How do you feel about spy thrillers?

For those of us who are fans, the genre’s usual blend of action, intrigue, and cynicism is irresistible. Even if warned that a new movie is overly formulaic and derivative, we may take a chance—just to enjoy the odd thrill, performance, or setting. Safe House, this means you.

But there’s one audience for whom the frisson of tension isn’t always so pleasant. That audience clusters in Langley, Va.; it’s often grumpy; and for years now, says Tricia Jenkins, it’s tried to police the genre for the rest of us.

Those efforts have been both open and shadowy, writes the scholar, author of The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television (University of Texas Press), and an assistant professor of film, television, and digital media at Texas Christian University. Jenkins ran into her own difficulties researching a topic she says has received little scholarship. Often left with a sparse document trail, she turned to figures in both agency and Hollywood circles, whose interview snippets enliven the book.

Throughout, Jenkins takes the CIA to task for claiming that it’s just championing accuracy and education when it objects to its portrayals. While Hollywood’s political tendencies and dramatic needs may distort narratives at times, such controversial themes as assassination, intelligence failure, and betrayals of agents and assets are simply part of CIA history, she writes.

For Jenkins, the CIA’s resistance to negative portrayals goes beyond a moral lapse. She argues that in not cooperating with many who seek its aid, the agency violates the First Amendment since it uses its resources to favor only certain forms of speech. It also, she says, violates statutes that prohibit self-aggrandizement and puffery by government agencies. However, she admits, it has little reason to worry about a lawsuit. It need only look at the Pentagon, the FBI, and other peers that deal in discriminate fashion with producers without repercussions.


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