Hollywood uncovers the CIA
by Patrick McGilligan
from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 11-12
Hollywood, like the rest of the country, has suddenly discovered the CIA, no doubt thanks to Watergate, the Rockefeller Commission, the Church-Pike investigations, etc. But no one to the left of Daniel Moynihan should be very pleased with the results.
Not that the CIA, as a concept, is any stranger to the Hollywood movie. CIA-style espionage agencies have flourished in U.S. pictures for years, especially during the 1960’s, when there was a substantial James Bond-influenced trend that “modernized” the oldstyle cloak and dagger thriller. The CIA, or a facsimile, appears often today in low budget or independent films, especially those which are aimed at a Black market. But the major studios have been slow, in the catchphrase of the McCarthy Era, to name names. They began to react a few years ago, with EXECUTIVE ACTION, and then THE PARALLAX VIEW, flawed but courageous films which had in common the unstated presence of the CIA. Yet, though both movies vacillated, they were speedily junked by distributors and died the unseen death.
This year things are different. Criticism of the CIA is more popular, de rigueur between cocktails. Three major pictures about the CIA—each unhesitatingly using the CIA as an identifiable villain—have been released by U.S. studios, each bolstered by a top male box-office star. But they are vastly disappointing films—evasive, exploitative and politically vacuous. Two of them—Sam Peckinpah’s THE KILLER ELITE and Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR—are completely concerned with an internecine warfare. James Caan battles renegade Robert Duvall in one film; Robert Redford is pitted against a mysterious Mideast cabal in another. It is as if the plots deny or diminish the thought of international consequences from CIA actions. (Heaven forbid that Allende should be mentioned.) The third movie, BREAKOUT, a Charles Bronson vehicle, is the most interesting politically, even though it is the least interesting cinematically. It occurs in Mexico and deals quite blatantly with CIA intervention in foreign affairs, with Robert Duvall as an ambiguous“good guy” imprisoned on trumped-up CIA charges. In this film, the entire CIA is understood as the “enemy,” not simply a splinter cabal. And the film has an exhilarating climax, when a CIA killer is chopped into bloody pieces by an airplane’s propeller while he wrestles with Charles Bronson on a runway. Of course, this sequence always seems to elicit the loudest applause.
But, of the three movies, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR has drawn the most critical attention and likely, it will also accumulate the largest box office receipts. Many liberal critics see it as a pertinent message to CIA-weary United States. An underground newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, went so far as to include the film in its year’s Ten Best List, as “a chillingly accurate appraisal of CIA inter-office warfare.” But while that may be true, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR falls desperately short of any real accuracy about the CIA, being instead a wide-screen whitewash tantamount to the Rockefeller Commission. Sure, the story has its strong aspects: a clique of power hungry agency bureaucrats who are secretly plotting intervention in the Middle East (not far from fantasy). A plot gimmick (the Redford character decodes novels for the CIA) that suggests the presence of E. Howard Hunt. An occasional specificity that brings the plot, ultimately, to a cozy hamlet named Chevy Chase, Maryland. And an ambiguous hint at the film’s conclusion suggests that the New York Times is under the thumb of the CIA. But the script is so mechanical in its dialogue and details that the politics suffer. I cite such flaws as the hokey romance between Faye Dunaway and Robert Redford. Their maudlin love scene is especially undercut by soft-focus shots of the “lonely” photographs on Dunaway’s apartment wall. It’s a “meaningful” gesture worthy of an uninspired undergraduate.
More alarmingly, the film vehemently suggests that the CIA’s “excesses” are attributable to a small, dangerous, yet ultimately controllable clique—that is presumably motivated by abstract power mongering rather than economic imperatives. This is the film’s deep, unforgivable political flaw. It renders the entire film, bright moments notwithstanding, shallow and naive. It’s easy to discern the political intelligence at work here. Both Pollack and Redford are well-known liberals, who probably agonized over the THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR script (especially the ending since the CIA was making headlines daily). And Pollack can be a thematically provocative director, albeit in a more existential vein. He demonstrated such promise in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, JEREMIAH JOHNSON and THE WAY WE WERE. The latter film is notable for its fascinating glimpses of people who sell out their politics in Hollywood. Similarly Pollack sells out in that film by not dealing directly with the Hollywood blacklist (pertinent sequences from the released film were cut). Ignoring the more complex demands of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, he is either unwilling or unable to do service to politically explosive material because of this personal weakness. Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is ultimately a souped-up contemporary spy caper with lukewarm political impact.
I talked with Sydney Pollack last fall on the day his picture opened in Boston. He was in a foul mood, after having read a review in the daily newspaper. Pollack was irked not because the reviewer didn't like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (as a matter of fact, he did), but because the reviewer nevertheless termed it “shallow.” It was a movie, Pollack said angrily, that he never intended to be profound. The following interview is offered as evidence to people with like expectations: Pollack’s double-bind of weighty themes and facile technique betrays the confusion of the liberal mind.
M: Did you have any contact with the CIA while you were making THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR?
