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‘Mile 22’ Feeds Our CIA Obsession

August 17th, 2018‘Mile 22’ Feeds Our CIA Obsession

Mile 22 looks like one of the summer’s most intense films. It’s an action thriller centered around an elite CIA task force transporting a high-priority asset to an extraction point. They only have to travel 22 miles, but with multiple forces throwing up roadblocks, that short distance could be a road straight to hell.

Mark Wahlberg stars, with Ronda Rousey as his partner, Iko Uwais as the “asset,” and supporting work from John Malkovich and Lauren Cohen. More important to us right now, Mile 22 expands the cinematic legend of the CIA. We’ve always been fascinated by CIA thrillers, with quick-thinking agents and off-the-books operations. Here’s why:

High Stakes

Mile 22 film still

Part of the appeal is obvious: CIA movies consistently capture our attention because they’re thrilling. For two hours, we can look through a window onto actions that are meant to be secret. Doesn’t matter that we might be watching with hundreds of other people; the power of these movies is that we get to see something we’re not supposed to see. That thrill goes way beyond the immediate power of any action set piece.

With strong plots rife with politics and espionage, CIA thrillers connect directly to our assumptions and fears about how the world really works. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to guess there’s a more going on behind the scenes than we can see – and history has shown that the CIA is involved in operations good (the hunt for Bin Laden) and bad (the Iran-Contra scandal).

A great CIA thriller, like Zero Dark Thirty, has the power to be unnerving and force us to ask big questions with difficult answers. We see how dirty some intelligence work can be, and how difficult and repetitive the backbone of research and intelligence gathering can be. It all adds up to a portrait of work that is so different from most of our experiences that we can’t help but be fascinated. 

Flawed But Determined

Mile 22 film still

It takes a certain sort of person to work for the CIA; even when the work isn’t the sort of thing that makes for a great movie, it’s often classified and secretive. Analysts and operatives have to live slightly different lives than the rest of us. And when those circumstances and job requirements are exaggerated for the sake of a movie, the result is riveting.

When characters are willing to do anything for the greater good, things get interesting. They don’t even have to work for the agency itself. Throw an intriguing, somewhat damaged protagonist with ties to the CIA into a film and we’re hooked. Can you argue with the likes of Liam Neeson, Robert DeNiro, Claire Danes, and Denzel Washington, all of whom have played characters attached to the CIA?

These leading characters, all of whom are a specific blend of tough and damaged, are more engaging than your average cop. “Mission accomplished” isn’t always in their vocabulary because of the fluid and unpredictable nature of their jobs. How often have we seen an agent get to the end of a difficult road only to find that the goalposts have moved, or the conditions for victory have been totally rewritten? These characters sometimes end up in difficult, shadowy jobs because they feel they have nowhere else to go.

As we see in the Mile 22 trailer, Wahlberg’s character doesn’t see a life for himself outside of his job. Known for being challenging and even unstable, his eccentricities ultimately make him a far more compelling protagonist, and perhaps an even more capable CIA agent.

Mile 22 in theatres now.

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