[This post contains spoilers to Safe House and Three Days of the Condor.]
In Safe House, Denzel Washington plays a super-spy traitor on the run from a team of killers. In U.S. custody, he becomes the charge, enemy and mentor of as-spy-ring spy Ryan Reynolds. As crappy, mindless entertainment, the movie succeeds on all fronts: it’s entertaining, mindless and crappy. Its cast of high-level professional entertainers squeezes every drop of joy it can out of the ridiculously violent and predictable script. Denzel Washington must be able to play these sorts of characters in his sleep but, to his credit, he doesn’t; he’s classy enough to show up for the paying customers and do it right. After all, that’s part of what a movie star does — deliver his familiar personae well.
What makes the film really second rate though is the fact that it’s so incredibly derivative. “This isn’t so much a movie as a list of cliches,” as my pal Christopher Tookey wrote in Britain’s Daily Mail. It seems to lift scenes from every spy movie ever made. Stylistically, its main source is The Bourne Identity. Content-wise, it’s 1975’s dated-but-still-classy Three Days of the Condor — it’s virtually a remake, hold the class.
But just as interesting as the similarities between Safe House and Condor are the differences, the marks of thirty plus years. In both pictures, a low level CIA agent is isolated and on the run after his unit is brutally exterminated. In both pictures it turns out the bad guy is within the agency itself. In both pictures, the resolution includes our hero leaking the agency’s misdeeds to the world. In Condor, Robert Redford spreads the word through the New York Times, which was a newspaper in those days. In Safe House, Reynolds gives the info to CNN, from which I guess it then leaks out to a news agency and becomes public.
But here is what’s different. Although Three Days of the Condor is a stridently left wing movie, its hero is a patriot. The stateless assassin on his trail tells him to abandon America and work only for pay: “It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There’s only yourself.” But Redford replies mildly, “I was born in the United States. I miss it when I’m away too long.”
“A pity,” says the assassin.
“I don’t think so,” says Redford.
As love of country goes, it’s not much, but for sophisticates like the LA-New York set, it’s downright George M. Cohan.
Denzel, on the other hand, plays a traitorous dirtbag, sympathetic as the script and the performance try to make him. Alienated by the misdeeds of Washington DC (and who isn’t — though why these left-wingers always pick on the left wing CIA is beyond me!), he is selling information to the worst possible actors — Iran, China, anyone who’ll pay him. When he comes into possession of a list of western espionage crimes compiled by the Israelis for blackmail purposes (because, as every left-winger knows, the Jews secretly run everything), the CIA tries to stop him at all costs. When he accuses Reynolds of wrapping himself in the flag, Reynolds has no response whatsoever. One Condor-like line would have changed everything here: “It’s a good flag,” for instance. Though Washington ultimately urges Reynolds, “Be better than me,” there’s no sense that that better might include loyalty to one’s freer-than-average country.
No. This is Condor for the Julian Assange generation. There’s no loyalty to anything but the hero’s own sense of virtue and nobility. Whereas Redford exposes the CIA because he’s forced to — it’s his only chance to save his own life — Reynolds actually puts his life in danger to expose the agency. He would have been safer working through channels to right any wrongs that had been done, but that would imply trust in the American system, and we wouldn’t want that. There’s not even any thought that the CIA may have overstepped its bounds for good and noble purposes, or to keep the world safe. Nah. That couldn’t happen.
This is leftist American entertainment with an eye on the international market — a market that would gladly root for us if we’d only let it (witness the overseas success of the patriotic Avengers), but which is instead fed a steady diet of self-hatred and preening cosmopolitanism.
I wonder: in the Post-American imagination of the left, what do they think will replace western nation-states with their libertarian traditions and constitutions? The UN? With its leadership of scoundrels, murderers and unelected high rollers? An inherently virtuous international community singing Kumbaya? A John Lennon utopia? Or better yet a Michael Bloomberg utopia? Imagine there’s no soda! It’s easy if you try!
They don’t know. They just know we’re bad. Which raises another question. How can you tell stories about heroes, if you don’t really know what they’re fighting for?