P: There wasn't, really. We would have welcomed it, but we knew better than to try to pursue it actively in any way. What we did was to invite Mr. (Richard) Helms to come and watch the shooting for a day, which he did. I think he enjoyed himself very much. It was a movie, finally, and not any attempt on our part to do a definitive documentary.
I think that the critics are falling into all kinds of traps with this movie. Absolutely falling all over themselves. Half the critics are looking at it as a serious political piece of propaganda and criticizing it on that level which, god knows, wasn't intended. The film was three-quarters finished before any of these CIA revelations began to happen.
We were doing a straight thriller. That’s what we wanted to do. And we were shocked that as much of what we imagined, if you will, was coming to pass. We were absolutely dumbfounded. The attempt was, first of all, to make it faithful to the genre of a thriller. And within that, to explore certain ideas of suspicion, trust, morality, if you will; but it was not intended in any way as a documentary, I suppose, but as a warning—using the CIA almost as a metaphor, and drawing certain conclusions from post-Watergate America.
I didn't want this picture to be judged; it’s a movie. I intended it always as a movie. I never had any pretensions about the picture and it’s making me very angry that I'm getting pretensions stuck on me like tails on a donkey., If I wanted to be pretentious, I'd take the CIA seal and advertise this movie and really take advantage of the headlines. Central Intelligence Agency, United States of America, Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway. And don't think it wasn't suggested—obviously, that’s what advertising people do. We really put our foot down—Redford and I—to absolutely stop that.
M: I mean—did you question whether or not you would use the CIA presence so literally in the film?
P: Sure, we did think twice about it. But I didn't think there was any way to duck it. The word that comes to my mind is speculative. It was a speculative film. We were just speculating, saying what if, what if, what if. Then we got caught in the headlines. I think that’s interfered rather strongly with an objective assessment of the film as a film, as a movie. From the producer’s point of view, that’s terrific, because it makes the picture timely. From a critical standpoint, my fear is that it has forced the movie to be judged by standards other than it was intended to be judged by. If I were to make the film now, I'd still make the film the way I made it. Because I wouldn't attempt to make a serious film about the CIA without switching entirely what I was doing. I'd give up the whole spy genre and do a documentary about morality and government bureaucracies. That’s another kind of movie...
Nobody is bored in this movie. There’s nothing to hate in this movie. It’s a movie, what’s to hate? What’s to not like? JAWS it’s not, maybe, but there’s nothing to hate in it. So what happens is that the intellectuality of critics takes over, after the fact. That’s what I think happens. They go to the movie, have a damn good time and then they feel guilty about it, because it’s in the headlines. If it weren't in the headlines now, they'd come away saying, jeez, this is a terrific spy thriller. But now they have to say, wait a second, it’s a spy thriller, but look what it’s about... and then a certain kind of intellectual snobbery takes over. I'm not knocking the critics; I'm just saying that they have a conscience that hits them afterwards.
The same thing happened with THE WAY WE WERE. Critics went to THE WAY WE WERE and they all cried. Then they came out and wrote about it as dribble. In between the lies they begrudgingly said they liked it, but they felt guilty for liking something so overtly romantic... I think if they had to write about it immediately after, it would be terrific. They get too long a time to think.
M: But you ‘are exaggerating the movie’s political impact—I think it is a very serious film.
P: Here’s what I always try to do, and again it’s something I get my wrists slapped for all the time. I want to work within genres—a western, romance, melodrama or spy film. And then, within that form, which I try to remain as faithful to as I can, I love to fool around with serious ideas. The westerns that I've made have not been straight westerns, by any manner. JEREMIAH JOHNSON was, for me, a very serious film. It was a western, but it was still a serious film and it entertains very serious ideas about copping out, dropping out, how far can you go? Do you have to make it work within the system or do you try to make it work elsewhere? To me, those are serious ideas, but still it’s a movie, basically an entertainment.
Here I tried to deal, as much as I could, with trust and suspicion, paranoia, which I think is happening in this country, when every institution I grew up believing was sacrosanct is now beginning to crumble. It’s destroying, in a very serious way, a certain kind of trust that is essential to have in a working society. Now those are all very pretentious ideas to have. But I don't think they have to be pretentious, if you put them in this kind of entertaining piece. I don't think there’s anything wrong with exploring those ideas as long as you don't get pretentious about it.
I think it’s interesting to take Redford as a man who trusts, in the beginning of the movie, and turn him into a guy who is practically paranoid by the end, so much so that he distrusts his lover. And to take a girl (sic) who doesn't trust in the beginning, and when she’s forced to be close at gunpoint and doesn't die, she ends up trusting in an odd way. Those ideas are serious ideas, but I don't think of it as an idea picture. I think of it basically as a thriller, and that was what I wanted to make.
M: The ending is very political.
