Mossad as Superspy: Is the Myth Slipping?

I’ve run across an interesting piece by Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film Studies at Bangor (UK) University, on The Conversation website (“a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary”). The title sums it up nicely: “Mossad Agents Were Suave and Effective on Screen, Now They’re Ineffective Blunderers.”

Abrams’ thesis:

Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, has a reputation for being fearsomely effective, protecting Israelis and Jews far beyond the country’s borders. Such portrayals used to be common…[there is] a wider recent trend in which the reputation of the Mossad secret agent is tarnished.

While the on-screen Mossad appearance he keys on is the recent BBC2/SundanceTV co-production The Honourable Woman, he also indicts such varied films as David Mamet’s Homicide, Lucky Number Slevin, the Adam Sandler spoof You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and, strangely, Munich, Spielberg’s love letter to the Mossad. He compares them to the almost-godlike Mossad agents featured in The House on Garibaldi Street and concludes that “there is no doubt that Israel, and specifically the Israeli secret service, is suffering on screen. No James Bond or Jack Bauer here.”

While I found the piece interesting, I also find it blinkered, for a number of reasons:

Have you seen the CIA’s on-screen reputation lately? MI6’s? The FSB’s? Garibaldi was made an eon ago in 1979; since then, the popular and historical reputations of all the major intelligence agencies have taken multiple hits as insider accounts and declassified documents have debunked the myths surrounding our official spies. Professor Abrams could have written exactly the same article about the CIA’s image on TV and in film, just changing the titles of the movies he cites (starting with Bond’s CIA ally Felix Leiter and sliding down the darkness scale to the Bourne series, Safe House and the new The November Man). I can’t think of a single spy agency extant that hasn’t been portrayed as either inept or hopelessly corrupt in any number of books, TV shows and movies.

And yet…for every other The Honourable Woman (or Syriana), there pop up positive (or at least non-derogatory) guest appearances by official secret agents. Argo and the Jack Ryan films could be CIA recruiting ads. The Debt, a film Abrams cites as another negative portrayal of the Mossad, is actually a paean to its tenacity and toughness; the Mossad team does finish its mission after thirty years, at great personal cost. On TV’s Covert Affairs, Annie Walker’s Mossad crush Eyal is regularly the most reliable and capable non-Augie ally she has, as well as being the most sympathetic reoccurring non-CIA character on the show. (At the same time, the CIA of Covert Affairs is riven with political infighting and various bad apples.) The recent departure of NCIS’ über-competent Mossad alum Ziva sparked a mini-revolt among fans. The point: nothing’s universal.

It’s interesting Abrams mentions both James Bond and Jack Bauer as the kinds of heroes he believes are missing from today’s Mossad-themed movies. Bond was never a company man; he regularly goes off the reservation, doing whatever he thinks necessary whether or not MI6 wants or appreciates the effort. At least two recent Bond villains were more-or-less created by MI6 (in Goldeneye and Skyfall), and much of Skyfall hinges on the Secret Intelligence Service’s past transgressions. This fits nicely with an ever-lengthening subgenre of spy films: the retired/cashiered spy whose agency-imparted skills make him a hero, even if his agency is still a villain (see: Bourne, Taken, and on TV, The Equalizer, Missing and Burn Notice). 24’s Jack Bauer is exactly the kind of agent we’d expect to be spawned by today’s popular conception of the Mossad: brutal, murderous, single-minded, remote. You can root for him even if you wouldn’t want him anywhere near you. But is this an improvement over what Abrams characterizes as “Israelis as suave assassins, villainous diplomats and manipulative undercover agents”?

There’s a hint of “everyone’s beating on Israel” in Abrams’ tone, but he also mentions Israeli films that he believes downgrade Mossad, such as Walk on Water and Ha-Hov (the source material for The Debt). Yet this fits with other Israeli-produced films and TV shows that hold up the state and its organs to unflattering light: Hatufim (Prisoners of War, the inspiration for Homeland), Waltz with Bashir, The Gatekeepers, Lebanon, 5 Broken Cameras, and so on. So it’s not confined to supposedly hostile outside forces; it’s also a manifestation of the growing generational and societal divides within Israel itself.

I suppose that if Professor Abrams included books in his review, he might run into my international thriller, Doha 12. While the Mossad agents in Doha 12 are far from the “ineffectual blunderers” of his article’s title, they’re more interested in their mission than in protecting the innocents dragged into danger by Mossad’s own operations, and they aren’t above using Jake and Miriam as bait.

Myths rarely survive contact with facts. We’ve seen and heard enough news reporting about the various sins of the CIA, NSA, MI6, GCHQ, and, yes, Mossad, to understand that the notion of a stalwart, selfless intelligence agency heroically battling the forces of darkness is mostly a fable. It stands to reason that the popular culture’s view of these agencies will take a darker and more cynical tone, as it has for institutions of every other stripe. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing; maybe it means we’re growing up, and when you grow up, you put away the fairy tales.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. In his international thriller Doha 12 , Mossad is only one of the problems facing the protagonists. Mossad is one of the few agencies not mucking things up in his near-future thriller South. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.