OK, let’s take a fun little look at Hollywood depictions of surveillance, surveillance detection and general covert operations.
First, understand that I’m a huge movie buff, so I’m not about to pour any scorn on the film industry for what it gets wrong. Movies and TV shows are for fun and so is this article so no need to take things too seriously here. If you do want to get my serious take on the matter, please check out my previous article, Tips & Suggestions For Covert Operators.
Let’s also keep in mind that filmmakers have to maintain various cinematic standards that don’t always allow for accurate depictions of covert operations. This means that despite my criticisms, I fully understand and appreciate why filmmakers depict things the way they do.
When I was in the military, we used to love watching military movies—laughing at the bullshit parts and appreciating the accurate parts. And since I’ve been involved in covert protective operations for over a decade now, why not have the same type of fun with this field as well?
To avoid hitting copyright issues, I’m only going to use images and clips that can be found on the web for free. If you want to watch (or rewatch) the movies and TV shows I’m about to mention, they’re all available for rent or purchase on Amazon Video, Netflix, Youtube and Hulu.
Probably the most common way that movies and TV shows get the idea of covert appearance wrong is by making covert operators look too good. Any time you see James Bond looking spiffy and attractive; any time you see Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt or Jack Bauer look sharp and determined in their black clothing, you’re seeing good examples of how a covert operator should not look.
Another typical Hollywood mistake is to dress its action heroes quite inappropriately when they travel to exotic locales. A good example is Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies, supposedly blending into an Iraqi street.
Another good example is the scene in the beginning of Casino Royale where we’re supposed to believe that James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Carter (Joseph Millson)—the only two quiet, clean-cut, serious looking Caucasians to be seen—somehow go unnoticed in a rowdy crowd of African villagers.
As a dark skinned, born and raised Middle Easterner myself, let me tell you how easy it is for us to detect out of place Caucasians. And let me also inform you that all the baseball caps, “casual-tactical” clothing, sunglasses or “operator beards” don’t make much of a difference.
Making an undercover protagonist look cool or otherwise attractive is exactly the mistake here. To look attractive is, by definition, to attract more attention, which is the opposite of what you want. It just makes it more likely that people will notice you, think about you and remember you if they see you again.
This last point is beautifully illustrated in the beginning of The Bourne Supremacy, where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) detects the out of place Russian agent, Kirill (Karl Urban), who’s out to get him. The scene takes place in Goa, India, a place where the only real way for Caucasians like Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) to blend in is to make themselves look like all the other western tourists that are there. Kirill, on the other hand, displays all the classic mistakes.
Notice how Bourne explains his detection to Marie (who’s character is really only there in order for Bourne to explain things to us, the viewers). He starts by telling her this is the second time he’s seen the same guy in two different places in town (which is a correlation over time and distance), and then explains that “the guy, the car he’s driving, what he’s wearing—It’s just wrong”. It’s interesting to note that Kirill is dressed pretty similarly to Casino Royale’s Carter. So in a fun, hypothetical movie-mashup kind of way, this means that Bourne would have no problem detecting Bond and his fellow MI6 operators. But closer to reality, it just means that Tony Gilroy (the screenplay writer of all the Bourne movies) is just a better writer than the ones who worked on Casino Royale (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis).
Movies and TV shows that get the idea of appearance right usually make their characters look bland, boring and unattractive. A good example of this is the MI6 agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) in the movie adaptation to John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
As a funny comparison, notice how Mark Strong is made to look, again as an MI6 agent, in The Brothers Grimsby. And though the latter is just a silly comedy, many non-comedy movies dress their “secret agents” in just as silly a manner as the Grimsby movie did.
The fantastic FX show The Americans provides dozens of great disguises, especially for their two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), each more nerdy and bland (and sometimes hilariously, yet realistically 80s appropriate) than the other.
The International is another great movie that hits it right when Louis Salinger and Eleanor Whitman (Clive Owen and Naomi Watts) zero in on the covert assassin, known only as “The Consultant” (Brian F. O’Byrne). When they watch CCTV footage of this ordinary looking man going through airport security, Whitman says “He doesn’t look like much”. To which Salinger replies “I think that’s the idea”. And indeed it is.
Lastly, I can’t end this segment without giving a shout-out to one of my all-time favorite Israeli shows Fauda (which you can find on Netflix with English subtitles). It’s no surprise to find an Israeli show getting the idea of covert appearance correctly, especially when Lior Raz, one of the two creators of the show (who also plays the main character, Doron), and Tsahi Halevi (who plays Naor), are former covert operators themselves.
