Recent editions of Production Weekly – a Hollywood publication that charts in-production film and TV projects – have revealed a tantalising detail about ‘Mission: Impossible 8’, which is currently filming. The working title for the latest entry in the Tom Cruise franchise is ‘Scorpio’, a curious choice given that the original ‘Scorpio’, from 1973, was the first movie to be allowed access to film at the CIA’s Langley headquarters.
‘Scorpio’ is a dark, violent thriller starring Burt Lancaster as Cross, a retiring CIA spy and assassin who is training Alain Delon’s character, hitman Jean Laurier a.k.a. ‘Scorpio’, to replace him. Laurier is tasked by his CIA paymasters with assassinating Cross to cover up what he knows about some of the Agency’s darkest secrets.
In the film, Cross and Laurier’s boss McLeod, played by John Colicos, is shown in an extended sequence that was shot at Langley. Colicos drives through the security checkpoint, up to the old headquarters building, walks through the entrance doors and over the CIA seal on the floor of the lobby.
This was the first time that Hollywood film-makers were allowed access to Langley, and the same basic sequence has subsequently appeared in ‘Patriot Games’ in 1992, ‘Top Chef’ in 2010, ‘Argo’ in 2012, the FBI-produced ‘Game of Pawns’ in 2015, Amazon’s ‘Jack Ryan’ in 2018 and the reality show ‘Pawn Stars’ in 2019. Other CIA-supported productions including the Al Pacino psychological thriller ‘The Recruit’, as well as the TV series ‘Shooter’ and ‘Designated Survivor’, reproduced a CIA lobby set, complete with the Agency’s seal built into the floor.
This rare hallmark of authenticity lends production value to these films and TV shows, granting them a lustre denied to others. For example, Michael Bay’s request to film the memorial wall in the lobby, which has stars commemorating CIA employees who have died while on missions, for his Benghazi movie ‘13 Hours’ was rejected.
As such, 1973’s ‘Scorpio’ broke new cinematic ground and was a key moment in the development of the CIA-Hollywood relationship, a relationship that endures to this day. But why did the CIA open their doors to such a moody and malevolent portrait of themselves? It wasn’t just Langley – ‘Scorpio’ director Michael Winner’s autobiography records how they shot scenes set in Cross’ house in then-CIA director Richard Helms’ home in Washington, DC.
Documents about ‘Scorpio’ in the CIA’s CREST database include internal memos as well as copies of media coverage about the film’s production and release, showing how this was a major project for the Agency.
The initial documents on ‘Scorpio’ were discovered by academic Simon Willmetts while researching his book ‘In Secrecy’s Shadow: The OSS and CIA in Hollywood Cinema 1941-1979’. At that time most of the CREST database wasn’t available online, but Willmetts managed to locate several documents that showed the filmmakers had approached the CIA using the film’s original title, the much more benign-sounding ‘Danger Field’.
Willmetts hypothesised that the CIA had blundered, and allowed access to a film that depicted the evil side of the Agency without realising what they had done. He noted that a few years earlier they had rejected a similar request from Alfred Hitchcock and the producers of ‘Topaz’ – a much more CIA-friendly film based in part on the real-life account of French CIA double agent Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli.
In ‘In Secrecy’s Shadow’, Willmetts characterised the CIA’s relationship with ‘Scorpio’ as a “total disaster,” adding, “Apparently nobody had bothered to read the script as they might have realised the filmmakers’ intentions to portray the CIA as sinister and amoral.”
However, other documents have become available since his book’s release that show that the CIA were well aware of the film’s true, and darker, title, though they mistakenly thought it was ‘Scorpion’ for a while.
Likewise, according to Winner’s autobiography the vice president of United Artists Arnold Picker insisted that he share the script with the CIA prior to shooting. Winner noted, “He worked on a number of committees in Washington. He was obviously nervous that having a movie showing the CIA assassinating people would compromise his position in Washington.”
Indeed, Winner’s account of the filming at Langley includes a bizarre detail – a “nice CIA lady” with a box full of badges with scorpions on them, who told him “This will show we’ve got a sense of humour, Mr Winner!” She then handed out a hundred of the badges to the crew.
