Condor is a TV reboot of Three Days of the Condor, and centres around a CIA officer who goes on the run after he is framed for killing 11 of his colleagues. In this episode I examine whether Condor was CIA-sponsored, why the Agency might support a series that shows them planning massive crimes, and whether the show is intimidation propaganda.
Condor is based on the 1970s film Three Days of the Condor, in turn based on the novel Six Days of the Condor. The book came out the year after the real-life Operation Condor was launched, a US- (primarily CIA-)backed campaign of repression and state terror across Latin America. This saw the birth of fascism in the region, and destroyed a number of socialistic governments and movements.
The book and film are somewhat different, but both involve a CIA analyst who studies spy novels as part of his work. One day, while he is out getting lunch, his entire office is shot up, killing all the employees. When the analyst – codenamed Condor – calls in to say what has happened he is told to meet with his superior, who then tries to assassinate him. He goes on the run, enlists the help of a woman he kidnaps, and eventually discovers that there’s a rogue section within the CIA. In the film Robert Redford’s line is one my favourite ever lines in cinema – ‘Maybe there’s another CIA… inside the CIA’.
Today I want to look at the recent TV adaptation, titled simply Condor. I guess because it’s a full-length series that ’42 Days of the Condor’ just didn’t have a good ring to it. It tells largely the same story – a young analyst who works for the CIA via a front company who is thrust into a world of violence and intrigue, who takes a woman hostage who then tries to help him. Obviously it is set in the present day with mobile phones, a much bigger cast and a more complex plot – they’ve got to fill up those episodes somehow – but the initial setup in the early episodes is fundamentally the same basic narrative.
Let’s get two things clear off the bat – this show was almost certainly CIA-sponsored, and I did not enjoy it very much. The CIA logo is prominent throughout, on documents, computer monitors, all the same places I’ve come to expect it to appear when the CIA is engaged in a branding exercise. Plus there’s the obligatory helicopter shot of Langley, which appears to be fairly recent footage because there’s some construction work going on to extend the car park surrounding the buildings. It’s surreal that I find out about extensions, new buildings at Langley and so on by watching lots of spy programmes.
There are also a number of rather obvious pieces of propaganda-dialogue which we’ll get to in due course but I also want to address how generic this series is. As I’ve commented before, back in the 70s Three Days of the Condor was a groundbreaking film because it was one of the first to take an unvarnished look at the world of American espionage. The notion of secret factions manipulating world events to control resources was fairly new in the mainstream political dialogue.
Today, half the spy shows on TV talk about some kind of Deep State or shadow government – Homeland, Shooter and of course Deep State spring to mind from just the last few months. Then there are series like Braindead, which uses alien insects burrowing into people’s minds as a metaphor for secret forces controlling Washington DC. The concept of the power behind the throne is well and truly out there now, and isn’t especially controversial any more.
So Condor suffers from ‘deep state entertainment’ fatigue, in that it is largely recycling the same themes as a half dozen other shows from the last couple of years. It’s almost as though TV executives have noticed the term trending on twitter and told their writers to make sure there’s some kind of element of that in the new spy series, without giving a damn whether it’s well done by people who actually have a clue.
The other major problem is the lead actor who, like in the film, plays the analyst called Joe Turner. In the movie we got Robert Redford, an intelligent guy with a good emotional range but he’s kind of a smart blonde prettyboy, so when he is drawn into the shadows and confronted with murder and lies he is convincingly out of his depth. He has to become like his enemies in order to beat them, giving him a character arc. In the TV series we got a guy who looks good in a jogging outfit, and the first two episodes feature a lot of him jogging. But he has a pretty limited emotional range and needs a few more years of acting school to make him convincing.
As a result the dynamic with the audience is damaged. In the film us spy fiction and covert politics nerds identify with Robert Redford because he’s a nerd too, so we’re excited by his adventure and want him to overcome the antagonists, the rogue section within the CIA. In the TV series we get to see Max Irons do a lot of jogging. Basically, they wanted him to be sexy, so they picked a good looking actor who is completely out of his depth intellectually and emotionally, and not in a way that makes him sympathetic to the audience.
Adding to this bad casting, Joe is at the office when the assassins arrive, and only escapes because he and one of his colleagues are out on the balcony having a cigarette. This stands out because you never get to see people smoke on TV any more, but the idea that this obsessive jogger is also a smoker doesn’t make much sense. They need him to escape the hail of bullets, and this is the best they could come up with? Why not have him be on the balcony watering a plant or something? People have plants at work that they look after, window boxes, all sorts. It also might give the character some depth, make him seem like more than just a CIA analyst who likes jogging.
