“What is the purpose of your visit to France?”
In the same way that the detective movie is a fantasy about city life, the spy movie is a fantasy about tourism. No one is more beautifully adapted to the urban environment than the detective — he knows its secrets, speaks its language, moves freely between its penthouses and dives — and no one is better than the spy at being a tourist. If that sounds glib, think about how often the movie spy’s intrigues revolve around sightseeing destinations: Roger Moore chasing Grace Jones through the Eiffel Tower in A View to a Kill, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangling from Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, Sean Connery dodging bullets on the Jamaican beach in Dr. No, Matt Damon hurtling over the balconies of Tangier in The Bourne Ultimatum, Norman Lloyd plummeting off the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, Michael Caine brawling outside the Royal Albert Hall in The Ipcress File, Robert Powell hanging off Big Ben’s minute hand in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Daniel Craig gliding through the canals of Venice in Casino Royale.1 The spy movie wants to thrill you by convincing you that tremendous adventure is happening right there in public, and not just in public but in the most public places on earth. Why, even you could find it, if you could only afford the ticket — and if you could somehow see through the eyes of the spy.
Or someone gliding through the canals of Venice in practically every espionage thriller ever made, including at least two other Bond movies and 2010’s aptly named The Tourist.
At its most basic, the spy movie2 reduces international conflict to the level of individual agency. It is decided not by armies or bureaucrats, but by the actions of one person, usually opposed by a tiny handful of enemies. So, if she’s going to avert global catastrophe, of course the spy is going to have to travel. And if she’s traveling anyway, why not have her swing past the Taj Mahal? Isn’t it more fun for the audience to see inside the Monte Carlo Casino than some office block in Brussels? Even in spy movies that don’t depict famous locations, screenwriters and directors go out of their way to concoct a romance of travel. For a large portion of the American/Western/advanced-industrial film audience, travel might be the activity in which geopolitics most noticeably intrudes on their lives — in the inconvenience of borders, passports, languages, currencies, customs. But none of that fazes the spy. He either circumvents restrictions entirely or he comes equipped with the tools he needs to pass through them. He doesn’t wait in line unless he’s in disguise.
I should say here that by “spy movie” I mostly mean the secret-agent-adventure movie, films where espionage and assassination and disguise are treated as escapist entertainment rather than vehicles for political realism or John le Carré–style philosophizing. So, for instance, the wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 2011, with its focus on alienation and loneliness, is something totally different from what I’m talking about here. The Bond movies, or, say, the Red franchise, are closer to the idea. That said, I’m going to go on using “spy movie” indiscriminately, because there are a lot of films in the middle (the Bourne series is the most obvious example), and the boundaries of genre are inherently imprecise, and it’s usually better to blunder ahead using simple terms than complicate things trying to define the undefinable.
What’s the first thing the spy does after arriving in a new city? You and I haul our bags to the hotel and stand shifting our weight while a bored clerk pecks at a keyboard; the spy is led briskly to an all-white room where he’s left alone with a safety deposit box. Inside the box: multiple passports, a wad of cash in different currencies, a gun with a silencer, an envelope with the name of a contact — everything he needs to navigate his new surroundings. If we see his hotel, it’s luxurious. If we see him on a plane, he’s either flying it himself or it’s a private jet. We are repeatedly shown — more often, or at least more indelibly, than in the books some of these stories are based on — that the elements of travel we ourselves find exhausting and stressful have been magically made easy for the spy.3 The spy never worries about not understanding a language; whatever it is, he already speaks it, and fluently, with no trace of an accent. Instead of sitting around in train stations and dealing with subway platforms, something he’ll do only if it’s part of a chase, the spy procures a car (who knows how) or a helicopter, or a speedboat, or whatever vehicle he needs, which he always knows how to operate expertly, even if it’s a Soviet tank. And you’d better believe he knows his way around at 100 miles an hour — he’ll take shortcuts the locals haven’t discovered yet. None of your panicked on-the-fly deciphering of Parisian road signs in your rented Renault Twingo.
