7)

Its concerns often match those of crime narratives at large, although spy fiction has its specificities and special focus. It distinctly reflects the organized nature of social forces, exposing the mechanisms that keep individuals under control. It is concerned with morality, with the system's claim to moral righteousness or the individual's struggle with moral principles and widespread cynicism. It also contains the potential to suggest parallels between the secret agent and the ordinary citizen, both being at the same time essential to the survival of the system and reminders of its shortcomings: they embody the contradictory values of bourgeois society, the ambiguity of the law and a fantasy about the power of the individual to influence history. Furthermore, the genre exhibits a greater awareness of this physical and moral milieu than the rest of the crime genres by placing characters in situations that may expose the contradictions of societies and nations. Finally, the spy story shows, more lucidly than perhaps any other genre, the impact of a globalized world in which national borders are no obstacle to transglobal power.

The more fantasy-based cycle of the spy film still reflects the traditional theme of society as a rigid, ruthless organization but tends to take it for granted, placing more emphasis on life-saving action instead. It abandons the realism of bureaucratic spy work in favour of heroic fantasies, in the process toning down awareness about the centrality of a moral discourse to the formation of society or about the ambiguity of citizenship. On the contrary, defined by their emphasis on characters particularly conscious of their circumstances, realist spy films tend to place this awareness at their centre.

The Good Shepherd, Dos Leben der Anderen and L'affaire Farewell are most original and culturally relevant precisely in the ways they engage with both realism and this heightened awareness. The films' authenticity and documentary feel is produced by the stories' faithfulness to true historical events. Das Leben is 'perhaps less explicit about this, although its story echoes the actual impact of a police state on East Berlin in the years preceding the fall of the Wall, while The Good and L'affaire draw upon true events to different degrees. The Good is loosely based on the life of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton, and even CIA historians have agreed that, despite its inaccuracies, the film is largely based on actual events and real agents, of whom Edward Wilson is a composite. (8) L'affaire follows, more or less faithfully, the real Farewell operation initiated by Colonel Vladimir Vetrov in the early 1980s and is an adaptation of Serguei Kostine's novel Bonjour Farewell (1997), itself based on true events. Their stories are firmly anchored in historical fact, and their mise-en-scene, which attempts to provide a convincing look of people and places, bolsters that realism. The Good shows the glossy look of a production design financed by a major studio (Universal) and, although real locations may not always be used, they aim at a verisimilitude that sets the film apart from the heroicspy film cycle. Wilson's grey suits and a colour palette of monochromatic tones and soft, dim lighting evoke his ordinary existence, while the visual style through which the film chooses to portray the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s resorts to a similar drabness in order to suggest realism. (9) The miseen-scene of Das Leben, a project without the backing of a major studio and shot on a much smaller budget, also imitates the real look of East Berlin and the GDR, whose essence is particularly captured by production design in Wiesler's austere flat. The desaturated greys, greens, browns or beiges, and its soft contrast look manage to evoke authenticity, (10) as do the real locations in East Berlin and the surveillance technology, which happens to be the genuine one used by the Stasi. Standing between the two in terms of budget, L'affaire mimics the authentic look of Das Leben in its use of colour and real Moscow locations.


The characters' awareness is expressed by focusing on their personal lives and moral transformation, a focus revealed by the films' narrative structure. The Good is the story of Wilson's/Matt Damon becoming a spy only to be finally betrayed by his son and its turning points have to do with his personal life. As a child he decides to conceal his father's suicide note, and as a young man he is pushed into marriage by Clover/Angelina Jolie, whose brother and his Yale friends persuade him to join the wartime intelligence organization OSS. The job places a strain on family life, his wife abandons him and his son imitates his secretive life by becoming a spy; Wilson ends up alone, without friends or family, unable to trust anybody. The film explains Wilson's spy life as the result of his childhood desire to deny facts and live a fantasy by concealing his father's suicide note, which would have confirmed the accusations of treason levelled against him. His incapacity to face reality and the desire to purge his father's sin are at the root of his decision to become a spy.


