MAUREEN DOWD: My so-called CIA life
Carrie Mathison may be banished from the fictional CIA on “Homeland,” but she was welcomed with open arms at the real one last Monday.
“Our field trip to Langley,” Claire Danes said wryly. “It did feel like we were in junior high school.” (She should know.)
The actress concedes that life entwining with art was a bit “awkward” in this case, given that both their narratives are under wraps. “There was one long table of CIA folk and then us, directly facing each other like we were ready to rumble,” she said, laughing. “They couldn’t tell us anything about themselves, really. And we couldn’t tell them anything about our show, really. So what kind of conversation could we have?”
It got even stranger when Danes’ freshman roommate from Yale, a former operative who is now a lawyer at Langley, joined the group, dressed, as it happened, like Danes’ character.
“Pantsuit,” Danes deadpans. “You can’t go wrong.”
Alex Gansa, the co-creator and show runner of “Homeland,” called the two-hour meeting at Langley with his stars, writers and executives and a flock of CIA officers “a frank and free exchange about the entertainment business and the intelligence business that revealed a lot of parallels.” He added dryly, “We both build sets. We both play roles. And we both brainstorm, about operations on their side and storylines on ours.”
Head Spook John Brennan even ushered his fictional counterpart, Mandy Patinkin, into his office. Patinkin said later that he stared at “the massive leather-bound books” on the conference table, thinking that rather than props, they dealt with “the fate of our world.”
Brennan talked about keeping America’s relentless extremist enemies at bay. (As Patinkin likes to say, when channeling his Inigo Montoya character from “The Princess Bride”: “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”)
The actor gives a gripping portrayal of Saul Berenson, the show’s moral center. (Or, given the themes of duality and duplicity, maybe the mole?) Brennan told the often-distressed father figure to the crazed savant Carrie about his own painful paternal duties meeting with the families of fallen officers.
Why did the gruff Brennan embrace Hollywood? You might think the CIA would be busy with that long-delayed shipment of weapons to the Syrian rebels. But this is not only the most paranoid and insecure agency in town — as bipolar as Danes’ mesmerizing Carrie. It might also be the most image conscious.
The Company still shudders at the memory of times when some in Congress have questioned whether the agency should be shuttered or gutted — a fear reflected in the debut of the third season of “Homeland,” airing on Sept. 29, depicting Senate hearings after a terrorist car bomb explosion at Langley has wiped out the top echelon of CIA officials and ripped apart Carrie and Brody, our favorite deranged, doomed lovers — Romeo and Juliet crossed with Bonnie and Clyde. (“Hurt people hurt people,” as Patinkin likes to say, quoting his wife.)
So the CIA decided to risk any possible opprobrium from New York congressman Peter King, who launched an inquiry, leading to an inspector general investigation, to see if the agency had overshared confidential information with the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.
A glamorous premiere and reception at the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted by Showtime and its innovative president of entertainment, David Nevins, attracted a gaggle of current agency staffers as well as Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, and Michael Morell, the former acting CIA director. Jose Rodriguez, the ex-head of the CIA’s clandestine service who gave the order to destroy the agency’s torture videotapes, was there, schmoozing.
“He chills my blood,” confided Gansa. He says the show has consultants who are “still active intelligence officers and a lot of retired intelligence officers.”
The Emmy-winning Danes revealed that she gets her “plasticine, rubbery face” from her dad. “My dad has no cartilage in his ears,” she said. “I love mushing his face around.”
While Carrie may be “transgressive” and “deeply flawed,” Danes says, “she’s a little bit of a superhero” who screws up but “ends up saving the day.”
The agency prefers PR about sometimes haywire yet dedicated fictional characters to fumbling real ones. Carrie and Saul — who get a lot more congressional oversight in the new season than the CIA gets in real life — actually boost the agency’s brand.
The CIA would rather talk about nefarious programs, like targeted killings, than rehash blunders: missing the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Osama’s 9/11 plot; failing to figure out there were no WMD in Iraq and feeling flummoxed over the Arab spring.
Danes mused about their CIA group hug: “Maybe it’s this strange idea that your achievements are never going to be celebrated publicly while your failures are going to be exposed. There must be some urge to have their victories on positive display even in a fictional context.”