In a year of very few theatrical releases it’s been a bad time for state-sponsored culture, so in this episode I review three government-supported productions that have come out in recent months: the comet disaster film Greenland and the romantic comedy Operation Christmas Drop, both of which had Air Force and DOD assistance, and My Spy, an action comedy aided by the CIA. I analyse the underlying messaging and the critical responses to these films, as well as how relevant they are to ongoing social trends and phenomena.
We will start with Greenland, because it’s the most conventional film of the three in that it’s a by-the-numbers disaster film that’s mostly just a vehicle for Gerard Butler. I have to say, it isn’t quite as bad as Geostorm – another awful disaster movie that’s mostly just a vehicle for Gerard Butler – nor is it quite as abysmal as Hunter-Killer – a Russophobic submarine movie that’s mostly just a vehicle for Gerard Butler – but Greenland is pretty terrible. The only actual character in the film is the one played by Butler, but he is exactly the same as he is in every film. I honestly have no idea why he’s become a moderately big movie star, because he isn’t charming or intelligent or weird or good looking or funny or much crack at this whole acting business. He’s just a thoroughly mediocre person, and maybe that’s it – he is supposedly ‘relatable’ due to his mediocrity. But he is also Scottish, which in Hollywood makes him somewhat exotic.
Regardless, Greenland is an Amazon Original, but that’s as far as the originality goes in this film. Literally, everything about it is hackneyed and dumb, it’s mostly just a rehash of every asteroid/meteor/comet disaster movie you’ve seen, with added stupidity. I genuinely believed it was impossible to make a worse disaster movie than Michael Bay’s Armageddon, until I saw Greenland.
The setup is that Butler is somewhat estranged from his wife and son, in that there were some problems in the marriage so he went off and had an affair, but that’s all backstory – at the start of the film he’s back living in the family home and everything is more or less fine. So the estrangement doesn’t actually require a reconciliation, because they’re already back together, so it’s basically pointless and has no impact on the plot. I guess they wanted to give the relationship more shape, but it totally fails because it has no consequence, unlike in the film 2012, where John Cusack and his wife are separated and she’s living with her new partner, who has to get conveniently killed off so that Cusack and his wife can get back together at the end of the film.
That’s right, the human drama element of Greenland is even more lame than in 2012, and that’s really saying something. In fact, the whole movie reminds me of 2012 but without the shock and awe disaster sequences and the Woody Harrelson conspiracy theorist and president Danny Glover, i.e. the only good things about 2012.
In Greenland a recently-discovered comet (named Clarke) is due to pass by close to the Earth, and one smaller comet is predicted to land in the Atlantic Ocean. So Butler and his family are hosting a party to watch the coverage of the splashdown in the ocean, but when he and his son go to the supermarket they start noticing a large number of military planes in the sky, and other weird stuff starts happening.
This sequence sums up the entire movie – in essence Gerard Butler, his wife and son are the dumbest family in America. He goes to the supermarket, and he and his son notice the planes overhead, but he doesn’t stop to think about what that might mean about the comet headed towards the planet. They take in a brief bit of product placement, because I’m sure all the men watching felt it was very relatable for Butler to mutter the names of specific products as he was shopping, and then he gets a phonecall from the Department of Homeland Security saying he and his family have been selected for emergency shelter relocation and they need to go to an Air Force Base. They leave the supermarket and see a bunch of military vehicles on the highway, but Butler is so thick that he still doesn’t put two and two together and figure out what’s really going on.
So they go home, and the news is talking about the smaller comet that’s due to land harmlessly in the water, together with a liveshot of the ocean. But the comet doesn’t land there, and instead hits Tampa, Florida, causing a shockwave that travels hundreds of miles, and even hits the Butler family home in Georgia. He gets another phonecall from Homeland Security, and their TV starts displaying messages telling the family to go to an Air Force Base. It’s only at this point that they realise anything might be wrong.