Though I completely understand the cinematic aspect of it, it’s funny how so many movies and shows still stick to the cliché trope of the covert rendezvous on a park bench. Much of the reasoning behind a rendezvous being covert in the first place is that you’re concerned about someone seeing it, figuring out who’s meeting whom; observing, recording or listening in. So what in the world could be the operational benefit of meeting in such an open area, where it’s very easy for someone to surveil you, to find out who you’re meeting with, to film your meeting and even listen in (using some pretty basic technology), all from a safe distance? To make matters even sillier, Hollywood will often have the people meeting on a bench pretend not to be talking to each other. This makes the meeting look even more suspicious, since the people on the bench are clearly moving their lips. If you’re going to sit on a bench together and talk, just be natural about it. Trying to hide what’s clearly going on just makes matters worse.
The park bench trope is so pervasive that even my beloved show The Americans keeps falling for it.
You can also see it in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, when Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) meets Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) on a park bench. The two sit and talk for a while, and then take a long walk in the park together (just in case anyone missed their initial meeting).
Kevin Costner has another (or rather, previous) secret meeting in JFK with the illusive “X” (Donald Sutherland). But here, they reverse the order by first walking in the park, and then ending up on the bench.
In the beginning of Duplicity, the secret meetup between Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) isn’t on a park bench, but it is right in the main concourse of Grand Central Station, which is even worse. But after things don’t go as planned, the two end up conducting their rendezvous in a quiet bar, which is a much better choice.
It’s interesting to see that the Bourne movies (which, as I mentioned, were quite cleverly written) show you why meeting up in open public areas is such a bad idea. The first time you see this is towards the end of The Bourne Identity, when Bourne sets up a meeting with Conklin (Chris Cooper) in the middle of Pont Neuf, a large bridge in the center of Paris. Bourne doesn’t actually show up, of course. He just takes advantage of this terrible location in order to observe Conklin (and the rest of his covert team) from the roof of the Samaritaine building, which you can see in the background in the photo below (directly behind Chris Cooper).
In The Bourne Ultimatum, Bourne, once again, sets up a covert meetup in an open public area, this time with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). The location he gives her is “Tudor City Pl & 42nd”, a site of a small park in Manhattan. But little does Landy, or the rest of the CIA agents who are following her, know that Bourne, once again, never actually intend to meet her at such a vulnerable location. He even pokes fun at Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who was lured out there with his whole CIA surveillance team, when he says “You didn’t actually think I was coming to Tudor City, did you?”
The issue I want to pick on here is that the communication devices that are often used in Hollywood movies are either too obvious or too covert. On the obvious end, one of the more common misconceptions is that what’s known as a “surveillance kit” (the classic Secret Service type set-up where a radio is connected to a ‘pigtail’ earpiece and to a small microphone either in the sleeve or in the collar) isn’t actually covert. Keep in mind that the black suited Secret Service agents you often see using it aren’t actually trying to conceal who they are and what they’re doing. In scenes like the one mentioned above on Pont Neuf, towards the end of The Bourne Identity, Conklin and the other agents who are on the bridge are all busy talking into their collars while their not-so-invisible ‘pigtail’ earpieces are dangling down from their ears. And this is all easily picked up by Jason Bourne, who’s using a monocular to observe the entire area from the roof of the Samaritaine building.
When it comes to communication tools that are too covert, we have the almost invisible, miniature, skin-colored, wireless systems that are used in the newer James Bond and Mission Impossible movies. The problem with a communication device that’s too covert is that the person using it just looks like they’re talking to themselves, which can attract attention. You can hide the device, but you can’t really hide the person who still has to move their lips.
In that Casino Royale scene I mentioned above, Bond and Carter use this kind of device to communicate while they watch their target, who’s busy watching a mongoose-cobra fight. Forget for a moment that the two tall, white and serious looking Brits appear grossly out of place in a crowd of cheering African villagers, Bond angrily tells Carter to stop touching his ear—as if talking to yourself doesn’t look at least as suspicious as scratching your ear.
In the Skyfall scene where Bond and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are in the Macau casino, they seem to be using the same covert device. Bond, once again, has to use his “don’t touch your ear” line, but even after that’s sorted out, the two walk around the entire building, and even manage to execute a ‘brush-pass’ move, while seemingly talking into thin air the entire time (and in a casino, no less).
Another take on communications is the use of a regular cell phone hands-free headset. You can see Jason Bourne do this quite a bit, and it’s actually something I see real covert operators do all the time. Even though it’s a way to seemingly hide in plain sight (without looking too obvious or too covert), I’m not a big fan of the cell phone cord. Yes, it’s just a regular cellphone earpiece, but you don’t really see that many people use these anymore, and it’s an easy giveaway to anyone who knows what to look for.
