Since Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 espionage blockbuster “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the mystery and stealth of the lives of secret agents has intrigued screen audiences. But over time, and more specifically over the last decade, the role of the spy has changed dramatically. In the early 2000s, spies such as James Bond, Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne were represented as superhuman heroes. In 2012 the spy on screen has become more realistic and gritty, as with Tony Mendez of “Argo,” Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” and Maya of “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is obvious that a shift has taken place.
The three B’s — Bond, Bourne and Bauer — defined the pre-2012 modern agent as surreal and invincible. All three men serve as action heroes first and flawed humans second. These characters are killing machines, capable of defeating their enemies with a pen if need be. Jack Bauer saves the nation time and time again while engaging in stunts, regularly promoting Islamophobia and constantly dealing with stressful situations. Jason Bourne is somehow able to hide from the CIA and defeat large numbers of assailants with hand-to-hand combat. James Bond is perhaps the most cliched of them all: a well dressed, smooth talking ladies’ man with a killer aim and knack for gadgets.
In 2012, however, audiences were introduced to a new breed of secret agent, one who is humanized in more ways than one. First came “Homeland,” a television series about counter-terrorism. The protagonist, Carrie Mathison, is arguably the most complex and fascinating character on television, as she is blessed with brilliance yet tortured by mental illness. Carrie, played by the incredible Claire Danes, suffers from bipolar disorder, a disease that at one point in the series cost her the position of a CIA agent, as well as the trust of her peers. This causes her to be filled with self-doubt. She is unable to remain emotionally unattached, which differs from the hardened agents of the past. And unlike previous agents such as Jack Bauer, Carrie is respectful of the Arab culture, illustrated by covering her head in Arab nations and urging other agents to remove their shoes while inside a mosque.
In “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez does not fit the stereotypical male spy. Straying from the superhero image, while Mendez is determined, he is not overly aggressive or violent. In order to retrieve American hostages from Iran, he relies on his creativity and determination to see his mission through. In discordance with the formulaic male spy, Tony Mendez is anything but a ladies’ man. Rather, his personal life is where he is perhaps the most human. Perpetually lonely and only able to speak to his son via telephone, Mendez is a divorcee who puts all of himself into his work.
Finally, the year’s most controversial film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” gave us Maya, the CIA agent who worked unrelentingly for 10 years solely to locate Osama bin Laden. At the beginning of the film we see Maya as a novice, as she has just entered headquarters at a CIA black site. Upon arrival, she witnesses the brutal torture of a detainee suspected of being linked to 9/11. As time progresses, Maya, once delicate and fearful, is now administering the torture. She is unremorseful to her detainees and fixated on her target. Even after the deaths of her colleagues, she continues to be focused and utterly self-assured. When asked about her confidence level of bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad, she replies with “100 percent.” Maya appears to be unbroken, staying strong through the loss of friends and leads and dealing with a challenging bureaucracy. That said, in the final scene, as she sits on a plane back to the United States, Maya is overwhelmed with emotion and, in an act that reveals her depth, begins to cry.
With this new brand of spy, one that is both critically and commercially acclaimed, one is forced to question why this change occurred. While it is doubtful that 2012 is a special year per se, there are some possible explanations for this shift in CIA agent portrayal. One reason could be that after 9/11, America was in desperate need of a superhero. Audiences wanted to feel safe and wildly entertained, which resulted in the three B’s and their otherworldly skills. Perhaps now America’s wounds have begun to heal in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, and we are ready for the raw and the gritty. We are able to accept the fact that America as a nation is not perfect, and neither are its spies. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are based on true stories, a notion which gives viewers the sense that they are seeing classified information. “Homeland,” though rooted in fiction, has been accredited with an extremely realistic portrayal of the CIA as an agency. Thus, in an era categorized by government secrecy, audiences are proving to Hollywood that they thirst for information.