I found this whole opening to be deeply troubling, because in effect the government are shown to be terribly well organised while actually being grossly negligent. In particular, NASA are shown as hopelessly stupid, predicting that the smaller comet would land in the middle of the ocean when in reality it was headed for a major urban area full of people. But rather than castigate the government for failing to evacuate Tampa and just letting hundreds of thousands of people die, the screenwriters chose to just make Gerard Butler’s character really stupid, so he doesn’t dwell on whether he can trust the government that has just spectacularly failed.
This same issue plagues the entire movie, as it turns out that the big comet isn’t going to miss the Earth, but is going to hit, causing an extinction level event that wipes out three quarters of life on the planet. Because Butler is an engineer he and his family are selected for a place in the survival bunker in Greenland, and the rest of the film is about them trying to get there. Much like in 2012, when all they’re really trying to do is get to the Himalayas so they can survive the giant tsunamis.
So the government in Greenland is not only full of idiots who can’t even predict where a comet will land, it’s also full of liars who deceive the population into believing everything will be fine when in reality they’re all going to be dead in a couple of days. But somehow the film twists things round and turns the military into the heroes of the piece. Sort of.
Let me explain.
Gerard Butler, his wife and son go to the Air Force Base, which was filmed at a real Air Force Base. They are let in and lined up to board the C-130s that will take them to Greenland, but then America’s Dumbest Family realise they have left their kid’s insulin in the car, and he’s diabetic for the purposes of the plot, so Butler goes back out of the base to get the insulin while the wife stays with the kid, thus conveniently separating them for the purposes of the plot. The military officials realise the kid is diabetic, so they remove him and the mother from the lines to board the plane because apparently no-one with a medical condition is allowed into the bunkers.
This is not only Darwinistic, it makes no sense at all. They are going to lock up thousands of people in these bunkers in the hope of surviving, but they don’t screen people for respiratory diseases? They are going to be on an isolated air supply for months while the dust settles, but no one bothers to check for flu or SARS or anything of the sort. Also, it seems the government database who selected the survivors knew that Butler was an engineer, but not that his son had diabetes?
But forget all that, because a bunch of people outside the base manage to break in, and come running across the tarmac towards the planes. The film goes to great pains to establish that it’s someone in the crowd who fires first, hitting an airman who is fuelling one of the planes, before the military fight back. This reminds me of how a sequence in Deep Impact was rewritten by the DOD because it showed, or referred to, the military shooting looters. In that film the DOD wanted to be shown helping with disaster preparations and relief, and they rewrote a bunch of stuff where they came across as callous or uncaring towards the public. I can only assume the same thing happened in Greenland, because every military character is excessively polite and competent and respectful, and then there’s this sequence where the people who just want to survive break into the base.
That being said, as society starts to break down when everyone realises that the big comet is coming the film divides its supporting cast into psychopathically self-interested crazy bastards, and saints. I’m serious, there are no in-between people, they are all either horribly evil, to the extent one couple actually kidnaps the diabetic son in the hope they’ll be able to fake their way onto a plane headed for Greenland, or they are absurdly kind and helpful despite knowing they’re about to die. The only exception is in one weird moment where Butler climbs up a block of flats to try to get a phone signal, and finds a rooftop party full of hipsters who are watching some smaller comets hit the city, cheering them on.
So Butler and his wife have to rescue their son from the kidnappers, meet up at her father’s farm in rural Tennessee and then get to an airport in Canada to try to get an independent flight to the survival bunker in Greenland. I won’t bore you with the details, except to point out that it’s actually the military who rescue the son, realising the kidnappers aren’t his real parents when they try to get into another Air Force Base. I doubt that this is something that was written in by the DOD because I saw it coming a mile off, so I’m guessing this plot point was always in the script, but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, despite the government in general being utterly negligent, the military are portrayed as ludicrously competent and kind-hearted.
