Foreign Policy As Heist Flick

I’ve always liked the story about two boys who grew up in Boston, wrote a movie about a sensitive working-class genius, and won an Academy Award for it. After they won that prize, the boy who played the sensitive genius went on to play a bunch of quirky roles, while the guy who played his laborer pal tried to parlay his not insubstantial jaw into an action career. But overtime, something strange happened: the sensitive boy became a superstar when he started taking roles where he hit people very hard and shot them with great precision, while the boy with the jaw sort of flamed out, and then started reinventing himself as a thoughtful director of movies about his home town. In other words, I have hopes for Ben Affleck.

And I’m particularly interested to see him step away from Boston with his next project. Argo‘s interesting for a lot of reasons. A big prestige movie about the U.S.’s tetchy relationship with Iran in the 1970s and 1980s coming at this particular moment is bound to provoke comment, especially since this is a story about the CIA pretending they’re shooting a sci-fi movie as a ruse to get diplomats out of the American embassy during the hostage crisis (something that actually happened). Rather than being a story about how the U.S. used overwhelming force to impose its will on an enemy, it’s a story about the efficacy of American cleverness, it’s foreign policy as heist flick. The film adaptation of Charlie Wilson’s War did this to a certain extent, there was an element of getting the gang together in that assemblage of Congressman, Texan do-gooder, and CIA operative. But the line between Wilson’s actions and our current involvement in Afghanistan, and the moralism of Wilson’s conviction meant the movie could never quite swagger.

But there’s an interesting space for stories about people who do the weirdest work in government because they need to accomplish things that can’t happen through the normal practice of diplomacy, intelligence, or defense. I’m amazed, for example, that no one’s optioned Ben McIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat, his book about the eccentric group of British spies who spent months cooking up a plan to plant false plans about the Allied invasion of Italy on the body of a dead man on the off chance the plans might get back to Hitler. The story is, as Malcolm Gladwell’s pointed out, a good case study for why intelligence operations might be more trouble than they’re worth. But it’s also a valuable illustration of the fact that in addition to the big heroic stories, the assault on Normandy, the conference at Yalta, there are all these messy little bits of any nation’s interests that can’t be wrapped up through conventional means and channels. They’re not the majority of our foreign policy, or our defense policy, whichever category you prefer to put them in, by any means.

But they’re there—spare diplomats and CIA contractors, cloistered terrorists and non-existent men—and they’re rich dramatic and comedic territory. We don’t have a lot of upliftingly eccentric public servants on our screens. If you’re off a bit, you’re depressing or dangerous, Bobby Goren or John Luther (and if you’re a woman, the most eccentricity you’re allowed is crankiness). Or perhaps more to the point, we don’t have genuinely innovative and creative public servants in our popular culture. Whimsy shades over so easily into wastefulness, and we’re used to a small set of mostly stolid ways for people to do their duty. I’m not saying all of our foreign policy movies should be about wacky hijinks. But there’s room for stories that tell us more about the limitations of conventional foreign policy tools, and that government is more than men in gray flannel suits.