After watching Up in the Air a few years ago, I remember thinking how weirdly like a spy movie it was in certain respects, and deciding that movie spies are basically regular people with a billion frequent flier miles and Diamond-Encrusted Executive Scepter Elite boarding status.
When you and I pack for a trip, we’re so preemptively defeated by the thought of weather and strange places that we take crushable hats and wicking layers and comfort-fit pants with legs that zip off at the knee. The spy, whether he’s stylish like Bond or casual like Jason Bourne, never looks like he’s traveling. But rain or shine, he always has just the right outfit. That may be why, whereas we stick to tourist areas and look in a guidebook to figure out where to have dinner, the spy can go anywhere he wants. He strolls into the classiest and most dangerous bars, the finest and grimiest restaurants, the ritziest and seediest casinos. He may pay for this freedom by being, say, attacked by komodo dragons. But doesn’t that only guarantee that, unlike our own vacations, the spy’s trip will never become tedious or disappointing, but will always see him living each moment to the fullest?
The link between the spy movie and tourism has been obvious since 1962, if not before — that was the year Bob Hope and Bing Crosby spoofed Dr. No in The Road to Hong Kong, the last entry in their long-running travel series.4 But I’ve never seen spy films that give away the game quite as happily as the Red franchise, the second of which opens Friday. The gimmick of Red, which is made even more explicit in Red 2, is that Bruce Willis, a retired CIA operative, just wants to live a normal life, while Mary-Louise Parker, his girlfriend, is a normal person who wants to be a spy.5 At the start of the second movie, they’re in a Costco, and the joke is that Willis is bursting with enthusiasm for every average-joe implement of suburban routine, and Parker is bored and wants to go on another spy mission. He wants a backyard grill and some new bed linens; she just wants a vacation. And of course the movie gives her one, and because this is 2013 she doesn’t even have to be chastised for it — never has to learn a bogus lesson about how home and safety are better than risk and excitement. She has none of the lethal repertoire of black-ops skills that the other characters possess; she misfires her gun, and when the team disguises her as a Russian security guard she can barely remember her one line. But she has a blast, because the movie is as much a travel fantasy for her as it is for the audience.6 The first film uses postcards as intertitles to establish scene changes. At one point in the second, when Willis is convalescing from a sedative a rival spy has dosed him with, she treats herself to a Parisian shopping spree on one of his mysterious rolls of cash. It’s a pure prank, a movie built on the architecture of escapism while openly flourishing the blueprints. You think you want to be a character in a spy movie, it seems to be telling us. This is what it would look like if you really were.
And to seal the link: Spies Like Us, the 1985 Chevy Chase–Dan Aykroyd espionage comedy, is an extended homage to the Road to … movies.
The spy-marooned-within-normal-life bit is part an ongoing trend: cf. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a couple of married assassins who uncover each other’s real identities in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB agents infiltrating the D.C. suburbs in the FX drama The Americans. Speaking of which, maybe the most telling part of The Americans’ frankly pretty brilliant inversion of the normal Cold War spy paradigm is that Russell and Rhys’s cover involves running a travel agency.
This might be the wrong place for this tangent, but it seems related that what you might call the great antispy stories — in which a nonspy, an innocent, is ensnared in a threatening web of intrigue — conventionally begin with the protagonist on vacation. North by Northwest is an exception, but both versions of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much follow this path, for instance (Switzerland in the Leslie Banks–Edna Best version from 1934, Morocco in the James Stewart–Doris Day version from 1956). Eric Ambler’s great antispy novels often invert the normal spy story by emphasizing the horror of being entrapped in a foreign locale: Josef Vadassy in Epitaph for a Spy (which was filmed as Hotel Reserve in 1944) is arrested without a passport on the French Riviera; Greg Nilsen in Passage of Arms gets mixed up with an illegal arms shipment while traveling with his wife in the Far East.