The major problem I had with this film is not the overall story or the very weakly-drawn characters, but the dialogue. Every line is boring, and predictable and stale. The only lines I can remember from this film are because they were so badly-written and perfunctory. When Butler and his wife meet up at the dad’s farm and reunite, Butler explains that he’s heard about these independent survivalists flying out of Canada to try to get to the bunkers in Greenland, so they pack up and get ready to drive up to Canada. Just before they depart the father gives Butler his rifle, which Butler never actually uses so I think they just did that to get a gun into the film for product placement. Then the father tells Butler to look after the wife and son, Butler responds ‘I will’ and the father says ‘I know you will’.
If he knows Butler will look after them then why did he tell him that in the first place? Nothing about this exchange makes any sense, it’s just a tacked-on, shallow attempt to add some emotion to their departure from the farm. In fact, they could have done without the father character at all, he adds nothing to the plot. I will also note that in the stables on the farm the father has some things on the wall highlighting that he is a veteran, and again I suspect this is something written in by the DOD as a bit of military product placement. They did a similar thing on Independence Day, when they asked the film makers to give both the president and the crop duster pilot military backgrounds.
Of course, the family make it to Greenland but the plane crash-lands, killing the pilots but conveniently not even injuring any of our protagonists. The pilots are simply left while our main characters head for the bunker on foot, and the pilots are never mentioned again. This is a classic missed opportunity for some dialogue where our characters actually reflect on the situation instead of being solely focused on moving the plot forward. I imagine that anyone in that position would feel some degree of survivor guilt, not just because most of the rest of humanity is about to be killed, but also because the pilots who got them to Greenland died in the process of saving dozens of people’s lives.
That’s some good emotional paydirt, and the sort of thing people actually feel. While they’re walking to the bunker they could have had a short scene where the survivors of the plane crash are dwelling on the injustice of the world, and how unfair it is that the pilots who got them there died in the process of saving the others. The total absence of any reflection on that, any sense of compassion on the part of our protagonists, completely ruined the ending of the film for me. This is supposed to be a story about people surviving a disaster, but because the only lives that matter are those of the three protagonists, the story fails miserably. Everyone else is just in the film to either promote the military, or service the plot.
There are dozens of other things I could highlight to explain just how bad this film is, but I’ll pick a quick handful. First, when the big comet lands we get to see a live, ultra-HD stream from a surveillance satellite showing the hit and the shockwave rippling out across the Northern hemisphere. So the phone network has gone down, the government database doesn’t even know that the kid is diabetic, but the military’s spy satellites are still working fine. Good to know.
There’s never any explanation of how the diabetic kid survives 9 months in the bunker without any insulin, but there he is at the end of the film, when the survivors emerge from the bunker. With the exact same haircuts as when they went into the bunker 9 months earlier. Evidently they took a good hairdresser with them so they could look their best in the post-apocalypse.
Perhaps the funniest moment of bad filmmaking is during the journey from the farm up to Canada, when the family are driving through rural New York and the radio announces that a shower of small comets is about to hit rural New York, and one of the family says ‘aren’t we in rural New York’ and then the comets start landing seconds later, conveniently just up the road from them. And the comets are really lame, because they’re all the same size, coming down in the exact same way. It’s like they used a comet-generator CGI plugin and didn’t bother to give them any variance to add a bit of realism.
But perhaps the most insulting moment in the film comes when they’re listening to the radio and a NASA spokesman comes on to explain what will happen after the big comet hits.
This is where the film really started to trouble me, because so far in this story NASA have been worse than inept, and now they’re being portrayed as making things worse by ensuring that many people’s final hours are lived in fear of a horrible, imminent death, to the extent that Butler tells his wife to turn the radio off.
In reality, NASA are much more likely to be of help in a scenario like this than the military are, and prior films such as Armageddon and Deep Impact show joint NASA-military efforts to stop the incoming planet-killing rocks from space. But in this film NASA’s image is very negative, while the military’s is relentlessly and unrealistically positive. I will try to find out when I get the annual report from NASA’s Hollywood office, but I’d be very surprised if they supported this film. There’s no mention of it in the 2019 or 2018 reports.
