Mission: Impossible and The Importance of Spy Movies

Our report after doing reconnaissance inside the International Spy Museum on behalf of Mission: Impossible's IMF.

When the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. moves to its new location next year, the emphasis will be slightly different. In its current home of the last 16 years, the museum already does a tremendous service of documenting a century of espionage tradecraft—as well as the boom of spy movies that rose up in the 20th century alongside it, such as the James Bond films and Mission: Impossible. But in a new era, its centerpiece will be their most remarkable artifact: a letter from Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution. It’s also a letter by America’s first intelligence officer.

“He not only ensured Congress funded him to run an intelligence network but he was also essentially the nation’s first spymaster,” says Christopher P. Costa, executive director of the International Spy Museum. “We out-spied the British, and they acknowledge that. This [is] George Washington talking about the tradecraft of developing an intelligence network.” Indeed, the entire operation Washington organized alongside Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, now known as the “Culper Ring,” wasn’t even discovered by posterity until 1929, yet in its time it became a crucial advantage in the War of Independence. The museum’s documentation of this fact—which was a replica on the day we attended the spy museum in November, but is regularly put out for one month a year beginning on Presidents’ Day—will be the focal point upon which all other information is disseminated in the museum’s new base of operations. And for good reason, as it is a reminder as powerful as any movie about the role of public service in espionage.

That fact should seem a given, but increasingly in our nascent 21st century, conspiracy theories and proclamations about a “Deep State” obscure the sacrifice of true patriots, and be it fact to fiction, it is useful to remember the underlying truth. This applies to pure escapism too, like Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The best blockbuster of 2018 and new Blu-ray and digital download release, Fallout‘s vision of Tom Cruise running really fast in an effort to thwart apocalyptic threats to American and international interests has more bite in a world where the post-World War II order seems to be under actual threat by the people it has most benefitted. It is an irony even considered by some of Mission: Impossible’s cameoing stars who were on hand during our reconnaissance at the museum.

“I think it is important, and I think the spy museum is a very important place,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer tells us in an otherwise lighthearted interview. “People don’t appreciate how significant our national security is enhanced by people who risk their lives to go out in dangerous areas and help us get better security. I appreciate very much the role of the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and the national security apparatus. It’s helped us in world wars and over the years. Do they screw up sometimes? Yes, but I think we’re all stronger because of the activities of the national security team.”

Presumably that includes cinematic members too. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Blitzer has a delirious cameo when he is recruited to appear alongside Tom Cruise in a sequence we will not spoil here, but it’s fair to say that it was a highlight for a journalist who grew up adoring James Bond movies and the original Mission: Impossible TV show.

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“I told a lot of people, friends, family, but I didn’t tell them what it was, because I didn’t want to spoil the actual scene,” Blitzer says. Of course his loved ones adored it, but the film also went over spectacularly well with CNN peers. “All my colleagues at CNN who watched it—we had a special screening, here in Washington, and we invited the whole Washington Bureau to come watch the film—and everybody loved it. First of all, they loved the film, it’s a really good film, and then one of their own was in it.”

It’s an amusing anecdote, but a fitting one considering the way spy movies have shaped the popular imagination. For instance, Jonna Mendez, an advisory board member at the Spy Museum and former Chief of Disguise for over 20 years at the CIA, recalls only growing up with John Le Carré novels, and already being in intelligence when the 007 movies became maniacally popular.

“When James Bond came along, it was wildly entertaining,” Mendez says. “It didn’t really start impacting me and my career until I started working in this Office of Technical Service with all the gadgets, with all the pieces of equipment that spies use. Then I really started paying attention to how they were presented on film.” The faux glamour and glitz of spy movies are obviously an amusement to folks in the actual business of cloak and daggers—Mendez recalls particularly laughing at a lock box full of false credentials in The Bourne Identity—yet they usually have a kernel of truth underneath all their romance.

For instance, Christopher Costa, who was until earlier this year a non-political advisor to the White House and their Senior Director for Counterterrorism and Hostage Affairs, recalls the efficacy of disguise and tradecraft. While no rubberized masks were used (or at least mentioned) by the former counterintelligence agent, he not-so-fondly recalls his first disguise involved repeatedly eating an ice cream cone.

And during a tour of the museum, he showed journalists a variety of gadgets that would not be out of place in a Mission: Impossible movie, including every type of concealed camera you could imagine: cameras in lighters, cameras in pens, and camera footage hidden in the sole of shoes like a Mel Brooks punchline. He likewise showcased the more nefarious tools of tradecraft, including lighters, gloves, and even lipstick containers that double as single-round pistols for assassination. The museum likewise holds a version of the notorious umbrella-weapon utilized by a Bulgarian secret service associate (and possibly in connection with the KGB) to fire a ricin pellet into the knee of BBC journalist Georgi Markov on a London street in 1978. He died four excruciating days later.

further reading – Mission: Impossible – Getting the Band Back Together at 25,000 Feet

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These tools of tradecraft reflect a legacy of differing governments using endlessly evolving tools for competing political aims. There is also the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger and various cinematic mementos, but each reflects a reality that Costa knows too well. For all the bells and whistles, there is a personal price as well to this peculiar industry. In Costa’s case it is the fact he did not come fully clean to his wife that he was a spy until he came aboard as executive director at the museum in January 2018. Prior to that moment, she likely suspected why he was the only U.S. Army man in their military neighborhood who would disappear for work at 2 am, or grow his hair long, especially prior to business trips, but it was never made explicit until recently. It’s one of many ways a lifetime of tradecraft can rewire your perspective.

“Once you go through all the training, your life is never the same again,” Costa says, “because when you drive by a store corner, you’re always looking for a signal, always something that you would place there… Driving down the road with my wife for years, I would say, ‘Donna, could you go back the other way, I want to go by that corner again.’ And she would say, ‘Why?’ And it was because I was always looking for a good signal site and she was part of that engagement without her even knowing.” He jokes now that he should’ve let her in on what his full job was sooner. “She’s probably more observant than I am.”

These sort of sacrifices, such as decades of omissions, are celebrated by the museum and they’re celebrated, in a way, by movies like Fallout, which features sequences of Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust lamenting the hoops they have to jump through to have a normal life—or Cruise’s Hunt finally realizing he never should worry about that when seeing his own ex-wife (Michelle Monaghan) living in a different world altogether. One that is only made possible because of Hunt’s little-celebrated choices.

Like Washington, the man more than the capital, it is good to know the value of those decisions.

further reading – Mission: Impossible Composer on Reinventing a Classic Theme

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.