An article by Seymour Hersh in the Oct. 8 issue of The New Yorker, titled “What Went Wrong,” will surely be the first in a torrent of news stories critical of the CIA’s failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. It’s no surprise that Hersh, and network news programs, have already begun a call for more “human intelligence.” But reactivating Cold War strategies for intelligence gathering plunges us into morally ambiguous territory, to say the least. As Hersh suggests, the CIA will need to rely on a sordid lot of rapists, murderers and, well–terrorists–to gather intelligence in the name of our public defense.
The timing, then, for television to develop two new shows about the CIA–ABC’s Alias and CBS’ The Agency–could not be better for the agency. The networks’ new action/ad-venture fare will surely help the culture industry fulfill its civic duty: issuing a completely unself-conscious national call to arms.
Alias producer J.J. Abrams defended the violent content of the show in the face of terrorist acts by saying that the show “really is a comic book brought to life and [it] doesn’t really deal with … terrorism per se.” Inspired by Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film, Run Lola Run, Alias‘ momentum trades on its fractured narrative and well-choreographed action sequences, stopping just long enough for glimpses of series star Jennifer Garner’s flawless hair, perfect skin and ever-present belly-button. But, like a Dick Tracy comic, spectacle is all Alias offers, as its stories fall back on notions of Good and Evil that leave as little wiggle room as Garner’s body-hugging costumes (including, in the second episode, a blue rubber suit).
In the series debut, Sidney Bristow–graduate student by day, CIA operative by day and night–makes the mistake of informing her fiancé that she’s an agent. The agency subsequently intercepts her fiancé’s phone calls and discovers that he knows of Sidney’s profession. Fearing a security breach, the agency apparently orders another operative–Sidney’s father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garbor)–to eliminate the boyfriend. After her fiancé’s grisly murder, Sidney quits in disgust, becoming an “enemy of the state.” The agency targets her in the de rigueur parking garage shootout, but Jack Bristow rescues his daughter–who’s unaware of his position with the agency–at the last minute. In the process, he reveals that he too is an agent for the same intelligence branch and that, unbeknownst to her, their branch is not CIA, but a renegade mole organization known as SD-6–the enemy. While hardly subversive, the premiere’s first half at least points to the moral complexity of intelligence industry work: Sidney discovers that her job demands that she sacrifice her identity, any close relationships she has with others, and her faith in clearly defined boundaries between good and evil.
The episode’s second half tidily resolves these moral predicaments, however. After successfully completing a renegade mission and thereby working herself back into the good graces of SD-6, Sidney proceeds to apply for a position at the “real” CIA. She offers them her services as a mole who has already penetrated “the agency.” When Sidney interviews her soon-to-be boss at the CIA, the family photos on his desk (mysteriously absent on “the other side”) and his open admission that he trusts Sidney both affirm the CIA’s integrity. Moreover, during the episode’s resolution, her father follows Sidney to her lover’s grave and informs her that she’s got clearance, and the job with the CIA. He too, apparently, is a double agent working within the shadowy SD-6.
Beyond the absurdity of the plot–which suggests that her father knowingly got Sidney entangled with SD-6 even though he actually worked for the “real” CIA all along–the revelation is troubling because it erases the questions about morality that the episode had raised in the first place. The erasure firmly re-establishes the benevolence of the government and the necessity of unflinching violence and duplicity in the name of national security.
The series’ second episode, shown on Oct. 7 directly after news coverage of the new war in Afghanistan, did little to complicate things–except in the important matter of Garner’s hair color, which shifted from the first episode’s crimson, to the second episode’s black (to contrast dramatically with the bright white hallways of a building she was infiltrating) and then to blond (when she went undercover as a Russian, speaking the language fluently). In the first episode, as a disheveled Garner marched into the lobby of a brightly lit building and approached the front desk to announce that they had a “walk-in,” viewers could be forgiven for assuming she was visiting her hairdresser, and not the CIA (which also refers to new, unsolicited agents as walk-ins). The incomprehensible plotline and action sequences of the second episode–which failed to make clear at any point where the characters were and what exactly they were doing, effectively reducing the show to a series of wardrobe and hair color changes–left many troubling questions unresolved, in particular this one: Now that Sidney is working for both SD-6 and the CIA, who reimburses her for her wardrobe?
CBS’s The Agency takes itself far more seriously than Alias and strives to present the CIA with an air of realism. Produced by Wolfgang Peterson, the show employs a restrained docudrama visual sensibility to weave together several sophisticated plotlines. The central plotline in a recent episode revolved around the fallout from the CIA’s involvement in a Colombian Air Force attack on a plane carrying missionaries, mistakenly assumed to be running drugs. Alan Pierce (Ronny Cox), the director of operations, struggles to maintain support for the operation in Colombia, which–under the guise of stopping drug runners–is actually focused on quelling the activities of a nefarious rebel leader. In the process, Pierce commits perjury before a Senate oversight committee. In alluding to the recent incident involving the CIA and the Peruvian Air Force, the show questions the ethical costs and strategic efficacy of covert operations, and explores the internal politics that govern the intelligence industry.
Yet, finally, the episode’s climactic moments absolve the CIA: The missionary’s widow publicly forgives the agency and Pierce’s perjury is morally justified, as we watch, via the agency’s infrared monitors, a small band of operatives penetrate the hideout and arrest the rebel leader.
Pierce’s anxieties about the public’s potential response to the Colombian operation speak to the CIA’s recent attempts to improve its image. According to a Sept. 29 L.A. Times article by Patrick Goldstein, the agency has assigned 25-year veteran Chase Brandon to serve as its first official Hollywood liaison, despite the fact that the CIA is banned, in its charter, from domestic persuasion operations. Says Brandon, who serves as technical advisor for both shows, “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. . . . [But] our whole national consciousness is going to change. And I think a responsible film or TV episode about the agency . . . can show the magnitude of what’s at stake.”
But Alias and The Agency suggest that what’s at stake is only national security, and not human rights, the integrity of the law, our dignity, and basic civil liberties. Ultimately, in gathering both shows under the aegis of “responsible” television, Brandon reminds us that, in today’s heated climate, the only difference between self-proclaimed pulp and so-called “realistic” art is style. In both cases, the level of artistic sophistication does not surpass propaganda.