Similarly, the structure of Das Leben follows Gerd Wiesler's/Ulrich Muhe personal change. The introduction shows Wiesler's deftness as a Stasi spy and his first surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman/Sebastian Koch and his girlfriend, actress Christa Maria Sieland/Martina Gedeck. The action complicates when Wiesler is first seen to sympathize with them, after he realizes the surveillance is only a career move for his boss Grubitz, who hopes to clear the way for Minister Hempf's sexual advances on Christa. The film's development has Wiesler finally take the couple's side, moved by their pain, helplessness, and artistic sensibility. In the climax, he is forced to face his ambiguous situation when, following Dreyman's publication of a critical article in the West, Christa is interrogated. When she confesses that Dreyman keeps a non-registered typewriter in his flat, Wiesler runs to remove it before the Stasi search the place, but cannot stop Christa's feeling of guilt and eventual suicide. In the epilogue, Wiesler has been degraded to postman for his treason but finds out that Dreyman's latest book is dedicated to him.

Finally, L'affaire is built around the personal trajectories of KGB Colonel Sergei Grigoriev/Emir Kusturica and Pierre Froment/Guillaume Canet, a French engineer stationed at Moscow's French residence in 1985. From the moment Grigoriev chooses Froment as courier for the secret documents he has decided to leak, the film is most original in using their private and family lives to explain the psychology of the two spies. The atmosphere of distrust that pervades Grigoriev's relationship with his wife Natasha and son Igor plays as a metaphor of a society suffocated by state surveillance, to which Grigoriev hopes to bring prosperity and freedom by starting a new revolution. For his part, Froment is committed to two opposite sets of values: he feels it is his duty to aid his country's secret service but at heart considers his family's safety is to be placed above everything else. The film progresses through meetings between the two men, who in relatively relaxed and intimate conversations tell us about themselves, their dreams and defeats, their taste in music, alcohol or poetry.

The structure of these three narratives sets the realist spy film apart from the more mainstream world of the action spy hero. Instead of the emphasis on ordinary life found in them, texts of the Mission Impossible or Bourne series focus on life-threatening dangers; instead of individuals trapped by their social circumstances, they offer men of action; instead of a mise-en-scene with an interest in the quotidian, they exhibit a mise-en-scene where the everyday turns into the ground of heroic confrontation.




The films are nevertheless different from previous realist spy films in the degree of awareness with which they show, and characters verbalize, the impact of distrust and isolation on personal life. In the le Carre adaptations, characters were more inclined to stoic feats than to express their feelings, and would rather hint at the consequences of spy life than devote time to them. However, in these three films the consequences of espionage are distinctly dramatized by following the process through which the spies come to realize the emptiness of a life poisoned by isolation and distrust. Wiesler discovers a new life, Wilson learns that the secret service is ruining his chances of happiness but remains loyal to his country and his childhood traumas, while Grigoriev's conversations with Froment are explicit about his awareness that treason is the only way out of his frustration. The Good is particularly successful in accentuating Wilson's, mainly psychological, predicament. At one point his instructor in London and former Yale teacher Fredericks advises him that distrust, an inevitable consequence of spying, is likely to corrode his life. This will soon be confirmed when he is asked to kill Fredericks, whose choice of male lovers has endangered the secrecy of the organization.