So, while this plot has nothing to do with Space Force as such, it is about a threat coming from space, and does unequivocally say that the only solution is the US military. Science and technology, international diplomacy, innovation and imagination are all sidelined, or even portrayed negatively, in favour of the military organising a Darwinistic solution so that a small handful of people survive. The underlying values of this film are truly horrible.
But somehow, this fucking abysmal piece of shit movie has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – admittedly from only 6 reviews. It seems that the impending apocalypse and reunited family aspects of the plot struck a chord with some people as it reflected a lot of their emotional experiences of this year back at them. The film offered them a degree of sympathy, and thus fooled them into thinking it was actually good.
And I can understand that to some extent, because I enjoyed two films this year with somewhat similar themes, in part because of their relevance to everything that’s been going on for the last year or so – Save Yourselves, a romcom that turns into a surreal alien invasion movie, and Spontaneous, wherein a high school in smalltown America is subject to a mystery pandemic that makes some of the students spontaneously explode. Spontaneous is particularly weird to watch because the government come in and impose a lockdown on the town, isolating the kids while they try to find a cure, but it doesn’t work. And the town’s name is Covington.
Operation Christmas Drop
Despite all this, Greenland is not the worst film we’re going to look at in this episode, because that honour has to go to Operation Christmas Drop. Indeed, I think it might actually be worse than Geostorm and be up there with The Crash among the worst state-sponsored movies ever made.
As I have said before, I am generally not a fan of romantic comedies because I don’t find them romantic or funny. There are exceptions, but on the whole it isn’t a genre that does much for me. Aside from single women – a fairly large demographic, in all fairness – I’m not sure who these films are aimed at. Operation Christmas Drop is a romcom, but it’s also a family-oriented Christmas movie, which for some reason came out in October, on Netflix. It includes a lot of the usual tropes of these sorts of films, including a number of scenes where people break out into song and a happy ending that isn’t earned in any way.
The film was written by two guys who have made a career out of making saccharine Christmas-themed TV movies. You wouldn’t think people could make a successful career solely out of making that sort of product, but they have. This was a bit of a step up for them, in that it is a proper film, albeit one that feels like a TV movie with a bigger budget, which is exactly what it is.
The film’s title comes from a real tradition, where the US Air Force drop crates full of medical supplies, food and other provisions on the islands of Micronesia, in the Western Pacific. They’ve been doing this since the 1950s, and it’s become the longest-running DOD operation and the longest-running humanitarian aid drop anywhere in the world. Until recently the drops were entirely run out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, which is where the film is set and where a lot of it was filmed. Guam is one of the larger islands in the area, and was colonised by the Spanish empire in the 1660s. During the Spanish-American war it was seized by the American side, and was formally yielded to them at the end of the war. Apart from a period of occupation by Japanese forces following the attack on Pearl Harbor, for the last 120 years it has been an unincorporated US territory.
In the last couple of years the humanitarian aid drops have been partly run out of Yokota Air Base, and have included the Japanese, Australian and Philippine air forces as well as the US Air Force. So it’s no surprise that the DOD smiled on this movie as a piece of very positive PR for them – no one fires a weapon of any kind, but the military come off looking great.
The setup is that there’s a congresswoman who is a Hillary Clinton clone, right down to the conservative blue pants suit, who is in charge of deciding which US bases she should close. She sends her legislative aide, our protagonist, out to Guam to do a full audit and assessment of how the base is run, and to see if she can recommend closure. This is partly driven by the congresswoman’s hostility towards Operation Christmas Drop, which she thinks is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
However, congresswoman pants suit nation didn’t realise she had to contend with the commander of the base putting his most silver-tongued, overly-tall, theoretically handsome captain in charge of showing the aide around the island.
