Ben Affleck heads back to the 1970s as a CIA agent in spy thriller Argo.
DUPLICITY is a regulation theme in books and films about spying, but the trend within the espionage genre couldn't be any clearer: it's heading back to the 1970s. This year began with Tomas Alfredson's masterfully exacting adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film that dwells within an MI6 mole hunt in 1974 London, and now audiences are flocking to Argo, Ben Affleck's thriller about a covert 1979 CIA mission in Iran.
Even Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan has ventured into the greying past. The protagonist of his recent novel Sweet Tooth, a Cambridge graduate named Serena Frome, is recruited by MI5 in the early 1970s and eventually put to work on the far margins of the Cold War grooming a young writer for intellectual combat. She's the spy who can barely come in from the cold, struggling with her meagre salary to afford the cost of heating.
What these works, particularly the movies, represent is dissatisfaction with depictions of contemporary espionage. The modern spy film has become a shrine to technology, with ever larger situation rooms where gifted character actors bark commands at underlings to pull up surveillance cameras and personal files. This covert world is remote and depersonalised, where the sifting of data is essential but endless.
The recreations of the 1970s emphasise the physical form of data and the personal toll it can exact. Information has a sad permanency in a pre-digital age and Alfredson catches the turning of tape spools and the logging of documents. At one point he puts his camera on a dumbwaiter delivering files from one floor to the next, making their presence tangible.
In such a setting the basics of drama can once again flourish, as individuals interact. As Tony Mendez, the CIA expert trying to sneak staff from the sacked American embassy out of Tehran, Ben Affleck's spy in Argo lives or dies on whether he can get his wanted charges to believe in him and his plan.
The signature effect of present-day espionage tales is the drone strike, and while they're a reality in the war on terror they're also as impersonal as the screen characters that accompany them. In this year's The Bourne Legacy, writer/director Tony Gilroy's reboot of the successful spy franchise, Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross fights mountain wolves for fun and executes incredible feats thanks to genetic modification and a chemical regimen. He's literally otherworldly, and a final shot of him relaxing on a boat alongside Rachel Weisz's rescued scientist is ludicrously misplaced. Machines don't sun themselves.
By contrast, Gary Oldman's George Smiley, in Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy, is an intelligence services veteran who prefers his morning swim to be breaststroke so he doesn't have to take his glasses off. Smiley's quiet, dogged humanity is central to the story, allowing for his public and personal obsessions to become entangled and eventually exploited.
Smiley's eventual triumph is noted not by an explosion but his calm walk back into the headquarters he was previously banished from. If there's any nostalgia in this return to the 1970s, it lies in embracing the possibilities of telling a story with human dimensions.
For all their stripped down action sequences and tensely paced editing, contemporary espionage stories are too often sleek. It's taken a return to the 1970s to find a landscape where the ciphers are merely codes, not people.