Published March 23, 2019
Since Trump’s election there has been an almost unprecedented amount of support shown to America’s ‘intelligence community,’ to the CIA, and the FBI, by the so-called anti-Trump ‘Resistance’. “Is Trump Trying to Bully America’s Intelligence Agencies?” one New Yorker columnist mused. “Trump’s Moves Against the Intelligence Agency Community are Hurting U.S. National Security,” another headline quips. “Trump can’t bully his intelligence agencies into submission,” CNN opines. The Trump election has certainly proven to be a major windfall for wannabe ‘security experts’ and former spooks like John Schindler. Unexpectedly the CIA has become a darling of the larger anti-Trump movement, a move any historical observer of the liberal left might be surprised to see given the long-term suspicion the agency has been held in by journalists like Seymour Hersh or filmmakers like Oliver Stone.
There was, of course, good reason to distrust the intelligence community given its legacy of bad behavior. Not so long ago there were many on the left who had no trouble conceiving of the CIA as an international criminal organization, one that actively engages in and profits from the narcotics industry in order to build up secret slush funds of untraceable black money that is then funneled to insurgent movements in far-flung third world countries. The democratically elected governments of nations like Iran and Guatemala were overthrown by our own intelligence community, leading to decades of regional instability and geopolitical blowback down to the present day. This is all business as usual, and as long as the FBI and CIA continue to foster Anti-Trump elements who hold up their end of the bargain by obstructing the president, liberal democrats are all too willing to turn a blind eye to the soft-imperialism of the agencies and their long record of civil liberty violations.
This change may, on the surface, seem sudden, but its one that’s been percolating for some time. Which brings us to Netflix’s latest original offering, Triple Frontier, starring Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaacs. So far commentary on the film has primarily been focused on its quality as a Netflix production, and what that means in the continuing battle between online streaming services and Hollywood, but the film most interestingly serves as the latest addition in a now impressive canon of Navy Seal related propaganda. You know the type. It’s the kind of movie where Chris Pratt, or Mark Wahlberg, or Bradely Cooper sports a big beard and a shemagh scarf and runs around doing tactical larping for a couple of hours. Triple Frontier joins offerings like American Sniper, Lone Survivor, Thirteen Hours and Act of Valor in celebrating the elite Navy Seals and their heroic sense of honor.
The plot concerns Oscar Isaacs, a former navy seal working as a mercenary for some South American nation in their attempts to hunt down a faceless, undeveloped narcotics kingpin hiding out in the jungle somewhere. He’s paired off quickly with a gratuitous romantic subplot, where it turns out he’s banging his hot latina informant on the side. After a good dicking she’s ready to spill the beans and to lead Isaacs to the remote headquarters of her boss, the head hancho kingpin himself, and not only that, but to his vast sums of drug money as well. Sensing an opportunity for profit, Isaacs heads back to America to recruit his former SEAL compatriots for a daring raid into the jungle to assassinate the kingpin and to steal $100 Million for themselves. The ex-SEALs are a bland and boring bunch, who’re never developed as characters in and of themselves, excepting only Ben Affleck, who plays a desperate, paunchy ex-SEAL reduced to selling condos in order to make alimony payments. At first, it’s Affleck’s character who’s most reluctant to join the operation, but he’s slowly won over out of a protective sense of obligation towards his fellow soldiers.
The raid itself poses little challenge for the team, they go in, tactical style, clearing rooms. The clock is ticking. Where’s the money? They spot a paint can. Could it be? They crack open the walls and find hundreds of millions of dollars sealed away within the drywall. It’s here that things begin to go wrong, as Affleck can’t let the money go, and begs the others to take as much as possible with them, more than they can even carry. Things go increasingly south from there. Their helicopter getaway is over weight with the extra bags of money and crashes in the Andes. The team is forced to resort to carrying the bags on a herd of donkeys. Etc. Etc.
In the end, the crew decides that honor is more important than money. That the killing must stop. They ditch the treasure and escape in a torpid car chase sequence to the coast. Affleck doesn’t make it, and the team decide to the little money they were able to get away with to his family. As an action thriller the entire film is turgid and unremarkable. It does however fit neatly into the strange archetype of Navy Seal-centric movies that sport ostensibly ‘realistic’ tactical action scenes. I was inspired to take a look back at a few other entries into this genre, back to the progenitor of the trend: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Since the night that Obama announced the assassination of bin Ladin, when crowds gathered around the White House to unironically chant lines from Team America, the Navy SEALs have enjoyed a public relations renaissance. Here were the real heroes. After years in Iraq and Afghanistan the regular soldiers have melted away, going from heroes to cogs in a massive military administrative complex. The SEALs emerged as the pure heart of American valor. If the occupations couldn’t be salvaged in the imaginations of average American patriots, it was left to the SEALs to carry the load and rescue our collective sense of honor with their secret heroism and fraternal loyalty.
The real success of Zero Dark Thirty was that it presented a workable template that could reconcile the sensibilities of both Democrats and Republicans. A Master-Blaster type situation, where the CIA was the brain, and the SEALs were the body and heart. Besides some concerns over the role of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, the movie still managed to impress left-leaning critics with its realism. At the same time, the whole story served an obvious propaganda function for Obama’s reelection campaign. American Sniper, on the other hand, earned harsh criticism from many liberal outlets. The CIA, interestingly, was almost completely absent from that film. Here it was one SEAL supporting the entire weight of American Military operations in Iraq on his own shoulders. It was up to him to save his fellow soldiers. Chris Kyle received widespread denouncements from the media for his attitudes towards the Iraqi population. For his alcoholism. For his misrepresentations and exaggerations and fabrications. Without the mind, without the CIA directing the show, all his heroism was empty, even dangerous. Think-pieces characterized Kyle as a serial killer hiding behind a uniform, who murdered out of a sense of pure enjoyment, without greater purpose or conviction.
The daring SEAL raid which took out bin Ladin in 2011, though, was nothing but a cover story. The role of special operations was never meant to be made public. Pakistan had known bin Ladin’s whereabouts since 2006, and Pakistan essentially held the Al Qaeda leader hostage as a bargaining chip against the terrorist organization, which they otherwise supported throughout the Afgan civil wars. The United States bought bin Ladin, with bribes and military aid. The SEAL raid became, in the days following the news of bin Ladin’s death, a smoke screen to distract from the cynical geopolitics behind the terrorist leader’s rise and fall. The SEALs met with no resistance from those within the compound. They were shown to bin Ladin’s room by a Pakistani intelligence officer and murdered him.
This is the true meaning of Triple Frontier. Near the beginning of the film one of the team members is found by Isaac’s character giving retention speeches to veteran US special forces soldiers. He encourages them to stay in the military, to avoid the allure of private contractor jobs. It’s a movie about the restraint of special forces units like the SEALs, it’s about them turning away from private motives, from money, from mercenary work, from the thrill of killing. The movie has met with lukewarm, but largely positive reception, unlike films like American Sniper. The political message of the film is more palatable to liberal critics. It’s a film that reinforces the CIA-Special Forces duality forwarded by Zero Dark Thirty.
Rather than as propaganda for the Navy SEALs, these special forces movies function as a cover story for the CIA and the State Department. Without this brain, SEAL soldiers are nothing but killers and thieves. At one level the film takes aim at the private security industry. On another, it’s purpose is, through a celebration of the honor of the Navy SEALs, to subtly propagandize for the CIA way of doing things. The republican patriot who loves the troops must be subjugated to the shadowy geopolitical world run by the CIA and the civilian military establishment inside the president’s cabinet. By himself the lone SEAL is a serial killer unworthy of public adulation.