So what if you really were a character in a spy movie? It would be easy to enjoy the perks, the gadgets, the easy access to antivenom, and the mysterious ability to get a table at Noma on no notice. But it would all be a joke unless you could adopt the attitude of the spy, which is the whole secret to her brilliance as a tourist — the composite of elegant menace and total self-assurance that gives her the advantage in every room and every situation. To be a tourist is to be easily flustered, to be embarrassed, to continually reveal yourself as being not in the know. But of course the spy’s whole business is to give nothing away while finding out other people’s secrets. Some combination of talent, inner poise, and training enables her to present an immaculate public self to the world while forcing others to reveal their hidden natures.
To watch Sean Connery in Dr. No, the first Bond film, is to see someone so utterly at ease that he essentially reverses the normal polarity of travel. Instead of being a tourist in Jamaica, he turns everyone around him into a tourist of him. Stripped of his gun, imprisoned by the villain, and dressed in a bathrobe, he’s such a commanding presence that the evil guards have to remind him that he doesn’t give the orders — and then they obey him anyway. There’s an undisguised element of imperialism here, but it’s imperialism as a screen for something deeper, some basic ego-fantasy of a self that disarms others without ever being truly at risk. In the spy movie’s close cousin, the heist movie, you identify with the protagonist because, however cool he looks, he’s been kicked around a little; think of George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven. He knows what it means to lose, which makes him seem simultaneously sympathetic and brave for wanting to go ahead with his crazy plan regardless. The spy is neither sympathetic nor really brave. You don’t identify with Bond; you want to be him or be with him, precisely because you know he can’t lose, even if a passage like the torture sequence in Casino Royale flirts with the idea for a while. And if courage is grace under pressure, the spy can’t really evince courage, no matter how much physical danger he’s in, because he barely knows that pressure exists.
The spy is the ideal tourist because he represents an inner self perfectly contained within an outer self that is adapted to any possible location or circumstance. Travel can broaden him by the width of a new sexual conquest, but for the most part, he’s seen everything already. Going to the Louvre won’t make him vulnerable, and he won’t stammer when he buys his ticket. The pathos of the whole Bourne series lies in the way it gives us a character who’s been left with the spy’s invulnerable outer shell but lost the inner self it was originally meant to protect. We want to be Sean Connery or Angelina Jolie because we think that if we could pull off the trick, some part of us would still be in there, enjoying our own performance. (That twinkle in Angelina’s eyes!) In Jason Bourne, amnesia has snuffed that part out. He’s still able to commandeer motorcycles, slip across borders, and knock out any guard who tries to slow him down at the Naples airport. But he’s no longer able to reach the part of himself that wanted to see Italy in the first place. The spy and the tourist are both created by curiosity, by a desire to understand other people and places. It’s the weird insight of the Bourne films that that curiosity can be made into a sort of circular tension between the spy and the viewer. We want to escape our own messy selves into the world of freedom represented by Bourne’s skills and resources. He wants to escape the lethal blank of his consciousness into something more like our lives. The audience wants to be the spy. The spy, for once — and this may be the only nonsuperficial thing The Bourne Identity and Red 2 have in common — wants to be the audience.
Well, the spy always succeeds in his mission, and the audience, like the tourist, never does. Spy movies often date quickly and fall into camp precisely because the self is never so embarrassingly exposed as when it fantasizes about the perfect mask of suavity and competence it wants to hide behind. (No one ever looks stylish in the dressing room.) But the clarity with which they render the gulf between our real selves and our imagined selves is also, of course, why spy movies are often delightful, even old silly ones like the Connery Bond films, even so-so ones like the Red saga. There’s something universal about our goofy, clumsy, contradictory yearnings toward connection and safety, to the point that even fictional CIA operatives sometimes envy them. Isn’t that why we want to travel in the first place? I mean, isn’t that how we’re able to know each other at all? To be a tourist is to be a spy with his cover blown. We are failed secret agents whose mission is each other.