It can be argued that this explicit climate of distrust and the acute sense of inhabiting a world too complex to survive in it echo the contemporary experience of life in Western societies, where modes of belonging to groups or institutions have faded and politics no longer controls a globalized economy. The consequent dissolution of bonds with the social and lack of a socially produced identity paradoxically coexist with the demand of self-definition, of survival by finding a place in a society that is no longer there in any identifiable form. Probably no other social theorist has explored these changes more thoroughly than Zygmunt Bauman, who through his concept of 'liquid modernity' has complained about the death of the modern ideal of the Good Society, where the social as a system was to function for the good of its members. As the bonds between individual lives and communal action disappear in contemporary times, the modern project of social progress is passed on from institutions to individuals, who are expected to work for the common good without the help of any systems or politics that would support them. (11) Individuals are no longer central pieces of the community but victims of contemporary social transformations, since they are asked to still believe in and work towards a society that has nevertheless stopped providing any sense of security in return. In conceiving citizens acutely aware of their inability to cope with the contradictory demands of society, these realist spy films probably voice the anxieties of globalized individuals more vividly than any other trend of contemporary cinema.


But it is the unusual accent placed on the subjectivity of the main characters that defines the three films most clearly, further distinguishing them from the rest of the realist spy tradition in the cinema. Each film favours specific formal strategies to convey this emphasis, but common to them all is a particular exploration of feeling by dwelling on the characters' facial expression. The Good makes use of Matt Damon's impassive performance to show his stoicism, a technique that creates images of a suffering Wilson who controls himself to the point of isolation. In one of the first scenes we see him still shocked at the news that a mole has thwarted the Bay of Pigs operation. He is led to a secret file on CIA director Phillip Allen, who becomes one of his suspects. Close-ups and medium close-ups show Wilson at his office desk while he considers the facts until, his back now slightly turned to us in a medium shot, a slow camera movement approaches him while he looks out of the window at a rainy night. The film follows this with the first flashback to 1939, about Wilson's time at Yale, suggesting that he is remembering the origin of the life that led him to this tight spot. Access to his subjectivity is the focus of this office scene, shaping a view of a lonely man forced to face more trouble than he can handle. Das Leben employs the same combination of tracking shots and performance to place Wiesler's inner life at the centre of the story, punctuating his change. After Dreyman receives a call telling him that his friend Jerska, a blacklisted drama director, has hanged himself, Dreyman plays the piano composition that Jerska brought him as a present: Sonata for Good Men. Listening from the attic, Wiesler is moved by the music while the camera tracks around him until we see his face and a tear rolling down his cheek. The same attention to the characters' sensibility appears in L'affaire, but here it is expressed through scenes in which Grigoriev's inner life is allowed to come to the surface. Twice we see him and his wife watch super 8 films they shot during their stay in Paris, when their son Igor was only a child. The atmosphere of nostalgia for the past is not as powerful as the sense of having enjoyed their only moments of real freedom, away from the constraints of life in the Soviet Union. As in Wiesler's case, the music, nondiegetic now, collaborates with performance to hint at the causes of Gricjoriev's treason.

The lengthy, relaxed tracking shots of The Good and Das Leben are a sign of the three films' most salient formal aspect: the slow pace produced by the segments centred on the characters' subjectivity, which alternate with more conventional action scenes. Perhaps the clearest example of the three, L'affaire moves between action sequences, not different from those in spy thrillers and here involving high officials and presidents of state, and more relaxed sections devoted to the characters' family life or to Grigoriev's meetings with Froment. We see them drink together while Grigoriev asks for cognac or French poetry, symbols of the Western way of life that he misses, in return for his information.