I like keeping things simple by just using your phone like a normal person. You can find a great example of this in the mobile surveillance scene in the beginning of Duplicity, where Ray Koval’s entire team is all on their cellphones as they detect and then evade the opposition’s surveillance operative (who actually has a Bluetooth device in his ear).
Detecting covert operators
For this last section, let’s keep things positive and only cover some cool stuff that Hollywood got right.
Though Get Shorty wasn’t exactly a spy thriller, the two airport scenes, where Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) and Chili Palmer (John Travolta) detect the undercover federal agents, are pretty nifty. They capture very nicely how, if you pay attention, know what to look for and know where to look for it, you can find the somewhat serious looking men with ‘pigtail’ earpieces and ankle-gun bulges that are subtly but unmistakably paying a bit too much attention to things.
Here’s what happens to Ray Barboni (Dennis Farina), who, unlike Catlett and Palmer, fails to pay enough attention to what’s around him:
Keeping with the fun tempo, at the end of Ocean’s Thirteen, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) asks Danny Ocean (George Clooney) how his team knew to expect Francois Toulour (Vincent Cassel) on the roof of the hotel. Ocean’s reply, that “we were watching Toulour while you had him watching us”, includes a very short flashback cutaway, which beautifully captures the idea behind counter-surveillance.
Another cool scene is the one I already mentioned in the beginning of Duplicity, where Ray Koval’s mobile SD/CS team detects a mobile surveillance operative who’s following him, and then executes a little surveillance evasion trick to allow Koval to break away. The only issue is that just before they execute the move, Koval is asked if he wants it to be a “Box or Leapfrog” move. These, as far as I know, are mobile surveillance strategies, not surveillance evasion ones. But despite that fact, kudos once again to Tony Gilroy (who also wrote and directed Duplicity) for putting actual covert tradecraft terms in his script.
Another interesting surveillance detection scene (which also happens to include the communications and park bench issues I discussed earlier) is the one in Taken, where Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) sets up a meeting with his old French intel friend, Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin). This scene bears many similarities to the Pont Neuf one in The Bourne Identity. Not unlike Jason Bourne, Mills is also too clever to meet at such a disadvantageous location, and uses his rooftop vantage point to detect Jean-Claude’s covert team-members, who are pretending to be joggers in the park. Here too, we see all the French agents wearing the classic “surveillance kits”.
But my favorite part in this scene is Mills’ selection of a surveillance detection vantage point. Not unlike Bourne, he’s also on a rooftop overlooking the meetup location, but quite cleverly, not a roof directly in front of the park, but one that’s behind that first row of rooftops. So when the French intelligence agents reach that first line of rooftops (having triangulated the location of the cellphone Mills left there), we see a great wide-angled shot from Mills’ surveillance detection vantage point, behind the first line of rooftops, covering this surveillance vantage point and looking all the way down to the target bench in the park. Very few movies show you these three concentric locations: the target, the surveillance vantage point, and the surveillance detection vantage point—all in one beautiful shot. Kudos to Michel Abramowicz, the film’s cinematographer/director of photography for this wonderful shot.
My favorite portrayal of surveillance detection has to be the one in the Season 4 premiere of The Americans—the fantastic episode, Glanders.
Here, we see Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) try to meet an asset who might or might not be under FBI surveillance. On two separate occasions when they’re about to make contact, they decide in the last moment not to go ahead with it (to keep walking in the first case, and keep driving in the second). They later find out that in the first occasion, when Philip simply got a bad feeling about things, there was no surveillance, but that in the second occasion, when Elizabeth notices a specific vehicle doing something very subtly out of place, that it was a part of the FBI surveillance team. The beauty of this is that it captures the all too common false positive (type A) mistakes that people make during SD operations, and illustrates how an actual positive detection has to depend on the identification of specific people executing specific actions. Philip and Elizabeth even have a little argument about this exact point.
On top of that, Glanders also includes an almost “Easter Egg” like appearance of yet another character who’s there in the sidelines to conduct surveillance detection. This is Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), who had been trained by Elizabeth in an earlier season. Though he’s barely even mentioned, Hans has a Hitchcock or Stan Lee type cameo appearance every time Elizabeth and Philip attempt to meet their asset (no less than three times during the episode). If you pay close attention, you’ll see Hans make a subtle gesture in the two times the asset is not surveilled by the FBI, and no gesture in the one time he is.
The added brilliance here is that outside of the episode’s plot, from our perspective as viewers at home, we get a beautiful illustration of correlation over time and distance. Kudos to Joe Weisberg (who actually is a former CIA agent) and Joel Fields for writing this excellent episode, and for giving the observant viewer at home a free lesson in surveillance detection.
I hope you had as much fun reading this article as I had writing it. I would love to read your thoughts on it in the comment section below, and feel free to also give your suggestions for good movies to cover in possible future articles.
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