This weekend's The Losers, based on a comic book by Andy Diggle, concerns a U.S. black ops team that is betrayed by their CIA handler, a distasteful character named Max (Jason Patric). They swear revenge on their former employers, starting a campaign to hunt down those at the Agency responsible for their betrayal. The result is a bloody, profane action flick, with the Central Intelligence Agency playing the role of the near-omnipotent dastardly villain.
The CIA has a storied movie history, especially recently. Because so few people know the reality of what the Agency actually does, and because words like "spy" and "clandestine" and "black ops" are so desperately intriguing, films about the CIA are, at their best, an opportunity for genre screenwriters to let their imaginations run wild. Some Hollywood efforts to depict the Agency have attempted to hew close to reality as we in the general public know it; others have used the concept of the CIA as a starting point for speculative fiction or farfetched thriller plots; still others just wanted to have fun. Here's a list of seven varied starring roles for our most mysterious branch of government.
1. Body of Lies (Ridley Scott) - Probably my favorite CIA movie ever, Body of Lies manages to do almost all of the things I mentioned above. Based on a novel by David Ignatius, a journalist who spent years covering the Agency, it is at once a thrilling spy flick, a candid portrayal of the dangerous and unglamorous life of an overseas operative, and a damned insightful critique of America's hopelessly backward approach to the Middle East. Leonardo DiCaprio, who's had some credibility problems in "adult" roles, is at his most convincing as William Ferris, a tough, jaded, streetwise agent who has to navigate a crisis while dealing with the myopic obstinance of his superiors back home.
2. The Bourne Trilogy (Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass) - The CIA agent as invincible superspy. There's a lot to say about these movies, including about Matt Damon's effortlessly badass performance as the titular amnesiac hero, but let me just point out that what the Bourne flicks do best is harness the mystique of the CIA -- its complicated motives, its seemingly unlimited reach, and its supposedly near-supernatural technological capabilities (not to mention its apparent penchant to turn on its own agents). As in The Losers, the Agency is sort of the villain here, but fans know that it's not quite that simple.
3. Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols) - Words cannot express my love for Gust Avrakotos, the ultra-profane CIA agent played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who helps Tom Hanks' Congressman Charlie Wilson give the Afghan mujihadeen a leg up against the Soviet invaders. Hoffman and the film reconceive the CIA operative as a sort of very angry, very capable nerd; the kind of guy who takes his resentment of a world full of morons as his motivation. Very much a larger-than-life Movie Character, Avrakotos has, among other things, maybe the best entrance line of the decade.
4. The Good Shepherd (Robert DeNiro) - In some ways the opposite of the Bourne films, despite the presence of Matt Damon, this sprawling, more-or-less historically accurate portrayal of the early days of the CIA and specifically its involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion, mostly seeks to demystify. Even despite my interest in the material, I found the movie a little dry -- but if you're curious about this stuff, it's the best combination of history lesson and smart entertainment you're likely to find.
5. The Jack Ryan films - These rather pompous Tom Clancy adaptations aren't everyone's bag, but I dig the superhero-esque exploits of star CIA agent Jack Ryan, the most obvious precursor to Jack Bauer. The plots are both ludicrous and self-consciously "ripped from the headlines," which is kind of a great combination. The best film in the series is the first: The Hunt for Red October, which also features the least likely Jack Ryan in Alec Baldwin.
6. The Quiet American (Philip Noyce) - Here, the Agency shows up in a cerebral, slow-burn thriller that blends romance, intrigue, and historical speculation. What does a love triangle among a British journalist, an American do-gooder and a Vietnamese siren have to do with the start of the Vietnam War? Based on Graham Greene's novel, the film has a lot on its mind, but one thing it highlights is the CIA's ability to influence major world events not with guns blazing, but through little nudges and insinuations.
7. True Lies (James Cameron) - On the other hand, sometimes you've gotta bust out the blazing guns, as well as daring helicopter rescues, etc. Few movies make me happy as reliably as True Lies, James Cameron's awesome 1994 action satire with Schwarzenegger as a secret agent fighting terrorists with the help of sidekick Tom Arnold. Who needs verisimilitude when you can have Arnold riding a horse to the roof of a skyscraper in an elevator?