I don’t know what got stuck in Globe & Mail television critic John Doyle’s craw while he was writing his review of Agent of Influence, CTV’s chilling MOW about Cold War spooks and their murderously paranoid world view. He couldn’t find anything wrong with the acting or the production values, nor with the relevance of the story, which is based on the circumstances surrounding the death, in 1964, of then-Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union John Watkins. Watkins was a personal friend of Lester B. Pearson, literate and cosmopolitan, and, not incidentally, gay. The official version of his death is that he died of a heart attack in the middle of a dinner party with friends. The movie version of the story, which is based on Ian Adams’ docu-novel published by Stoddart shortly before it collapsed, has Watkins dying after a weekend long interrogation at the hands of CIA-supervised RCMP spooks trying to force him into a confession intended to implicate—and bring down—Pearson.
It’s one of those stories that makes us uncomfortable, because it suggests that the world we live in isn’t as it appears, and that the democracy we enjoy is, if not quite an illusion, then at least much less secure than we assume. During the Cold War, the spook community overthrew more than a few governments it decided were hostile to the United States, and Pearson’s modest attempts to steer Canada toward an independent foreign policy would, in the lunatic hangover of McCarthyism that characterized the Cold War, been viewed as hostile. My own response to Adam’s book after I read it is telling: I recognized that what he was telling me was probably true, but I didn’t want to process it because it undermined my sense of everyday reality. I suspect John Doyle had a similar reaction. But instead of living with his uneasiness, he went on the attack.
His review chose to go after the script writers, Adams himself with son Riley Adams. He ascribes a string of clichés to the script, calling it clumsy melodrama and complaining that “Everybody talks the way that second-rate thriller authors write, but no living person actually speaks”. Aside from demonstrating that he’s never worked within a police bureaucracy and hasn’t read any of the novels of John LeCarre, that made it clear that Doyle also isn’t familiar with the circumstances behind Adams’ previous docu-novel about the Canadian intelligence community, S: Portrait of a Spy, first published in 1975. That book was based on insider information ordinary citizens—or writers—aren’t supposed to have and for the possession of which Adams was viciously harassed by the RCMP for a decade. I suspect that Agent of Influence has the same basis.
It’s all quite curious, because the movie is thoroughly watchable, and the script is fine. It’s possible that what offended Doyle was the script’s lack of comic or human relief, which Doyle is no doubt aware is a standard feature of the Robert McKee script formula. But that’s precisely the sort of thing Adams pere et fils would deliberately pass on, given the seriousness of the subject matter and Ian Adams’ Kafkaesque past experience with the ruthlessly earnest intelligence community. He doesn’t see anything very funny about the effects its world view has. Or maybe what offended Doyle was the movie’s frank hostility toward the real politik intelligence mentality of the Cold War, along with its fairly transparent warning about the dangers the revival of that mentality is presenting in the wake of 9/11, now dressed up as anti-terrorist zeal. Agent of Influence is remarkably uncompromising about the importance of civil liberties, and about what happens to innocent people when small countries like ours let themselves be bullied by spooks with global plans.
But it is also possible that what upset Doyle was the scent of an authentically Canadian success. Co-produced by Montreal’s highly successful—and strongly independent—Galafilm, the production has been presold in 130 countries. The script, by the way, was good enough to win the “Euro” Best Script prize at the international television festival in Reims, France a few weeks ago.
Whatever occasioned Doyle’s over-the-top, the documentary on the recent attempt to overthrow the government of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez , which aired at the same time as Agent of Influence on CBC Newsworld, demonstrates that what the Adams were writing about isn’t very far removed from our own time. If you get a chance to see either of them, do so. They’re each, in their different ways, the sort of thing television ought to be doing, and rarely does.
765 words April 16, 2003