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Comedy as Imperialist Propaganda: Spy, the Movie

From the moment the CIA logo flashed on on the screen after the opening credits of Melissa McCarthy’s new secret-agent flick “Spy”, I knew the script wore the Agency’s imprimatur.

“Spy” features McCarthy as an overweight CIA agent who has spent her career in a basement helping an American James Bond with technology. His apparent death leads McCarthy into the field for the first time, and, hahaha, hilarity and death and saving New York City from a nuclear bomb ensue.

One can make a funny spy movie and not have the approval of a government body known for coups, kidnaps, torture, and extrajudicial executions. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 puppet opus “Team America” skewers so much more than espionage.

Paul Feig, the director of “Spy”, lampooned the American wedding industry with the side-splitting “Bridesmaids.” Why would he sacrifice his integrity to make a movie that represents the CIA positively and heroically?

President Kennedy wanted to smash the CIA into 1,000 pieces and scatter them to the winds. Why would Feig line up against President Kennedy, and the entire global human rights community? Career opportunities? Blackmail?

Knowing the CIA helped on the script tempered my laughter. This is the same agency which has been responsible for such human historic cruelties as the overthrow of Iran, the civil war in Guatemala, the Allende coup in Chile, the Phoenix program in Laos and Vietnam, the overthrow of Noriega in Panama, the flood of crack cocaine into Los Angeles, the fraudulent intelligence paving the Iraq invasion, the arming of Iran and Iraq and Nicaragua, and God how long do I have to go on?

Nothing about that list of atrocities make me giggle. So why, as a filmmaker and an artist, would you constrain yourself to make a movie subject to the dictats of the CIA? What did they give you? Money? Access? Prestige? I hardly think associating yourselves with the CIA is a mark of honor as a director.

Death as a political weapon is not a laughing matter. Jokes about drone strikes go over big in the Beltway, and Hollywood; Waziristan and Pakistan, not so much.

“Spy” seeks to justify the violent means to obtain safe ends. If we weren’t conditioned by the jokes – the horror of the movie was its unconditional embrace of murder as a means of accomplishing state interests.

And that, in the end, is the CIA’s goal in working with the film industry. The CIA opened its official liaison office to Hollywood in 2000. And it is logical to think now that the CIA has an official liaison to Hollywood, for many years, it had unofficial liaisons, and perhaps even covert operations.

It is not hard to imagine secret agents posing as moneybags to make movies with pro-CIA plots. The Office of National Drug Control Policy in the late 1990s bought plot lines in 90210, Friends and the Drew Carey Show.

It is not far fetched to suggest that the US Government has not used taxpayer dollars to finance propaganda in Hollywood.

The use of Hollywood as an arm of the CIA, and as a weapon of thought control against the American public merits questioning. Tom Hayden, one of the great student leaders of the 1960s who eventually served as an anti-war Congressman from California, in February 2013 reviewed Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television.

Writing in the LA Review of Books (published on Salon.Com) Hayden wondered how haunted is an entertainment industry that rewards cooperation with the CIA by Oscarizing “Zero Dark Thirty”, “the Hurt Locker” and “Argo.”

Hayden concluded: “While these movies may bring relief and a surge of self-congratulation to the American audience, they do little, if anything, to prevent the festering causes of terror and war. Meanwhile they help shield secret agencies from the sharpest possible scrutiny. The question raised by Jenkins’s book is an unsettling one: should the CIA be authorized to target American public opinion? If our artists don’t confront it more directly, and soon, the Agency will only continue to infiltrate our vulnerable film and television screens — and our minds.”

Imagine a government agency whose sole purpose is covert violence for political advantage makes a comedy? A goal of the oppressor is to desensitive the oppressed to cloak and dagger cruelty.

“Spy” at times extended past cartoony into the gross – like the enemy agent pulling the knife out of her hand in the hotel kitchen food fight. “Spy’s” emphasis on Matrix-style slow motion action fights glorify violence.

The scene could have been 30 seconds shorter and cut out one or two frying pan bops to the head, itself some use of the cliché of women in the kitchen protecting themselves with a frying pan.

Either way, my mind left that scene unsettled. I suppose no more unsettled than from 15 minutes before, when Melissa McCarthy’s character – in slow mo – vomits orange gut rain 10 stories down onto an enemy agent impaled by a four foot piece of rebar, slathered in blood and guts.

Even though “Spy” embraces a strong woman lead, it fails as a vehicle of feminine empower. Tina Fey’s withering “30 Rock” mocked the perfect, gorgeous man by making him an absolute dolt.

In “Spy”, Jude Law, playing a suave James Bond imitator, needs McCarthy’s voice in his ear to create his success (kind of like Inspector Gadget with Penny). But Law’s flaws extend no further than typical male chauvinism, and the movie pokes at obesity by giving McCarthy special drugs labeled “stool softener”.

When we laugh at this kind of gratuitous callousness, as the oppressed, like Paolo Friere supposes in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, we, the oppressed, identify with the oppressor, and thus seek to emulate the oppressor.

We don’t want to die from a nuclear bomb in New York City, so we must empower the American apparatus with the power to kill. We more than tolerate – we laugh with this extra-constitutional authority.

The CIA was not funny in the Congo in 1961 when it assassinated Patrice Lumumba to install a dictatorship and decades of hardship and civil war. Yet “Spy” mocks CIA ineptitude by showing mice and bats tormenting agents in the basement offices.

Instead of Joseph Heller’s keen satire “That’s some catch, that catch-22,” “Spy” acquiesces to the underlying fiction the CIA must promote: the American government has the right to kill to achieve foreign and domestic tranquility.

This need not be so, and we should strive for a world dominated by the international currency of peace. As an audience, we find it much easier to identify with the hero than the villain, so we cheer our chubby heroine onto more murder.

Instead of movies which instill in us an unconscious acceptance of political violence, we need movies to help us find the space in ourselves to generate laughter of a genuine liberty.


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