P: That, to me, was very important. I did not want to take a cheap shot at the CIA, which is very easy to do now. I wanted to give (Cliff) Robertson a voice. Let him say what he says there, which is, hey look, we have a job to do. We didn't invent it. You guys paid the taxes for us to do this job... I don't necessarily agree with that point of view but I felt I had to voice it, in all fairness, because otherwise I think it’s just taking a cheap shot, which is easy to do—making them a bunch of moustache-twirling villains. God knows, they're bad enough. All you have to do is present the reality.
M: You sound as if you have a lingering respect for the CIA.
P: What I mean is, I don't defend the CIA’s actions. I think they're horrific. But, on the other hand, I don't think we should abolish the CIA. What we have to do is find some way of making a check and balance system work that, conceivably, hasn't been working before. The CIA has grown autonomous in a way that’s horrific. Have you read in the paper about the plates they've printed to make their own money, billions of dollars? They've printed billions of dollars, and the money has turned up in Mafia hands. Those actions are horrific. So anybody who goes to see the movie and says, this is far out, this couldn't happen, it’s not true.
M: Was the New York Times ending thrown in because of what was happening while you were shooting—the Watergate disclosures?
P: No, it wasn't at all. We didn't want the CIA to end up victorious, it was as simple as that. When a power that strong is after a single individual, where can he (sic) go? The book has the CIA killing everybody; I didn't want to do that. I didn't want him dead. I wanted some hope, some sense that the audience could feel that there is a recourse; and the fact is, as corny as it seems, that what is changing everything now is the media. That’s the pipeline that’s exposing all of. this, whether it’s Ellsberg with The Pentagon Papers, or Watergate with Bernstein and Woodward. Somehow, when it’s public knowledge, that at least is a starting point. And we couldn't come up with another ending.
M: Did you consider other endings?
P: We considered following the book, where he kills people, but that just sounded cheap to me. There was another alternative, which was for him to somehow find a way of discrediting the character played by Cliff Robertson, and we toyed with that for awhile, but that didn't work out. I was always nervous about the New York Times ending; so was Bob. We all were. But under the circumstances, it seemed the most truthful one, albeit corny. I mean, how would a guy get himself out of a situation like that?
The only way I know is to write a book about it, to go on television and say, “Hey look, these guys are after me and here’s the proof.” I mean, somehow, when you become a large public figure, it’s hands off. It’s like the CIA wouldn't dare to try to make a move to stop this movie. We have too high a profile. It’s like the Russians not killing Solzhenitsyn. If he were less famous, they'd do something to him. But notoriety is his only protection; he has too high a profile. What would happen to world opinion if something did happen to Solzhenitsyn.
M: I understood the ending differently. Isn't there a strong implication that the CIA also controls the New York Times?
P: There is. We are saying, god help you all if we can't keep this pipeline open. What if. That’s why he says, suppose they don't. That’s all I really meant—not that they will or they won't. There is that slight bit of doubt, and that’s what I wanted. That’s why I froze the frame, with Redford looking like he might be hunted—because, you know, there was a real attempt to suppress The Pentagon Papers. We're taking all of this very for granted now, all this freedom of the press. Oh come on, they're going to print it, they're going to print it. Well, it’s only within a couple of years that that’s happened. There was real government pressure to stop the New York Times from printing The Pentagon Papers—and they might have won, very easily. I don't know how much pressure is being brought to bear right now, on these newspapers, by CIA people. It can't be good for the CIA—there’s a bad part to all this, too—because the CIA, I'm sure, is partially paralyzed at this moment because of the public attention on them. And that’s not good for this country either.
M: I disagree. I don't have any affection or respect for the CIA—for operations like the murder of Allende. It sounds as if, again, you—and the film—are really in favor of having the CIA.
P: I think you have to. In other words, I wish the world was such that you didn't have to, but I'm not naive enough to believe that there isn't an intelligence gathering service in every other country, and I think that being the case, we have no choice but to have one. The fact that the CIA is corrupt I totally agree with, but the abstract idea of having an intelligence gathering service in a country like the United States—well, I think you have to. I really do.
M: What script changes were made as a result of the CIA revelations?
P: None, I promise you. We didn't try to jump on the headlines at all. First of all, we were too late. We started shooting the picture in October. The story began to break in December. We were four weeks from finishing the movie. We had shot the whole set-up, the whole plot, we were locked. We couldn't, all of a sudden, start changing scenes; we couldn't.
M: But it was a movie that was influenced by Watergate—it never would have been made ten years ago.
P: No, it wouldn't. Oh, absolutely. It had to do with Watergate, Chile—we knew about Allende, that had happened. We knew about links between Hunt, Colson, Magruder, those guys in the CIA. And we knew that one of the things Hunt was accused of was leaking CIA plots to book companies, to write mystery stories. That’s absolutely fact.
M: Of course, the other reason why the film is approached on political terms by some people, including myself, is because of the presence of Redford. He is a very political liberal actor, and it is not hard to think that he was attracted to the project because of what it had to say, politically, about the CIA.
P: That was one of the reasons he was attracted to the project. But the basic reason, to be honest with you, and I hate to disappoint everybody, but the real reason he wanted to do it was because it was the kind of movie neither of us had ever made before. It was a thriller, it was contemporary.