Note that in this scene the captain says that the island is strategically very important, and he’s right. In reality there’s no way the US would close its military base on the Westernmost point of its territory, especially given the preparations for a possible war with China. It’d be like them closing Pearl Harbor, but even more ridiculous. So the entire premise and tension of the movie – i.e. whether the base gets closed – is entirely unrealistic. It’s also extremely manipulative propaganda, to try to get the audience rooting for the base to be kept open. At one point a character says that the Joint Chiefs call the island an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, which is a horrible way of looking at a beautiful island but has become fairly common military parlance since WW2. Alex Haig once called Israel, ‘the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk.’
Throughout the film there are a number of fairly subtle endorsements of fascism. For one thing the captain looks like a Nazi recruitment poster. He’s tall and very Aryan, and eagle-eyed viewers will recognise him as the kid from Race to Witch Mountain, the CIA supported UFO movie. His job in the story is to effectively lie to and seduce the legislative aide and convince her not to shut down the base. So the success or failure of the base is tied to him being considered attractive – i.e. militarism on this scale can only continue if Aryans are deemed to be exceptionally beautiful and sexy people. Given that the aide is a young black woman, and she does eventually fall for his Nazi charms, there is a ‘master race’ subtext to the romance element of the plot. After all, what more could a young black woman ask for than a tall, blonde military officer who is constantly lying to her?
About halfway through the movie it emerges that congresswoman pants suit wants to close the base so she doesn’t have to close the one in her own district, which has two principal implications. The first is that any notion of scaling back the DOD’s presence across the world is just a cynical political move, and has nothing to do with excessive expenditure or neo-colonialism. The second is that if only the DOD could operate unencumbered by the machinations of elected politicians, indeed if we could just get rid of democracy, everything would be fine. The fascist undercurrent to this film is there, but it’s quite well buried if you’re not looking for it.
It’s also an obvious recruitment film – because the island itself is gorgeous, I can’t argue that it’s a great place to make a movie because despite being shot by a lightly-trained baboon it does look very pretty. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like that? Quite honestly, I explored the possibility of moving to that part of the world until I realised the only jobs there involved working for the US military.
On top of that, the supporting cast of military characters are very obviously multi-ethnic and multi-gendered. The general in charge of the base is black, which is kind of laughable given that every investigation shows that if you’re black then you’re less likely to get promoted through the ranks. The idea that a black guy would be given the cushy assignment of being in charge of a base on a utopian Western Pacific island is another departure from reality. Likewise, Captain Aryan Love Interest has a bunch of friends who are helping with the Christmas Drop, and at least half of them are black. Just like in Pitch Perfect 3, this is obviously the result of the Air Force’s recruitment objectives.
I did keep my eyes and ears open watching this film, to try to spot anything that seemed like something the DOD asked them to change or add. There is one sequence that feels very much like it was scripted by an entertainment liaison office, when Captain Aryan Love Interest is giving naive young black woman a tour of the facilities.
Firstly, that line about Space Ops was blatantly something written in by the Air Force. Earlier this year the Virgin Orbit subsidiary that provides launch services to the US military and intelligence agencies signed a contract to carry out several launches from the Andersen base, and this little reference to space operations is entirely in keeping with the DOD’s push to get more military-in-space content into movies.
Aside from that, this entire set of scenes typifies the dialogue in the movie, whereby the aide tries to find inefficiencies and waste and the Nazi Captain keeps trying to convince her otherwise. In particular she hones in on the Christmas Drop, because apparently US public funds shouldn’t be spent on helping some of the poorest people in the world, it should be kept for nuclear missiles.
For what it’s worth, I think this humanitarian effort is one of the best things the DOD does, and I think the richer nations should be devoting more resources to helping people around the world and less on nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. This is how the movie executes a pretty grand deception, by framing the debate entirely around the apparent waste of money that is one of the rare DOD operations that helps poor brown people. The only options in this debate are keeping the base open, or shutting it down to stop it helping those lazy indigenous types.