A particular case of this narrative structure is illustrated by crosscutting, a strategy of continuity editing often used to increase the pace of the narrative, but which however serves The Good and Dos Leben to articulate the processes that define the characters' personalities. Crosscutting does not accelerate the rhythm of the two films but contributes to the careful delineation of subjectivity by decreasing the pace of the narratives. One of the key sequences in the middle section of The Good crosscuts a quarrel between Wilson and his wife Clover with a CIA operation in a Latin American country. While Clover complains about his secretive life, Wilson receives a phone call and launches the operation. We see the soldiers enter what seems a presidential residence while the family crisis breaks loose at Wilson's home and his son eavesdrops on his parents from upstairs, a habit born out of the desperate need to know his father which will later turn him into a spy. Wilson's required discretion with his job is pulling his family apart, and crosscutting from his life as a spy to his personal life as husband and father illustrates it. Crosscutting is even more central to the narrative structure of Das Leben, since it allows the story to move from Dreyman and Christa's world to Wiesler's spying, and it is Wiesler's reactions to the story of the couple that become the real core of the film. Furthermore, crosscutting voices Wiesler's subjectivity, transformed under the influence of these artists' lives and of art itself. The most significant scene in this respect happens after Christa is abused by Hempf in his car and an angry Wiesler, watching from the attic, decides to intervene. By ringing the main door's bell he leads Dreyman downstairs just in time for him to see Christa get out of Hempf's car. She walks upstairs, lies down on the bed and asks Dreyman, who has followed her, to just hold her, an unhurried tender moment enhanced by nondiegetic piano music and meant to suggest the system's ruthless grip on people. The scene then cuts to Wiesler listening in the attic, whose face denotes his sympathy for the couple.

These scenes deal with the impact of institutions on people, while showing that it is in their everyday lives, in their desires, dreams and aspirations, that lie the seeds of rebellion and thus of hope for a better future. While these films illustrate the dissolution of social bonds theorized by Bauman, they also suggest the existence of a positive response on the part of individuals which social theorist Alain Touraine has termed 'the subject'. (12) To Touraine, individuals inhabit societies where they can stilt create themselves as free agents by both fighting for their rights and opposing the world of consumption, violence and war. It is in situations of injustice or attack on human rights, in which a reaction is needed, that individuals can show this willingness to be the agents of their own existence. (13) Touraine's subject is an abstract notion present in the behaviour of individuals when they oppose everything that prevents them from mastering their own lives. It originates when they develop self-consciousness, learn to speak about themselves and realize that they are entitled to human rights. (14) The emphatic subjectivity of these three realist spy films voices the characters' consciousness about their right to construct their own lives. While The Good shows this need frustrated by Wilson's notion of duty, which leads him to personal undoing, Das Leben and L'affaire exemplify the subject's potential for personal and social transformation.

The three films exhibit the intensified continuity that, to David Bordwell, has pervaded contemporary Hollywood films and become the baseline style for international popular cinema. An intensification of established techniques of classical continuity whose purpose is still to help viewers make sense of the story in space and time, intensified continuity consists of fast editing, extreme lens lengths, close shots and wide-ranging camera movements. (15) Writing in 2006, David Bordwell argued that the last decades had seen an increasing editing speed, to the point that films were on average cut faster than at any other time in US studio filmmaking--the average shot length was between 3 and 6 seconds. The Good, Das Leben and L'affaire, although mostly within the pattern of intensified continuity, clearly depart from it in their more subjective sections, which are far more relaxed than intensified continuity would promise.

The Good, Das Leben and L'affaire are most original in the use to which they put this modification of intensified continuity. They offer a variation on previous realist spy films by placing an emphasis on subjectivity unusual in mainstream contemporary Hollywood and more likely to be found in independent Hollywood and non-Hollywood cinema. While the three British television series of the 1980s based on le Carre's novels showed interest in the consequences of spy life, turned their protagonists into tormented heroes, and avoided the exhilarating rhythm of the action spy film, they were mostly concerned with the precise machinery of the secret service, with the way assessment of human beings and gathering information about them became the core of spy work. Although the secret agent gained centrality, it did not reach the degree exhibited by these three films, where events themselves are not as relevant as their description of the spy's personal trajectory, These three narratives depart most clearly from previous realist spy films in that their emphatic subjectivity does not only reflect the defeat of individuals against institutions but it also exhibits the relevance of intimacy and personal life to the constitution of individual identity. Most specifically, they show how the spy's private life is the site where the transformative capacities of the individual are seen to either give in to external pressure or develop a consciousness that will envision a different society created through individual agency. They illustrate how it is in the realm of personal life that socially transformative action can take place.

