The Comfort of Spy Stories in Troubling Times

A tide of new movies, documentaries and books offers a pleasurable, yet informative, refuge from the day's awful headlines

One of the side benefits of dipping into a new spy thriller, documentary or book is that it allows you to dodge the torrent of bad news while providing comfort that you’re not really indulging in pure escapism.

So it is with films like “Kingdom of Silence,” a documentary that drills into the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, debuting Friday night on Showtime. Directed by Emmy®-award winner Rick Rowley and executive produced by the ubiquitous Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright (he of the The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and other investigative books with compelling narrative lines), the Kingdom of Silence leaves viewers wondering who the real Khashoggi was. Still, “the film’s primary virtue is in presenting many friends and colleagues of Khashoggi who illuminate his ideals, ventures and personal relationships,” wrote Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times.

Also debuting Friday (the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment in a Saudi consulate in Turkey), is The Dissident,” from the Icarus director Bryan Fogel, available for purchase online. 

“Juggling haunting 3D graphics with a moody score, Fogel illustrates how the Saudis developed a digital strategy for targeting its critics abroad, including thousands of pro-Saudi Twitter accounts run by propagandists at the behest of the government,” writes Erik Kohn at Indiewire. “The government had its way” by killing Khashoggi, he adds, “but his story is just getting started, and The Dissident marks the beginning of an important new chapter.”

Ghosts in the Choir

Closer to home, and just as spooky in a different way, is People You May Know, which debuted this week on Sundance and Amazon Prime. And I mean seriously spooky, because it’s not only closer to home—it may already be in the home of someone you love. Directed by Charles Kriel and Katharina Gellein Viken, and featuring Kriel as a relentless investigator, People is an account of how the notorious Cambridge Analytica firm wormed its way into U.S. churches and secretly manipulated and radicalized pastors and congregants into adopting the rightwing agendas of the Koch brothers and the Trump-Repubican party. It’s as deeply unsettling as it is gripping.

And then we come to that increasingly odious form of current affairs truth-telling, the docudrama, a heaping platter of empty calories if there ever was one. After watching The Comey Rule on Showtime last week, I felt like I’d had one too many bags of popcorn. Entertaining, yes: Who wouldn’t squirm in delight at Brendan Gleeson’s oleaginous portrayal of a mobster-likeTrump? Or Holly Hunter as the cool and principled Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates? Some called director Billy Ray’s portrait of Comey, played by Jeff Daniels, too respectful. I dunno—he came off as rigid and self righteous, if warmly considerate to colleagues and especially family, to me. And the film’s repeated insertion of icky flashbacks to that still unconfirmed “pee-tape” incident involving Trump and hookers in Moscow left me cold.

Better yet: Just to go straight to spy dramas that don’t claim to be “based on” anything, but are rendered with such authority and attention to detail that you come away thinking, that could be true. One of the best of those is Tehran, a gripping new spy series now playing on Apple+ TV. Like so many really good espionage and counterterrorism dramas, Tehran originated in Israel. And as John Powers, Fresh Air’s film critic put it on NPR, “this thriller about a spy mission gone wrong isn't merely suspenseful. It's a glimpse of how one ancient culture portrays another ancient culture—particularly one that's currently its avowed enemy.” To me, Tehran is the best thing since The Bureau, the sophisticated French spy drama, which also had a story line with an undercover operation in Iran, that wrapped up after five seasons last month but can still be streamed on AMC.

Between the Covers

Meanwhile, the ex-spymasters ousted by Trump are continuing to have their say. John Brennan, the former CIA Director and assistant to President Barack Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, is out with Undaunted: My Fight Against America's Enemies, At Home and Abroad. Needless to say, he’s here to defend how he became alarmed about troubling contacts between Russia and Trump and virtually all his national security advisers. Brennan’s unease only escalated when he briefed the president-elect in New York about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“Trump,” writes Edward-Isaac Devere in The Atlantic, “seemed less disturbed by the briefing than interested in probing for how Brennan knew what he knew, what the sources were.“

“This deeply troubled me,” Brennan writes, “as I worried what he might do with the information he was being given.” 

And rightly so, when, a few months later, Trump invited Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister into the Oval Office, bragged about firing James Comey, and allegedly disclosed a secret Israeli operation in Syria to them. He has yet, as everyone knows, to utter a single critical word about Vladimir Putin, despite the former KGB agent’s continued covert interference in our political affairs.

The furtive battle between U.S. and Russian spies has long been on the mind of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Tim Weiner. Even accounting for the common, and often mocked, practice of authors and publishers to gather up as many hyperventilating blurbs as they can to push their books, advance notices for Weiner’s The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia and Political Warfare 1945-2020 is impressive.

“A riveting spy thriller made all the more chilling because thanks to Tim Weiner's meticulous reporting, it is all true,” says the estimable New Yorker magazine investigative reporter Jane Mayer. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta says he can “attest to the reality of the political warfare.” David Corn, co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette, calls The Folly and the Glory “a gripping and alarming page-turner revealing harrowing stories of skulduggery, subterfuge, and malice.” And so on and so forth, from former defense secretary William Perry, arms control expert Fred Kaplan, Asha Rangappa, the articulate former FBI special agent, and many more.

“The congruence between poetry and espionage is worthy of its own book,” tweeted Michael Weiss, the Daily Beast’s editor-at-large, who is writing his own book on the GRU, Russian’s military intelligence agency, by way of praising Weiner’s latest tome. As a wider lens on our current, if uniquely unprecedented, current troubles with the Kremlin, it’s likely to find a home on the bedside tables of espionage fans and foreign policy specialists alike. 

There’s so much more, but I’ve run out of time. See you again here soon.