This is echoed in the overall depiction of the locals, which is extremely idealised and condescending. They are all relentlessly happy and love the US military, but at the same time are primitive and backward. There’s a whole subplot about electricity generators and how the mayor of Guam won’t donate any to the Christmas Drop, and this means the poor indigenous children can’t access their online school, and apparently there’s no other way to educate these terrible savages. Likewise, Captain Blitzkrieg organises a beach party to raise funds to buy supplies for the drop, which includes the black female airman leading a Dixiecrat hoedown by playing the violin and singing. This is followed by a very brief fire dance by some locals, set entirely to drums because apparently these people are so backward they haven’t discovered melodies yet.
So the takeaway message is that these people can’t survive without us, even though they’ve been living on these islands for thousands of years before the Spanish turned up and colonised the place, let alone the arrival of the American military. The film shapes the relationship between the locals and the Americans in terms of the White Man’s Burden – a colonial philosophy that looks down on non-white countries and concludes that we have a responsibility for civilising them so they don’t miss out on the greatness of our superior societies. Again, the tone of the movie disguises what it’s saying, but that is a core message in how the story unfolds.
After the party the story is essentially complete – the aide has fallen for the Captain, and been won over to his argument that they have to keep the base open and that the Christmas Drop is not a waste of money, because it apparently doesn’t cost any money. The only thing left for the story to do is to show the drop itself and then roll the credits. So they needed something to fill out the time, because the plot is only about an hour’s worth of story.
Climate Change ex machina was their preferred solution, as a tropical storm prevents the drop from taking place. But a few minutes later, thanks to the magic of Christmas, the climate change stops, and Operation Christmas Drop is back on. This is typical of Hollywood – they’ll throw in the odd fleeting reference to ‘green issues’ but never follow through, and ultimately send out the message that it’s nothing to worry about and God or technical innovation or something will save us, and we don’t have to change anything about how we live our lives. For all the talk about ‘climate change propaganda’ there’s actually very little of it in Hollywood’s output. The only major climate change movies remain The Day After Tomorrow, from over 15 year ago and which is quite ridiculous anyway, and that irritating Al Gore documentary. Geostorm is sort of a climate change film, in that it’s about a massive system in orbit which helps control the weather, but the jeopardy in the story is not the climate changing, it’s the system malfunctioning due to saboteurs and hackers.
Towards the end of the film congresswoman pants suit turns up, and is not happy with her employee, but she is persuaded to go along on one of the planes doing the Christmas Drop. By the time she returns she’s completely changed her perspective – again due to the miracle of Christmas fascism – and it all ends well.
Honestly, I could spend about six hours complaining about and criticising this film because I hated everything in it. It’s a sick, nasty piece of propaganda disguised as a feelgood family Christmas romcom. At its core it equates generosity with keeping military bases open, weaponising the spirit of Christmas for militaristic ends, while simultaneously reassuring the audience that no taxpayer money is going to help these indigenous people, thus maintaining neo-colonial prejudices. I reiterate: I despise this film and people should only watch it with the aim of eviscerating it.
However, while the movie has pretty negative review scores I could only find one that identified it as a piece of military propaganda, again demonstrating how most critics and reviewers simply don’t know what they are looking at. The majority of reviews saw this as a Christmas romcom, and judged it entirely on that basis, with opinion split as to whether the story worked or not. As I say, a lot of the nasty stuff is carefully buried but if even movie critics don’t recognise it for what it is, then what chance do audiences have?
The final film I want to discuss with you today is similarly formulaic and generic, but I quite enjoyed it, as it often the case when I compare CIA-sponsored films to DOD-sponsored ones. My Spy is essentially Kindergarten Cop, but with the CIA. Dave Bautista, the wrestler turned actor, plays a former special forces guy who has joined the CIA, and he is sent to carry out surveillance on the wife and daughter of a terrorist who is trying to build a nuclear bomb, and ends up befriending the 9-year-old kid and falling for her mother, while killing the terrorist and retrieving the schematics for the bomb.