In this sense, the BBC television series A Perfect Spy, the last of the le Carre adaptations, becomes a link between classic and recent realist spy films. It showed, as does The Good, how the psychology of a spy was shaped by family life: Magnus Pym/Peter Egan learned to betray from the example of his father, a conman, and ended up committing suicide when he could no longer bear that kind of existence. A Perfect Spy is probably le Carre's most autobiographical work, since the author has acknowledged that his spy novels reflect nostalgia for the values of a lost world where people could still trust institutions, and has explained this need as a reaction to his own family life and in particular to his father, a compulsive liar whom he could never trust. (16) A Perfect Spy posits this distrust of institutions as the consequence of a family life tainted by deceit, and thus connects the preoccupations of the classic realist spy narrative with a series of motifs that have resurfaced in the spy film and television of the last decade, and which concern the role of private fife in social change.

Spies who attempt to reconcile their jobs with family life have become quite a fashion in the US American film and tele vision of the past decade. Alias, 24, the Spy Kid saga (2001, 2002, 2003), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Killers (2010) or Fair Game (2010) join The Good, Das Leben and L'affaire in offering a new view of the spy's private world. Jack Z. Bratich has argued that, whereas previous films and television separated domestic from professional life and one affected the other only occasionally, now the connection between the two is central to the stories. (17) Thus to Miranda J. Brady, Alias exhibits the expected conventions of the spy genre, but it introduces a family focus centred around its main character, Sydney Bristow, a white American female spy played by Jennifer Garner. In the midst of post-9/11 social anxiety about the degradation of the family unit and the infiltration of American security, she offers comfort by staying a sexually upright citizen, which preserves familial normalcy and, ultimately, the American nation. (18) Bratich gives the topic a wider scope by discussing the recent tendency of popular culture to present spies as everyday people. Spies are turned into family men and women in television and film, while reality television makes secret agency public by teaching participants to detect deception. The purpose is to turn every citizen into a spy, an act of domination that at the same time opens ways for resistance since citizens may turn spy tactics against the state. Besides, the popularization of the spy means creating a people's secret agent, a hero drawn from the people, which may also be subversive. (19) While these analyses capture part of the ideological dimension of this new cultural development of the spy text, they fail to distinguish between its fantasy-based and realist trends. Alias's sexual and national outlook is directly related to a world that relies on narrative turns that defy verisimilitude, and the status as a people's hero of Jack Bauer in 24, where speed and suspense are the norm, is certainly different from that of Wilson, Wiesler or Grigoriev. The more glamorous representations of the spy, like Alias or 24, still tend to embed their ordinary protagonists in action heroics that suggest supra-personal ideologies like nationalism, but Wilson, Wiesler and Grigoriev inhabit a world governed by the rules of the everyday, and this affects their meanings. These recent realist spy films show the impact of private, family life on the discourses articulated by the realist cycle but deflect its relevance away from nationalism and towards more individual concerns. In doing so, they show their appropriation of the same intimacy that has featured so prominently in action spy films and television series, here deployed as index of the transformative potential of a conscious subjectivity.

Seen from the broader perspective of the crime film, these texts deal not so much with crime as with its effect on human beings. This has always been the case of the realist spy film, which has returned in the last few years in order to express contemporary worries, not through hyperbolic threats or world conspiracies, but in this more mundane form that points to the concerns of everyday life. By emphasizing the links of spies with ordinary life and people, by providing an account of espionage that resembles real life, The Good, Das Leben and L'affaire increase the awareness of both characters and viewers about society as an organization, the centrality of a moral discourse to its formation, and the ambiguity of citizenship. The protagonists of these boosted versions of the realist branch of the spy genre are particularly sensitive to the moral trap society has set for them. The secret agent's subversive potential as people's hero noted by Bratich is concretized in films centred on the experience of facing a society which demands everything and provides next to nothing. But the films' specific relevance is to be found in a realm closer to the subjectivity and the status of individuals than to such supra-personal notions as society or nation. These spy dramas of the real show the personal perspective of individuals on their situation through visual techniques that strive to explain subjectivity as a consequence of real living conditions, but it is the subjective experience that matters, it is the intense look of characters that leads us back to the real world. The realist spy film makes us witnesses to the defeat of the self against societies and nations but at the same time it vindicates the centrality of that self. This vindication demonstrates that the realist spy film, traditionally sceptical of the individual's capacity to change society, has embraced a discourse about the political power of private life, in which citizens may find awareness of their rights as human beings. This blend of hope and pessimism might explain the mixed response of audiences to the three films.

