The CIA thriller The Recruit is no classic—it twists itself into knots to convince you that it’s not going to give you the ending that it gives you. But it’s clever, adult and fun, and altogether better than you’ve heard.
Watching its twisty-turny plot unfold, and hearing Al Pacino rattle off one wise yet cryptic statement after another, I found myself thinking not just about the movie, but the corporate reasoning that helped create it. There was a reason why Colin Farrell gets to play the title character, but supporting player Pacino gets top billing; there’s a reason why Pacino’s character, a CIA recruiter and trainer, seems all powerful in the first half of the picture but much less so in the second half. Most of all, there’s a cynical, adult logic in the picture’s construction, a logic that tells us much more about Hollywood than about the CIA.
The ads for The Recruit make it look like what New York Times critic A.O. Scott memorably called "the Al Pacino crazy mentor picture." But I don’t think Scott quite went far enough, because the building blocks of The Recruit aren’t particular to recent films that star Al Pacino. It is, quite simply, a Mentor Movie, a genre unto itself, perfected in such films as Devil’s Advocate (Pacino as mentor to Keanu Reeves), The Devil’s Own (Harrison Ford opposite Brad Pitt) and Spy Game (Robert Redford with Pitt). The genre’s commercial imperative is to perpetuate Hollywood’s roster of bankable talent—to produce a new graduating class of handsome pilots for what are, in the end, merely updated versions of the same old planes.
To that end, Mentor Movies give juicy Second Lead roles to super-famous older actors who are now denied protagonist parts by Hollywood’s desire to flatter teenagers and college kids—a sought-after demographic group that allegedly is too stupid, immature and self-centered to appreciate any film that’s not about someone its own age. Demographically speaking, the Mentor Movie tries to spread the audience’s spending in two demographic directions, offering young people a taste of an actor older folks like, and vice versa. According to Hollywood logic, if a Mentor Movie is involving and the performances competent, young viewers will say, "I’ve loved that Pacino guy ever since I saw Scarface on cable as a kid. Maybe I’ll head to Blockbuster after this and rent a Pacino movie I haven’t seen, like Author! Author!" And older viewers will say, "Gosh, that Colin Farrell kid sure is talented and/or handsome. I’ll go see the next thing he’s in, and maybe I’ll rent Tigerland, too."
In a sense, Mentor Movies enact their stories on a couple of levels simultaneously. The first occurs within the film, with the Mentor character tutoring the hero on how to be a CIA man, or whatever. The second level occurs within the mind of the audience, and within the very fabric of the movie industry; to a degree, all Mentor Movies are about the passing of Hollywood’s box office torch, with former marquee names teaching young whippersnappers how to be movie stars.
Take Donnie Brasco, when Pacino’s broken-down, Willy Loman-esque mobster shows new recruit Johnny Depp how to walk and talk like a movie gangster. Ditto Robert Redford with Brad Pitt in Spy Game. Guys like Pacino, Redford and even Robert De Niro play mostly character parts these days—characters who, while colorful and mesmerizing, are not the sole focus of the film’s narrative. And their participation in the picture helps secure financing, which is why I liken Mentor Actors to uncredited producers. Without Redford or Pitt, Spy Game would have been a much smaller movie; ditto Donnie Brasco without either Pacino or Depp. A movie that looks in two demographic directions strikes studios and private funding sources as a more sensible investment.
Morality is also a subject of Mentor Movies—specifically the inevitability of moral compromise. This is another way in which all Mentor Movies are really about the entertainment industry: the Mentors teach their gifted students that talent and gumption will only get you so far, and that if you want to rise to the very top, you have to do things that are somewhat distasteful to you now. Among those distasteful choices is the old movie star’s decision to turn his idiosyncratic qualities into saleable shtick. The first 70s actor to really do this in a big way was De Niro, who now specializes in comic roles that gently tweak and exploit his "Robert De Niro™" persona.
Now everybody’s doing the Mentor thing—including Pacino, who in the past few years has become to Mentor Movies what John Wayne was to westerns: Hollywood’s go-to guy. Pacino’s shtick isn’t just a bankable package of tics; it also seems to be Pacino’s way of entertaining audiences while letting attentive viewers know which projects he secretly suspects are beneath his talent. Through hamminess, Pacino acknowledges the moral compromise required to accept a Mentor role in a Hollywood movie.
Throughout The Recruit, Farrell’s character, James Clayton—a computer hacker turned bartender who "majored in linear cryptography" in college—is repeatedly warned by Pacino’s Mentor character, Burke, that the CIA defends democracy with antidemocratic viciousness, and that one cannot be an effective undercover operative unless one is willing to let go of morality, emotion or empathy. It’s the same point made by Redford’s elder spook in Spy Game, one that could just as easily apply to actors as spooks. But director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out) and the film’s screenwriters (whose ranks include Robert Towne) are more aware of the parallels than were the makers of Spy Game, and are arguably more aware than the makers of any mentor movie thus far.
The Recruit concerns playacting in a world where the failure to convince one’s audience can result not in bad reviews, but in capture, torture and death. Like the undercover cop genre, the spook-in-training genre is really about acting; when Burke gets young Clayton out to the CIA’s spook school in rural Virginia, it’s really acting school. The young recruits take classes on the history of their trade; they learn how to fight convincingly and how to defeat lie detectors; they practice planting surveillance devices in a phony house (i.e., a mockup, a set) while other classmates watch via closed-circuit tv monitors (actors critiquing the performances of other actors in a classroom setting); they play head games on their classmates, games in which the goal is to convince another recruit (i.e., another actor) that fiction is reality, or that reality is fiction. In The Recruit’s spook school, there is no greater triumph than making a fellow actor believe your lies.
The film’s drama, such as it is, lies not in the question of whether Clayton will learn the spy trade, outsmart his classmates and his Mentor and discover what happened to his late father, who disappeared mysteriously in 1990; the real drama revolves around whether Clayton will purposefully jettison his own moral code (indeed, his basic sense of reality) in order to become the perfect undercover field operative, the perfect spy. To put it in terms of acting and the entertainment industry, The Recruit asks (half-seriously) if it is possible to become a movie star (a top field operative) without abandoning morality entirely. Burke repeatedly indicates that it’s not possible, and he’s certainly been around long enough to know.
The script repeatedly references the works of Kurt Vonnegut (I’m betting this is the handwork of Towne, a shaggy intellectual who has to do something to amuse himself), including Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. But the film’s underlying themes can be traced to a Vonnegut work that’s not explicitly quoted, Mother Night: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."