It isn’t an original film – the muscle-bound big guy and cute tiny kid combination has been used quite a few times – but I had a good time watching it. The two lead characters, the CIA agent and the daughter, have genuine chemistry and are both pretty funny. Kirsten Schaal as the techie is also pretty good, though she is exactly the same in everything I’ve seen her in, so either you like her schtick or you don’t. Absolutely nothing that happens in the film surprised me, even when the stereotyped gay couple down the hall turn out to be mercenaries who are also trying to get the plans for the nuclear bomb. But this isn’t the sort of film you watch for the plot, you watch it for the jokes, and they come thick and fast and some of them are well crafted. In particular there are a lot of amusing musical cues, where the music is entirely appropriate or inappropriate to what’s happening on screen, which is an old joke but one that still works well.
Nonetheless, it is a propaganda film, which is why there are multiple shots of CIA headquarters, and the CIA logo is all over the place. Literally, every computer screen in the film has the CIA logo somewhere on it, often with an animated circular border that draws your attention to it. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such a heavily CIA-branded film before, it’s almost as though they were trying to get noticed, like a schoolgirl with a crush.
The story begins with a covert meeting at Chernobyl, where one of the terrorists is trying to buy a plutonium warhead from a bunch of Russian military officers. When they meet, the head Russian even says ‘welcome to Russia’, even though Chernobyl isn’t in Russia and never was. Everything about this scene felt like it had been through a Cold War propaganda committee for approval, especially in the wake of the very popular but quite misleading mini-series on Chernobyl last year.
Agent Bautista ends up killing nearly everyone present, because it turns out he isn’t a very good spy and he blows his cover. So he’s called back to headquarters and told off by his boss, who explains he needs more emotional intelligence in order to go undercover. A couple of quick things about this scene – it’s the first and probably the last time that an aerial shot of Langley has been scored by Britney Spears ‘Hit me baby, one more time’, and there’s a horrible continuity error in all of the scenes supposedly set at CIA headquarters. We keep being shown the aerial shot, with Langley rising out of the trees, then it cuts to an interior office with the Toronto skyline visible through the windows.
More importantly, the scenes supposedly set at the CIA are the most interesting from a propaganda point of view, because his boss emphasises to agent Bautista the soft skills necessary for spy work, thus subverting the action scene that opens the movie. I imagine some form of this was already in the script, but it is very much in keeping with intelligence agency recruiting efforts in recent years. Time and again we’ve seen articles, clearly put out at the CIA or MI6’s behest, about how they aren’t looking for James Bond types and how you might not think you fit the mould for the CIA, but they still want you.
Likewise, the enemies are some combination of Russians and terrorists, it’s never particularly clear who they are, so it fits quite neatly into the CIA’s constant reboot of who they’re supposedly protecting us from. One week it might be Muslims, the next it’s Russian hackers, in a month it might be Chinese industrial espionage. As long as there is a threat image out there, being constantly projected onto the eyes and into the minds of the public, the specific image itself doesn’t matter.
So Kirsten Schaal and Agent Bautista are sent to spy on the wife and kid of one of the terrorists, or Russians, or whoever they are. They bug the apartment and set up cameras, including in the bathroom, and sit in an apartment a few doors down. This leads to the kid finding one of the cameras, tracing it back to them, and discovering they are working for the CIA.
Again, I will emphasise how this isn’t an original premise – most spy comedies include some version of this ‘ordinary person being inducted into the secret world of spies’ trope. If you cast your minds back to Meet the Parents, this is quite similar to when Ben Stiller discovers Robert De Niro’s secret agent hideaway – there’s even a polygraph scene in both films. Likewise Bad Company, another Chase Brandon film, is all about a young man who is recruited by the CIA as a replacement for his twin brother. The difference is that rather than the older man-younger man master-apprentice combo in Meet the Parents and Enemy of the State and Bad Company, this time it’s a former wrestler and a sassy child.
