The Gold Standard: How the movies -- past and present -- changed our lives

As a historian of Southeast Asia and what he calls the “covert netherworld,” McCoy makes ample use of documentary films in his classes at U. of Wisconsin-Madison. One film he shows students is Errol Morris’ recent “The Fog of War,” which he calls “a brilliant teaching tool.”

In the 2003 doc, says McCoy, “Robert McNamara, though purporting to bare his soul and confess all, is dissimulating by holding up his mentor and former WWII commander, Gen. Curtis LeMay, as a symbol of unrestrained, inhumane bombing — indeed, as an antithesis who, by implication, exculpates McNamara from the taint of such evil.”

But like all good films, it contains “the germ of its own critique,” says McCoy. “If we turn back to the scenes of McNamara working with LeMay on the mass bombing of Japan’s cities at the end of WWII, we realize that McNamara studied at the feet of the master and applied all these lessons learned when he later bombed North Vietnam.”

The author of “The Politics of Heroin” and the recently published “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror,” McCoy reports that he has never found an espionage film that approached the stunning quality of “The Third Man.” Until recently.

“For some 40 years, it has been a frustrating search until I went to see ‘Syriana,’” he says. “Apart from a similar tone of moral ambiguity that made ‘The Third Man’ so brilliantly evocative of the Cold War, ‘Syriana’ adds so deft a contemporary geopolitical dimension in its layered plotting that I can only applaud its brilliance.”

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