Making it even worse, Joe escapes and goes on the run so the CIA assumes he was part of the plot to kill all the people in the office. Throughout the second episode they keep repeating how he’ll be easy to catch because he has no ‘kinetic training’ – they repeatedly used that phrase. But they picked an actor who is built like he was in the Marine Corps, very much looks like he can handle himself physically. So this seems to me like a pretty crude attempt to cover for their bad casting, with bad dialogue.
Max Irons does grow into the character as the series progresses, but his motives and personality remain very shallow. They even throw in some flashbacks in later episodes to give him some more backstory, but he still feels underwritten. Especially when he is often acting opposite William Hurt, who plays Joe’s uncle, the man who recruited him into the CIA. William Hurt is such a good actor that it’s risky putting an inexperienced young guy into a scene with him, and most of their exchanges felt unbalanced. Nonetheless, the series won me over a bit in the later episodes, once they’ve killed off the extraneous side-characters and it’s all about the central plot.
The Deep State and Conspiracy Bait
I use the word ‘plot’ deliberately because it has the beautiful double meaning of both a storyline and a criminal scheme. In Condor the rogue faction within the CIA are planning a massive false flag attack on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It emerges that they have weaponised a plague virus so it only kills Arabs, and they use a white covert operative to act as the delivery mechanism. Yes, we’re talking about race-specific bio-weapons, as described in the notorious PNAC document.
This is a false flag attack – the plot is to make it look like an Islamic terrorist attack gone wrong, an accident by the evil muslims. The term ‘false flag attack’ appears in the opening credits sequence, and on screen in a very obvious way when one of the conspirators – a close friend of Joe’s – is making a copy of documents describing the plan. Now, I’ve read a lot of formerly classified documents and it’s only very rarely that they explicitly describe covert plans in this way. If you go back to Project Mongoose – the CIA and Pentagon’s extended programme against Cuba and Fidel Castro – you can find this sort of thing. But Operation Northwoods is the exception rather than the rule, usually false flag bombings and suchlike are referred to in more oblique terms.
I doubt you can find many references to the term ‘false flag’ in CIA documents, though they do refer to this kind of operation, both in terms of their own actions and those of others. So why did the producers include this phrase so prominently? I think they were partly trying to cash in on the fact that Three Days of the Condor is one of the greatest conspiracy films of all time. After all, they ripped off the title and the basic story outline in the hope that name recognition would guarantee them an audience.
So I see the painfully obvious use – even overuse – of the term ‘false flag’ as conspiracy bait. They are playing to a known audience, which is important if your series is fairly generic and does nothing that half a dozen other shows aren’t already doing. Which begs the question – why would the CIA be involved in a TV series that portrays them so negatively? The CIA, and their various henchmen, corporate conspirators and hired assassins, are the bad guys.
Firstly, there is an element of the good CIA vs the bad CIA. The bad CIA are the guys trying to let loose a plague at the Hajj in the hope of killing millions of muslims. The good CIA are Joe Turner – who is sympathetic because he is falsely accused – and his uncle, who tries to stop the rogue faction. So if you’re working with a conventional morality, the characters we’re supposed to like the most are still CIA agents, therefore the CIA’s public image is intact.
But maybe there’s something more subtle going on, because even though Condor depicts a CIA faction plotting mass murder which would naturally draw in the conspiracy crowd, the dialogue dismisses one of the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories. In the opening episode we see Joe working at the CIA front company, and his uncle gets in touch to say they’ve found a terrorist suspect in the US using an algorithm Joe and a colleague had developed some years earlier. They suspect the supposed terrorist is going to let loose a plague at a football stadium, infecting tens of thousands of Americans. Of course, this is just the set-up for the massive plague plot by the rogue CIA faction.
After the terrorist suspect is shot, and the whole team at the CIA front company are congratulated, they are told to investigate the suspect and why he had only just appeared on the CIA’s radar, who else he might have been working with. Joe discovers signs of insider trading by someone with advance knowledge of what was going to happen.
Notice the brief reference to possible 9/11 insider trading, and how it is dismissed as fiction. This gets into a tricky area, because it does seem that someone made a lot of money shorting airline stocks immediately prior to 9/11, in such a way that suggests they knew what was about to go down. But no one has ever demonstrated any tangible connection between those trades and the 9/11 attacks, so it’s not at all clear what we’re looking at. The 9/11 Commission did investigate, but said they found nothing linking those trades to Al Qaeda and therefore they concluded nothing. So, it certainly isn’t a fiction.
Which brings me to ask – was the point of this to suck in the conspiracy theorists then sow a little discord? That’s something I can see the CIA doing, and enjoying. But the dialogue is more clever, because Joe says that fiction can become real, and he is our protagonist and therefore the most authoritative voice. This opens the door to several simultaneous interpretations, including that false flags make for great fiction, but that 9/11 was real and therefore not a false flag operation. It certainly makes no sense to dismiss these kinds of operations when the plot revolves around just this sort of operation. Were they even trying to deliver a specific message with this scene? Or were they trying to contribute to the general state of confusion surrounding these topics?