Since I felt this was actually quite a fun little movie I won’t devote any time to criticising its bad points as a piece of entertainment, and will skip right along to a couple of scenes where I felt the propaganda agenda shone through. The first is when the girl gets Agent Bautista to come along to her ‘Parents and Special Friends Day’ at school, where kids bring along an adult who talks to the children about their job.
Now, this scene serves the story because it’s about the girl helping Agent Bautista open up emotionally and learn more about himself, as he teaches her spycraft in return. I actually quite liked the character arc of an introverted, somewhat damaged guy learning how to heal himself, and Bautista is actually very well cast in the role, because he’s a very introverted man, for an actor.
Nonetheless this scene contains all the usual messaging about keeping America safe and how the CIA’s violence is justified. In particular, the moment when the parent interjects and says we shouldn’t be celebrating state assassinations, and his wife tells him to sit down, felt to me like something the CIA would love. It’s played as a joke but ultimately it’s mocking dissenters and telling them to shut up.
Likewise, throughout the film Agent Bautista keeps suggesting to Kirsten Schaal that they just murder the family, so they can get out of being blackmailed by a kid, and even blowing up the building and making it look like a gas leak. Again, these are passed off as jokes but I did wonder whether this sociopathic humour was one of the reasons the CIA liked this film enough to stick their branding all over it.
Eventually, the bosses back at Langley find out about Bautista becoming friends with the girl and going on dates with the mother, and fire him and Schaal. They go back to Chicago to pack up the equipment, and just at that moment the terrorists turn up, leading to a chase and showdown at an airport. Agent Bautista rescues the kid, recovers the schematics for the bomb, kills the lead terrorist and saves the day, leading to him being welcomed back by the CIA.
Two little things in this scene caught my ear – firstly, the CIA supervisor referring to the Agency as ‘the family’, which isn’t a common turn of phrase but is sometimes used by insiders. That seems like something that could only have come from the Agency themselves, and in this context is quite friendly-sounding, though to me it makes the CIA sound like the Mafia, which is quite appropriate. The other thing is the little exchange about equal pay, because in government agencies you’re on a salary grade, there is no pay gap because you’re not allowed to pay anyone more than anyone else of the same grade. So this doesn’t make any sense, but it does make the CIA look like the sort of place where women can ‘speak up about their rights’ and so on, which is entirely consistent with efforts the Agency have made in recent years to enhance their appeal to liberals and progressives. It’s tokenistic, but these days what isn’t?
The other aspect of the movie overall, which is also brought out in this scene, is that the CIA aren’t supposed to operate domestically, within the US. They are supposed to gather intelligence to inform the decisions and assessments of the National Security Council and the White House, and then carry out operations on foreign soil with presidential approval. Of course, in reality the CIA do all sorts of things within the US, from helping to make films to investing in Silicon Valley to infiltrating college campuses, even running training programs for terrorists.
Films like My Spy and other recent comedies such as Central Intelligence and Keeping up with the Joneses help to normalise this in a non-threatening manner, because they’re lighthearted, silly movies. They not only make the CIA look like a lot of fun and games and a good place to work, they also help make it seem normal, or even necessary, that the Agency adopt the same approach to the US as they do to other countries. First cultural colonisation, then social colonisation.
So while I did like this movie and it’s the only one we’ve looked at today that I’d actually recommend as something to watch, it is still as insidious as the others, though perhaps not quite as disgusting in its agenda as Operation Christmas Drop. I will, of course, leave it to you to decide which of these is the most dangerous film.
One quick note before we wrap up – My Spy was bought by Amazon and mostly distributed via Prime, where it proved very popular, but the reviews were quite negative. Many of them noted the similarity to Kindergarten Cop and other films starring The Rock and John Cena, and criticised the film’s lack of originality. I haven’t come across a single one that mentioned the CIA’s branding or how the film manifests the CIA’s agenda in Hollywood, so again I have to ask: if professional film-watchers can’t figure this stuff out, what hope is there for the audience?