TV Review: ‘Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs’

With:
Narrator: Mandy Patinkin. With: George H. W. Bush, Stansfield Turner, William Webster, Robert Gates, James Woolsey, John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, John Brennan

Essentially constructed as a documentary companion to “Homeland,” “Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs” is exceedingly timely but less compelling than it should be. Produced by CBS News for its sister network, the special boasts extraordinary access to heads of the agency and key subordinates, but feels overproduced and slightly unfocused, only sporadically zeroing in on its central premise: “A battle for the soul of the CIA,” as narrator Mandy Patinkin intones, where the rules of engagement remain unclear. Still well worth watching, it’s at least a step toward the ethical conversation that, as these chiefs note, America needs to have.

Written by Chris Whipple and directed by brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet (whose credits include CBS’ memorable “9/11”), the Thanksgiving-weekend telecast secured interviews with all 12 surviving CIA directors, including the current occupant of that seat, John Brennan. Not surprisingly, the officials, cutting across presidential administrations, harbor sharply divided views about the question that has lingered since the Sept. 11 attacks – namely, how to balance constitutional protections against the desire for security against an amorphous threat.

Through the interviews, certain memes recur almost comically, such as a montage of multiple subjects saying in regard to terrorism, “You can’t kill your way out of this.” Ultimately, the questions boil down to determining the CIA’s proper role in a world where terrorism remains a perpetual concern, from the propriety and efficacy of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” to use the more benign-sounding term) to the morality of drone strikes that can kill from afar.

As it stands, there’s broad agreement that the intelligence-gathering agency has been turned into a paramilitary force. As former director George Tenet notes, what the CIA should be empowered to do “deserved a thoughtful assessment,” but has too often been clouded by politics – a challenge that’s evident even within these two hours.

Beyond torture, officials re-litigate whether the Sept. 11 attacks represented an intelligence failure, as opposed to a lapse on the part of policymakers who dragged their feet in responding to the flashing warning signs. “We knew this was coming,” insists Cofer Black, a former head of counterterrorism who worked for the agency at the time, and says his pre-Sept. 11 calls to put the nation on a “war footing” were ignored.

Although the CIA directors represent the promotional hook, some of their subordinates provide the documentary’s most colorful moments. That includes not just Black but also Jose Rodriguez, who oversaw the CIA’s clandestine service, admits to destroying interrogation tapes, and calls the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” “total bull—t.”

With all that meaty content, most of the production’s problems are stylistic, including too many B-roll shots of the various CIA directors walking purposefully or staring pensively into the distance. While that might sound like a quibble, such flourishes represent the kind of unnecessary, cheesy devices that detract from the seriousness of this discussion of the CIA’s “tough decisions,” as Leon Panetta puts it, in providing the sought-after collective security blanket that doesn’t endanger personal freedom.

“I wish the world were simple,” Brennan says near the outset. Of course, it’s not, even if coverage of these issues often feels calibrated to those weaned on James Bond and Jack Bauer. And while “Spymasters” offers a sobering sense of unanimity on a few points, it’s mostly a demonstration of the fractious polarization that continues to surround this debate, complicating the search for a clear path forward. In that respect, “CIA in the Crosshairs” is a laudatory effort, even if, as filmmaking, it doesn’t consistently hit its target.

TV Review: 'Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs'

(Documentary; Showtime, Sat. Nov. 28, 9 p.m.)

Production: Produced by CBS News and Showtime.  

Crew: Executive producers, Jules Naudet, Gedeon Naudet, Chris Whipple, Susan Zirinsky, David Hume Kennerly; directors, Jules Naudet, Gedeon Naudet; writer, Whipple. 120 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Mandy Patinkin. With: George H. W. Bush, Stansfield Turner, William Webster, Robert Gates, James Woolsey, John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, John Brennan

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