The CIA Spins Itself

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, the Central Intelligence Agency had an image problem. Whenever agents were portrayed in movies or TV shows, they almost always were the bad guys. So the agency sent in an operative to remedy the situation: Chase Brandon, a veteran CIA officer and the agency's first official liaison with Hollywood.

"I guess you could say I've become the first overt spokesman for the covert side of the agency," says Brandon, who spent 25 years as an undercover operative, mostly in Central and South America. "I figured that if I gave out a name and a phone number, people would call. And it worked. Suddenly the phone started ringing."

Over the last several years, Brandon has led an effort by the embattled spy agency to encourage show business projects that portray the CIA in a less sinister fashion. The accessibility has paid off: The fall TV season features three new programs that cast the CIA in a flattering light. "The Agency" is a CBS show about agency derring-do that debuted on Thursday; "Alias," which debuts Sunday on ABC, stars glamorous newcomer Jennifer Garner as a kickboxing super-spy; and "24," a Fox series debuting Nov. 6, stars Kiefer Sutherland as an elite operative racing to uncover a presidential assassination plot.

Brandon, 54, also served as a technical consultant for the films "Sum of All Fears," a Tom Clancy thriller starring Ben Affleck as CIA super-agent Jack Ryan, and "Bad Company," an action comedy that features Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock as mismatched CIA operatives. Both are scheduled for release next year.

About five years ago, the agency decided it needed to improve its entertainment image after years of being portrayed negatively in films and novels as a shadowy organization populated by rogue operatives specializing in Cold War skullduggery and crackpot assassination schemes. The characterization wasn't entirely inaccurate to those who believe the many books and articles written by former agency officers criticizing the CIA's intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist operations, especially in the Middle East.

While the CIA was getting a cinematic black eye, the FBI, the Secret Service and the armed services had cooperated with friendly filmmakers, often with impressive results. After the success of "Top Gun," the 1986 film starring Tom Cruise as a gung-ho Navy fighter pilot, Navy recruiting went through the roof.

"We've always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian," says Brandon by phone from CIA headquarters in Virginia. "It just took the agency a long time to follow what the FBI and the Pentagon have done, and engage filmmakers and support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in."

He's especially enthusiastic about "Sum of All Fears," the Clancy thriller due out next summer from Paramount Pictures. Affleck spent a day sitting with Russian analysts from the CIA, and Brandon worked extensively with director Phil Alden Robinson, creating technical abilities for the film's characters that were "realistic if not actualistic."

Translation: "We wanted the movie to have something in the realm of what we have now, without revealing exactly what our real capability is. If I did that, it might make the movie really realistic, but then I'd have to go to jail."

The Clancy film is a far cry from "In the Line of Fire," a 1993 thriller that starred Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent who matches wits with a ruthless killer bent on assassinating the president. Brandon said the Eastwood film offered an extraordinarily realistic depiction of Secret Service work. "But who was the villain?" he asks. "A psychotic rogue CIA agent. Why? Because 'rogue CIA agent' had become convenient shorthand for a bad guy, even though that wasn't who we were at all."

Brandon doesn't hold a grudge. One of the people he spent the most time with while working on "The Agency" was its executive producer, Wolfgang Petersen, who directed "In the Line of Fire."

The CIA has naturally been in full crisis mode since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, so show business concerns have taken a back seat. An "Agency" premiere at CIA headquarters was canceled. The network also pulled the show's premiere episode, which had the CIA foiling a plot by a terrorist linked to an Osama bin Laden cell to blow up a posh London department store.

Many studio executives worry that moviegoers may dismiss films about terrorist and anti-terrorist activities as pale imitations of the real thing. Brandon disagrees. "I don't think these films and TV shows trivialize what we're doing," he says. "Right now the American public needs a sense of reassurance. If anything, a show like 'The Agency' couldn't be more timely. Our whole national consciousness is going to change. And I think a responsible film or TV episode about the agency, even one that weaves elements of terrorism into the story line, can show the magnitude of what's at stake."

Brandon also believes that fallout from the terrorist attacks will inspire Hollywood to make films celebrating old-fashioned heroism and bravery.

"This situation is very much akin to World War II, except that instead of fighting for our lives because of a far-away disaster ... we're fighting because something right smack in the heart of America was attacked. The great films about World War II were very spiritually invigorating, and I think you'll find a lot of people wanting to see that kind of heroism again."

Brandon obviously has offered assistance only to films that present the agency in a positive light. He refused to cooperate with two upcoming Universal films, "The Bourne Identity" and "Spy Game." He said the script for "The Bourne Identity," an adaptation of the 1984 Robert Ludlum novel, was "so awful that I tossed it in the burn bag after Page 25."

When "Spy Game" was in development, Brandon met with the film's director, Tony Scott, and one of its screenwriters to explain agency procedures and protocol. Set during the Cold War, the film stars Robert Redford as an agency operative nearing retirement who discovers that his protege, played by Brad Pitt, has been jailed in Beijing on espionage charges after trying to break a prisoner out of China. The film is scheduled for release Nov. 21.

"We were eager to cooperate," Brandon said. "But when I saw a final rewrite, it had taken a turn for the worse. It showed our senior management in an insensitive light, and we just wouldn't be a part of that kind of project."

Michael Beckner, one of the film's writers, defends the movie's portrayal of the agency. "It's a very accurate depiction of the way agents operated in the morally ambiguous climate of the Cold War," says Beckner, who also created "The Agency," which received considerable CIA cooperation. "There are things in the story that might make the agency uncomfortable, but in the end, it's about sacrifice and doing the right things for the right reasons."

The agency seems to have given filmmakers broad latitude in terms of fictionalizing events. The opening episode of "The Agency" shows the CIA foiling a plot to kill Fidel Castro during a visit to America--quite a turnabout, given that the CIA once spearheaded efforts to assassinate the Cuban dictator. Brandon says it's not entirely preposterous to believe the agency could be on the opposite side of the fence today.

"Times have changed," he says. "It's not implausible for there to be a series of circumstances where the agency's talents would be used to protect Castro."

The agency also cooperated with "Bad Company," a film that takes such a broadly comic approach to CIA work that its studio pulled it from its scheduled December release, worried that audiences might not find the spoof so funny after the terrorist attacks. It also has supported "Alias," a show creator J.J. Abrams says is intended as escapist entertainment.

"It's like a good comic book," Abrams says. "It's something to take your mind off the horror of real life. I wouldn't know how to deal with real-life terrorism and attacks on America. That's not what the show's about at all."

Brandon says he doesn't have any problems with the lightweight tone of some CIA projects. "Everyone needs to find a way to let go a little," he says. "I've already seen Colin Powell find a way to laugh and joke with reporters to break the tension. We're trained to be hard as nails, but we know how to relax and laugh too. A little levity isn't such a bad thing."

No one knows for sure how viewers will react to seeing CIA-inspired dramas juxtaposed with its participation in real-life events. But if nothing else, the agency seems to have a flock of new fans in Hollywood, supposedly a bastion of liberal anti-agency sentiment.

"I don't think we could've done a show about the CIA 10 or 15 years ago," says "Agency" executive producer Gail Katz. "But people's attitudes have changed. We may have questioned their methods in the past, but I don't think we're questioning their goals right now. When we were doing press interviews before the terrorist attacks, a lot of people were asking 'Why do a show about the CIA?' Well, no one's asking that question now."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°