Some of the other dialogue is reminiscent of previous CIA-sponsored projects. There’s a scene where one of Joe’s colleagues complains about how he could be making more money in Silicon Valley, in keeping with a fairly long-running tropes about how CIA officers don’t get paid enough. Joe’s smoking buddy complains about not being able to tell her parents what she does, and compares herself to Superman. There are some odd CIA connections to Superman that we’ll have to get into another day. So Condor is most likely a piece of CIA-influenced entertainment propaganda, but exactly what they’re trying to accomplish with it is a complicated question to unfurl.
We have discussed before how the CIA often don’t look like ‘good guys’ in the films and TV shows they support. One way of looking at this is as intimidation propaganda, or if you can’t be good, be a badass. The recurring image is that anyone who tries to fight the CIA (terrorists, Russian intelligence, journalists, the general public) is defeated, because the Agency is willing to do anything in order to win. So the real-world audiences watching will be intimidated, and may even abandon their plans or efforts to fight the CIA.
The Morality of Condor
One element of the show that I did enjoy is that they have explicit conversations about morality. Joe is a reluctant spy, never sure that he made the right choice in joining the CIA in the first place. However, the producers make various creative decisions that diminished the sympathy for the character. Just two quick examples – when the assassins arrive to kill Joe and his colleagues, we see the hit coming, there’s the usual build up where we see them going into the building with loaded machine guns. In the original film we don’t see the hit in this same way, it’s more shocking. Likewise in the film Joe returns to the office to find everybody dead, so our shock becomes sympathy for his shock. In the TV series they had to make it more action-centred, so Joe is at the office when the shooting begins and barely escapes with his life.
If I were being conspiratorial I’d say this was deliberate, that they didn’t want Joe to be a sympathetic character early on. Joe argues against just shooting the terror suspect, saying they have no evidence he actually poses a threat. Maybe we’re supposed to see him as a bit of a wimp, both morally and practically. So when, early in the second episode, we get a flashback to Joe arguing with his friend Sam over the ethics of foreign policy, we’re not necessarily on Joe’s side.
Sam is part of the plague attack faction within the CIA, but he tries to help Joe when he is framed for the shootout at the data analytics front company. As a result, Sam is killed. Sorry, spoilers, but pretty much everyone Joe meets in this show ends up dead. All of his friends, colleagues, relatives, anyone who tries to help him. So if this is a morality tale, it’s a pretty psychotic one.
Despite this, Joe holds out for most of the series without killing anyone. We get another flashback to when he was young, and uncle Bob asks him what number of people do you need to save in order to justify killing one person? Joe says there’s no such number, because if you don’t name a number then you can’t lower it. This is absurd dialogue, no 10 year old no matter how precocious has that understanding of the world. But it helps hammer home the message that Joe is a moral person.
So it is odd that, in the end, he kills someone. I won’t tell you who because I don’t want to spoil everything, but it isn’t a life or death, them or him scenario. In fact, it’s not especially clear why he kills them. This strikes on a recurring theme throughout the series – of the debasement of morality. The most obvious example is Joe – the morally innocent neophyte who is recruited into the secret world of the CIA and is gradually debased to the point of abandoning his moral principles. But there are two other scenes I’d like to draw your attention to regarding this theme.
Alongside the deputy director of the CIA, there is a private corporation at the centre of the plague attack plot. It is the CEO of this corporation who invests heavily in big pharma shortly before the terror suspect is shot outside the football stadium. His second in command is played by Brendan Fraser, who is very appropriate for this sort of show. Fraser’s character is the under-achieving brother of a military hero, desperate to make his mark on the world. That’s his personal motivation for getting involved in the plague attack.
But he also has a political worldview, and a young daughter. The daughter has basically nothing to do with the plot, but one morning over breakfast, with the news explaining what happened at the football stadium, he explains some of his political worldview to her.
Here again we have the debasement of moral innocence, and in some ways the debasement of morality itself. There’s no need to be telling this kid about 9/11 and wars and the evil people in the world. Particularly since she lives a comfortable, safe life in upper middle class whitebread America. I found this scene creepy, but then I find the whole relationship between Fraser’s character and his daughter pretty creepy.
The third scene I want to pick out for you involves a character called Caleb Wolfe, who is something of a Julian Assange type figure. While Joe is on the run Caleb releases a video where he outlines that the data analytics firm was a CIA front, targeted because it developed the algorithm that helped find the terror suspect. So Joe tracks down Caleb, an old friend from his student activist days, to ask him how he found this out and what else he knows.
