What It Seems
If CIA agents are really so hung up on father issues and rocky romances as they always seem to be in the movies, the so-called free world is in dire straits indeed. (On tv’s Alias, it’s another story, as Syd seems perfectly capable of handling her emotional baggage and saving the planet, week in and week out.) It appears that the most popular way to put the CIA on a big screen for two-hour stretches is to saddle its reps with all kinds of unworked out pain, need, and anger.
Roger Donaldson’s The Recruit offers up James (Colin Farrell) as the number one troubled young gun. The first scene introduces his tendency toward flamboyant self-destruction: a top-of-his-class grad student at MIT, he oversleeps on the morning of a crucial demonstration. When his teammates call in a panic, he jumps on his bicycle and races down to the job fair, where he reveals his brilliant invention: Spartacus (named, say the students, for the slave revolt), a wireless webcast program that wins over the initially dubious Dell rep.
In the background of this elaborate whiz-kid show skulks Walter (Al Pacino). The camera picks him out and sets up an exchange of glances between him and James, so you know he’s significant. (Depressingly, there’s little in this “thriller” left to chance or nuance.) Walter shows up again later that night, at the bar where James works in order to pay tuition or rent or, most likely, just look cool. Walter knows his mark, insisting that “The most important thing you need to know is that you don’t know shit,” then listing all James’ achievements (he’s a grand student, scores “off the charts” on “psych tests,” etc.). At this point, Walter drops the major bait: he knows something about James’ father, reportedly killed in a plane crash while employed by Shell Oil in Peru. Maybe dad was a spook. Maybe not. Walter won’t say. James is interested: “Did you know my dad?” Again, Walter won’t say.
All this reticence hooks James, who agrees to take the aptitude test despite the fact that Walter warns him he has no “answers” to give, “only secrets.” He tells James that he can’t trust anyone or anything, not even his five senses. The only thing you can trust is “that little voice inside you.” So that’s why the CIA and the FBI don’t talk to one another—they all answer only to their “little voices.” James at first looks hurt when Walter tells him that, now that the courting is over, he won’t be his friend or his father. But in fact, Walter is all too happy to play daddy, laying down rules, demanding loyalty, even setting James up with a rocky romantic interest, Layla (Bridget Moynahan, last seen surviving nuclear holocaust in The Sum of All Fears).
For much of the film’s running time, James, Layla, and a third recruit named Zack (Gabriel Macht) learn how to be spies at a training facility called “the Farm” (there are many recruits in sight, but at the camp, the camera only singles out these three white kids). That is, they learn to disguise, kill, cheat, lie, and deceive one another, abuse one another’s trust, all in the name of patriotic duty. Or, as Daddy Walter puts it, they’re all in this not for fame and fortune (their successes will never be known, after all), but because they believe in “good and evil, right and wrong,” and most of all, that their “cause is just” and their “enemies are everywhere.” No wonder kids with family trauma are such popular recruits.
These particular trainees are apparently much impressed by the news that “everything is a test” and “nothing is what it seems,” because they repeat both phrases like mantras. They also work with those large-type movie-computers (where every webpage has a huge logo and every password is typed out slowly, to ensure that every viewer catches every dull point), emote flagrantly, drive like crazy people, and miss obvious cues concerning plot turns, all of which suggests they’re not exactly cut out for the spy biz, where acumen and precision are reputedly valued.
The Recruit‘s emphasis on melodrama over any sort of intriguing secret agent plot is hardly unusual, but it is disappointing. The developing relationship between Layla and James serves as obvious metaphor for the basic questions of confidence and self-reliance that supposedly dog spies as a matter of course. But these questions are turned into mushy stuff, like, will the boy trust the girl who looks so obviously untrustworthy? Once the two are pitted against one another at Langley, it’s only a matter of time before they just can’t stand it anymore and have to rip each other’s clothes off, then have to check each other’s computer caches. The cutting between them in different rooms builds very standard “tension.” And you know long before they apparently do, where they’re headed.
The father-son business also looks stale, especially because Pacino has played this role a few times already (Donnie Brasco, Scent of a Woman, Insomnia, Any Given Sunday, and most loudly, The Devil’s Advocate). It also glosses over the broader, more pressing background for any CIA movie at this point in time. As voiced by James early in the film (and repeated later, because The Recruit repeats everything it deems “important”), this is the PR problem that stems from real internal workings problems: the CIA, he asserts on first meeting Walter, is “a bunch of fat old white guys who fell asleep when we needed them most.”
Walter means to disabuse him of this notion, to demonstrate the lingering relevance of the agency, which is to say, his own relevance. This potentially compelling aspect—the film’s investigation of how creaky institutions and outdated worldviews seek to maintain dominance—is lost in a shuffle of mundane (and foreseeable) plot twists. For all its protests to the contrary, in this movie, everything is exactly what it seems.