The Central Intelligence Agency isn’t happy about its place in pop culture. We know this because America’s clandestine spy organization takes the time to publish film and book reviews in its internal newsletter Studies in Intelligence. “CIA has always been an easy target for filmmakers looking to exploit themes of corruption and conspiracy in high places,” a CIA review of 2015’s Sicario said.
The CIA has published Studies in Intelligence for decades, and the public can go through its archives. Studies covershistory, tradecraft, semantics, and—like any good general interest magazine—movies and books. Unlike other outlets, however, the CIA reviews movies and TV shows with an eye towards explaining historical inaccuracies and whining about always being the bad guys.
Its review of Sicario is a treasure. The 2015 thriller depicts an idealistic FBI agent getting caught up in a CIA plot in Mexico. It’s a great movie with a sequel on the way. The CIA didn’t like it. “It is a ‘CIA is evil’ conspiracy story, without moral ambiguity or nuance,” authors James Burridge and John Kavanagh said. Which is funny because the morally ambiguity is part of what make Sicario so good.
The Agency writers hated it so much that they apologized for even talking about it.“We review it here as a completely fictional story about CIA that readers may be interested in,” it said, those readers being other agents. “Put aside your righteous indignation and sit back and enjoy the review.”
Burridge and Kavanagh can’t put aside their righteous indignation when discussion the film’s plot and its alleged plot holes. "Since the waterboarding of the prisoner produced Alarcòn’s location, why did Gillick need to follow Diaz to the house?” They wrote. “The ending is a stretch, even for a conspiracy story.”
The CIA also took issue with Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War era story that took an even handed view of the US-Soviet rivalry. The Agency didn’t care for that portrayal. “Both states have corrupt judiciaries as well. And, for good measure, neither the general public nor the legal profession in the United States understands or supports the Constitutional right to counsel and a fair trial,” Burridge and Kavanagh wrote. “We have definitely crossed into the land of moral equivalency…One cannot make a credible case that a director so scrupulous about historical accuracy in his earlier films...would rewrite history to this extent simply for dramatic effect.”
But the Agency’s review of Berlin Station—a spy thriller dealing with CIA agents in modern-day Berlin—is a masterclass in ranting. A large portion of the show’s first season deals with torture and the Agency’s complicity in using it. “The notion that the entire CIA workforce is complicit in the use of [torture] is the underlying artistic and ideological premise of the series,” Burridge wrote of the show. “Its central premise of collective guilt is both implausible and objectionable.”
According to Burridge, Berlin Station didn’t get anything right. “What did they get right about our business? Not much, in this reviewer’s opinion,” he wrote. “We have a station where the conduct of the leadership is highly unethical and even criminal. It is completely autonomous and answers to no higher management levels at Headquarters nor to an ambassador. The leadership views its assets and even its own officers as disposable. This is not a station most of us have ever encountered.”
They’re movies and shows and the CIA is right, they aren’t accurate portrayals of spycraft. But they are accurate portrayals of how some people feel about the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of us think of the CIA we think of torture, assassination, and forced regime change. The CIA owns that image. Maybe it should spend less time complaining about it in newsletters and more time cleaning up its act.