To be clear – the ultimate aim of the plague attack is not simply to kill those at the Hajj, but so that infected muslims would take the plague back to their home countries, potentially killing hundreds of millions. So Joe is right to characterise it as an act of fanatics, holy warriors who believe they are in a battle for civilisation itself. The notion of holy war is a debasement of religion, usually by those who seek to politicise religion as a weapon for their own purposes.
Thus, Condor’s subtext is not just about the moral debasement of the protagonist, who becomes a murderer, but the debasement of youth and religion, indeed the debasement of all morality.
The Ontology of Condor
The final element to this series that I’d like to highlight for you is how ontology – the philosophy of reality – relates to both this moral debasement but also to the security state. I have spoken before about how fiction, especially mass entertainment fiction, is a bridge between our personal experience and our imagination and speculations. This is why it’s so effective for propaganda purposes, especially convincing people to be afraid of something they’ve never actually seen for themselves. Whether that is Soviets, Russian hackers, Arab terrorists or anything else doesn’t really matter.
As such, the general condition of hyperreality – of not being able to distinguish reality from fiction – can be useful for the security state. If people don’t know what is real and what isn’t, then you can convince them their nightmares are real, and have them act accordingly. But it also presents a problem, because the lack of consensus about what is and isn’t real means that some will radically deny and oppose any such attempt to convince us that the nightmares are real. Dissent is omnipresent, consensus is in short supply.
These themes appear in a number of state-sponsored products, primarily CIA-supported films and TV shows, and Condor is no exception. In my favourite scene in the entire series, an assassin for hire who is working for the rogue faction meets up with Joe’s uncle, who at this point essentially knows who she is and what’s going on.
The female assassin in a fascinating character – she certainly has traits of a nymphomaniac and a sociopath, but she’s also very astute and intelligent. I find myself agreeing with her here, despite the implications. Our increasingly mediated society has made us crazy, the dark side of the human psyche is recorded and replayed ad nauseum. It is difficult for anyone to stay sane in such circumstances.
As such, it is difficult for authorities to maintain their authority. In previous times the line between sanity and insanity – always a line defined by the powerful for use against those they perceive as threats – was clearer. Today, we have people faking DNA tests to cause a fight on TV to draw in an audience to sell products to: crazymaking is the name of the game.
While this does pose a problem for the state, it also poses a problem for people like me, people who seek to use evidence and information to try to change things for the better. When Joe eventually figures out the plan to attack the Hajj he meets up with Caleb and his activist ex-girlfriend to discuss going public with the information.
Again, I struggle to disagree with what the ex-girlfriend character is saying here – I’m not sure the truth does matter in the way it once did, I’m not sure investigative journalism has the power it once wielded. When people only believe what they want to believe then it doesn’t matter what evidence you put in front of them, they will find an excuse not to believe it. But, as Joe and Caleb resolve at the end of the scene, that means you might as well publish true information because you’ve got nothing to lose.
All these themes come full circle at the climax of the series. A dossier of documents describing the plan is sent to a Washington Post reporter, who calls up uncle Bob for comment. Meanwhile, Joe has arrived at Bob’s house to urge him to take action to stop the plague attack.
The Washington Post decide not to run the story until and unless there is a plague outbreak at the Hajj. This puts the plot in an unusual position – if it exists but is stopped, no one will ever know. It is only if the plot is successful that the Washington Post – who knew but did nothing to alert anyone or prevent the plot from succeeding – will make the truth known. ‘Our failures are known, our successes are not’ goes the old CIA motto. Though this motto isn’t actually true, the CIA love boasting about finding Bin Laden, for example.
This also puts Bob and Joe – the good CIA – in an awkward spot. They can try to stop the plot, knowing that if they succeed that no one will ever know about it and the culprits will get away. The only way to expose the culprits is to allow the attack to happen. They have a role in both making reality, and in making the popular perception of reality, which has little to do with reality. What is the moral thing to do? I’d argue it is to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may, but some would argue differently. I guess it depends on what you think are the chances of causing a panic that results in loss of life, which in turns depends on your perception of reality. But no one really knows what would happen if, in the real world, the CIA were doing this and got found out. The consequences are not at all simple or easy to predict.
Condor is very much a TV show of its time, trying to both cash in on an old and fondly-remembered brand but also trying to capture the political and cultural zeitgeist. How well it does that, I leave to you to assess, but that it’s trying to do that is not in question. These are the political quandaries of our day – how do you generate political consensus in order to deal with real-world problems when there’s no consensus on whether the problems are even real to begin with? Let alone broach the always-difficult topic of what is the right thing to do? Reality and morality have been debased by politics.