A Perfect Spy provided a kind of drama sensitive to psychology and the minutiae of ordinary life that had no continuity in television or film until the release of The Good Shepherd, Das Leben der Anderen and L'affaire Farewell, but these were joined by another film based on actual events: Breach (2007), a US American film relatively successful at the box office that focused on the personal relationship between a senior agent (Chris Cooper) suspected of spying and a clerk (Ryan Phillipe) sent to investigate him. The similarity of its main topic, whether being a secret agent is really worth it given the way it destroys your personal life, with those of the previously discussed three films, and their difference from the rest of the contemporary spy genre, suggest the currency of its concerns, as does the recent release of Carl Colby's documentary The Man Nobody Knew (2011), in which he investigates the life of his own father, former CIA Director William Colby, from both a personal and public perspective. Finally, the fact that a new version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has just been produced by Working Title and directed by Swedish Tomas Alfredson, known for the 2008 hit bat den rdtte komma in (Let the Right One In), confirms both the contemporary relevance of the realist spy film and its transnational appeal.

Research for this article was funded by research project FF12070-15263 (Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovacion, Espana) and the FEDER program of the European Union.


(1.) Wesley Britton, Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (Westport, London: Praeger, 2005), 227.


(3.) Alan R. Booth, 1991 "The Development of the Espionage Film," in Spy Fiction, Spy Films and Real Intelligence, ed. Wesley K. Wark (London: Frank Cass, 1991), 145-154.

(4.) Wesley K. Wark, "Introduction: Fictions of History," in ed. Wark, 3-8.

(5.) Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, (London: Pluto, 1984), 122.

(6.) Allan Hepburn, Intrigue: Espionage and Culture, (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005), 5-6.

(7.) Britton, 232. Toby Miller, "Afterword: Why Won't Spies Go Away?," in Secret Agents: Popular Icons Beyond James Bond, ed. Jeremy Packer, (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 192.

(8.) David Robarge, Gary McCollim, Nicholas Dujmovic, Thomas G. Coffey. "The Good Shepherd: Intelligence in Recent Public Media," Studies in Intelligence, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 51, no. 1 (25 May 2007), 1 Oct. 2011,

(9.) John Pavlus, "Ghost in the Machine," American Cinematographer, February (2007): 44-45.

(10.) Rachael K. Bosley, "Living Dangerously in East Germany," American Cinematographer, March (2007): 16-18.

(11.) Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 6-8.

(12.) Unlike Freud's or Lacan's notions of the subject, which were essentially psychological, Touraine's is basically social since it emerges through the individuals' interaction with their community.

(13.) Alain Touraine, A New Paradigm for Understanding Today's World, trans. Gregory Elliott (Cambridge, Malden: Polity, 2007 (2005)), 101-143.

(14.) Alain Touraine, Thinking Differently, trans. David Macey (Cambridge, Malden: Polity, 2009 (2007)), 120-124.

(15.) David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It, (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006), 121-138.

(16.) Randall Wright, John le Carre: The Secret Centre, (2000; London: BBC). Television documentary.

(17.) Bratich, 136.

(18.) Miranda J. Brady, "The Well-Tempered Spy: Family, Nation and the Female Secret Agent in Alias," in ed. Packer, 111-131.

(19.) Bratich, 133-162.
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Article Details
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Author:Garcia-Mainar, Luis M.
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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