Thus, the CIA definitely knew that the film portrayed them in what most people would consider a negative light – a rogue agency trying to kill one of their own due to the threat of exposure, and the suspicion that he was a traitor. So why did they allow the filming to go ahead?
Winner himself couldn’t understand why they had been granted access, and asked one of the CIA officers they were working with, who replied, “I understand Richard Helms wanted to make the CIA more accessible.” In his book Winner commented, “I never understood this remark.”
Similarly, when the chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board wrote to the CIA to ask several questions about the filming of ‘Scorpio’ at Langley, one of the queries was, “What did CIA hope to get out of its cooperation – since the motion picture has such an anti-CIA focus?”
The CIA’s response to these questions was exceptionally vague, in particular regarding the question of what they were hoping to achieve by collaborating on such a film. They claimed that “the correspondence [about the filming] never mentions ‘Scorpio’” and that the production manager’s letter requesting access only detailed how, “The story deals with their (CIA agents) work in the field and their relationship with their immediate superior, who, it is never suggested is anything but an executive in the Agency.”
Why was the CIA playing dumb? Angus Thuermer, an assistant to Helms and the CIA’s top public affairs official, had read the script, knew of the title change and of the film’s tone and content. Clearly, there was more to their decision to support ‘Scorpio’ than they were letting on to the president’s advisory board.
One possibility is offered by several interviews Winner gave during filming, all of which were picked up by the CIA’s open source media monitoring. After word of the Langley filming leaked, the London Express took up the story and Winner told them, “We only show the CIA killing nasty agents,” adding, “Young people in America think the CIA should not exist, but that is naive.” He went on to describe CIA officers as, “Terribly charming and cheerful and gentlemanly at all times.”
Another interview, which was also picked up by the CIA’s media monitoring who were keeping a close eye out for any mentions of ‘Scorpio’, got to the crux of the issue, asking Winner whether the movie was pro-CIA or anti-CIA. Winner responded, “If you admire the CIA, I suppose you would think that it is an anti-CIA film. If you hate it, you would say it is pro-CIA. I think the film will be a fairly accurate portrait.” He added, “The agents themselves have been helpful, and immensely cheerful.”
So, did the CIA – like Winner – see ‘Scorpio’ as an accurate portrayal, and one that ultimately helped to normalise assassinations and black operations? If, as Winner suggested, it is naive to think that the CIA should not exist, then is the message of ‘Scorpio’ that they are a necessary evil?
Certainly, the Mission: Impossible movies are of a different bent, as the Impossible Mission Force – a proxy or contractor for the CIA – rarely kill anyone, never torture or drug people to get information and mostly focus on high-end heist operations to steal secrets and plant bugs. And on extensive shots of Tom Cruise running.
The first movie in the series was, like ‘Scorpio’, granted permission to shoot at Langley. A helicopter aerial shot of the whole campus set up the famous sequence where Cruise and the gang break into CIA headquarters to steal a list of non-official cover operatives. The Agency, who were in the midst of setting up their new entertainment liaison office when the ‘Mission: Impossible’ filmmakers came calling, were delighted with the result. Their new Hollywood liaison Chase Brandon appeared on a DVD bonus feature, praising the movie and its TV predecessors.
Other films in the franchise were also supported by the CIA, including ‘Mission: Impossible III ‘ where Cruise met with CIA officials to discuss ways to portray the Agency, “in as
positive a light as possible.”
The fifth movie – ‘Rogue Nation’ – features the CIA logo and seal prominently, though their request to film at Langley was turned down because, according to director Christopher McQuarrie, “You’re not allowed to film the CIA any more.” Evidently, any such restriction has since been lifted, allowing the likes of John Krasinski and Rick from ‘Pawn Stars’ to visit the CIA and make TV there in recent years.
Whether or not this means that the eighth Mission: Impossible film is being supported by the CIA or not, we will have to wait and see. Given the franchise’s history of positive depictions and close cooperation with the Agency, and the highly unusual choice of working title, it would come as no surprise.