Spy films have routinely titillated American audiences at least since the Cold War, and this year is no exception, with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Ultra, Agent 47, and Spectre all hitting theaters. What is it about the secret agent that charms us? Two of the summer spy blockbusters, the fifth Mission Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., releasing as they did back-to-back, tell us something about the mysterious appeal of spies.
Yes, some appeal lies in the glamorous popular Hollywood portrayal: Bond-like spies have no lack of money, fancy gadgets, and missions in exotic locales. U.N.C.L.E‘s Napoleon Solo is suave, womanizing, and witty, with government funds and gadgetry at his disposal, and with the courage and cleverness to get out of anything. Mission Impossible 5’s Ethan Hunt likewise makes full use of over-the-top high-tech gadgets in elaborate chase scenes and break-ins, to out-wit the villains in dazzling European and colorful Middle Eastern cities.
But beyond the superficial 007-like qualities, secret agents appeal to American audiences on another level, too. Living in a world where justice is often hampered by bureaucracy, we like the idea of someone who is not bound by the traditional rules of operation; someone who can move outside the strict public structures of good and evil; someone belonging neither to the military nor the police and exempt from their rules, yet holding all their power and expertise.
This is the secret of the secret agent: he seems to execute justice when the official system is too bogged down in bureaucracy or rules to catch the bad guys. MI’s Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Mission Force, even as they track down the villains, is threatened by bureaucratic powers—like the irate CIA director, frustrated that the IMF is out of his regulatory reach. Similarly, in U.N.C.L.E., the KGB agent Illya Kuryakin at one point takes down his own Russian policeman merely because they are blocking his mission. He is outside their rules.
They are uniquely powerful because secrecy implies special knowledge—a special group or individual who really knows what’s going on, who really knows the workings of international politics and plots. Mission Impossible’s Hunt and his few associates are the only ones who know about the terrorist syndicate; the undercover agents and their handlers in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are the only ones who know about the neo-Nazi organization’s atomic bomb. With this knowledge, they do anything necessary to stop the villains, making decisions a court or congress could never make.
Because Hollywood secret agents are part of a special circle beyond the rules, we are oddly comfortable watching spies do things we wouldn’t want to see a policeman do. A secret agent can commandeer (and crash) an unsuspecting citizen’s car, or break into a house, or drug a politician, or steal a top-secret file, with no bureaucratic consequences, and, to all appearances, no moral qualms. He seems above the law—perhaps because a spy is already morally compromised. You can’t be a secret agent without lying, and usually stealing. What’s a little housebreaking or homicide when you’ve already made outright lying and theft a routine matter of business?
The reason the spy seems intriguingly exempt from regular rules of ethics is because of what C.S. Lewis called the appeal of “the inner ring.” The elitism of an “inner ring” appeals to men, and consequently, we are willing to accept vices to be part of that privileged circle, as Lewis explains:
In all men’s lives… one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the [Inner] Ring and the terror of being left outside…. The choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours…. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still…. Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.
Hollywood’s portrayal of spies, with their glamour and secrets and power, is just such an inner ring.
Certainly some spies in films are more morally upright than others; if both the secret agents and the villains are doing bad things to achieve their goals, the moral gap between the hero and the antagonist grows uncomfortably small. And yet even spy films note the problem of an inner ring that operates outside the rules: the secret agent life is unsustainable. A world full of secrets, lies, and betrayed trusts is exactly the opposite of what is needed for human flourishing. Humans can’t be very happy, in the end, when they lie for a living. After all, maybe Johnny Rivers got it right with the hit song “Secret Agent Man”:
There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow.
At one point, MI’s Ilsa Faust tells the villain, for whom she is working in order to spy on him, “If you don’t trust me, kill me,” though of course he can’t really trust her, and she can’t really trust him. Even a working relationship requires trust. The scene highlights the problem with Hollywood’s secret agent world: really, no one can trust anyone. No relationships or loyalties are guaranteed.
Likewise, Ethan Hunt can’t have a normal life with his wife; and when Ilsa Faust proposes that they escape their secret agent lives and become regular people, the prospect is startlingly tempting. Hunt and Faust know firsthand that life inside the Inner Ring, where morality plays second fiddle to efficiency and utility, is not a happy one.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hits a similar reality-check when a potential romantic relationship—which of course requires trust and honesty—develops between two characters within the inner ring of spies, only to be immediately threatened by deception and distrust. Perhaps there is a double meaning in agent Napoleon Solo’s name; when he and Illya Kuryakin both insist that they work better alone, it makes perfect sense according to the nature of their trade. Working with someone requires you to trust them, and in Solo and Kuryakin’s case, the reasons for distrust are manifold. Later, Solo and Kuryakin must make a choice between human relationships and the double-dealing nature of their spy jobs. They can’t choose both.
As glamorous as the secret agent inner circle seems, the ethical rules of human interaction—the rules of morality—are, as Chesterton said, walls to protect us, not imprison us. As MI5 and U.N.C.L.E. make clear, outside those walls, human relationships begin to crumble.
Of course, these spy flicks are meant to be mere entertainment—action-packed romps of good v. evil with the whole world at stake—without wading into murkier questions of ethics or preachy morality. So for a couple hours we can enjoy our big-screen invitation into the mysterious Inner Ring of Hollywood spies—with no more serious vice, perhaps, than indulging in a little too much popcorn. But we must never expect to see the chic and cool spies win really happy endings, or sustain any real relationships for long. After all, the secret agent man works best alone, flying solo—and as Johnny Rivers sang, “to everyone he meets he stays a stranger.”