The FBI Thinks It Can Pass Off Downtown D.C. as Shanghai

The bureau turned to a Northern Virginia production company to make a film warning American students of becoming spies while studying abroad — and made us cringe in the process.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
April 14, 2014, 11:05 a.m.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4884) }}If you’re a movie dir­ect­or, low on cash, in need of a night­life shot in Shang­hai, but can’t fly to China, there is a solu­tion: Just film in D.C.’s Chin­atown.

That’s the ap­proach the FBI took in a new 28-minute film it re­leased Monday, warn­ing Amer­ic­an stu­dents of the dangers of com­mit­ting es­pi­on­age on be­half of for­eign gov­ern­ments.

Called Game of Pawns, the film fol­lows Glenn Shriver, who is cur­rently serving a four-year pris­on sen­tence for es­pi­on­age. While in China as a stu­dent and des­per­ate for cash, he was ap­proached by Chinese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who offered him thou­sands of dol­lars to ap­ply to the CIA and provide in­tel­li­gence. He took the cash, and was ar­res­ted be­fore fly­ing back to Shang­hai.

The film is packed with clichéd Hol­ly­wood lines like, “He’s cooked,” and, “Why did I do it? I don’t know. I guess it was just hard to turn off the tap.” But what’s any film about coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence without show­ing shady people (in this film called “Mr. Tang” and “Mr. Wu”) hand­ing over en­vel­opes full of cash?

But one of the biggest faux pas in the film isn’t the writ­ing or act­ing. It’s where the film was shot. Al­though it was sup­posed to take place in Shang­hai, sev­er­al night­life shots were ac­tu­ally just the Chin­atown neigh­bor­hood in Wash­ing­ton.

(Google Maps)And when they didn’t have something vaguely look­ing Chinese to show on the screen, they turned to the green screen to show the sky­line of Shang­hai.

And to cap off all of these er­rors, the film be­comes even more ab­surd by show­ing what ap­pears to be the world’s friend­less, least-over­worked U.S. Cus­toms agent in his­tory, play­fully ban­ter­ing with the would-be spy Shriver as he re­turns home to ap­ply to the CIA.

Cus­toms of­fi­cial: “So what were you do­ing abroad?”

Shriver: “I told my friends I was leav­ing the coun­try un­til the Lions had a win­ning sea­son.”

Cus­toms of­fi­cial: “Lucky you made it back.”

A North­ern Vir­gin­ia-based pro­duc­tion com­pany called Rock­et Me­dia helped pro­duce the film. The com­pany has helped pro­duce, dir­ect, and write sev­er­al short films for the FBI in the last sev­er­al years. They were al­lowed to film at CIA headquar­ters in Langley, Va., and splurged a little on cool heli­copter shots.

(When Shriver was back in the U.S., one of those heli­copter shots, in er­ror, showed Geor­getown as he was just leav­ing Langley, which is quite a dis­tance away.)

After writ­ing Be­trayed in 2011, a film about mem­bers of the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence com­munity be­comes com­prom­ised, screen­writer Sean Paul Murphy ex­plained in a blog post about the pro­cess of work­ing with the FBI.

What is fas­cin­at­ing is that in­stead of mak­ing a tra­di­tion­al train­ing film, the powers-to-be de­cided they to make a nar­rat­ive film to try to cap­ture the emo­tions as well as the minds of the view­ers.

This looks to be the angle that Murphy and dir­ect­ing part­ner Tom Fe­liu took in this latest film, as well.

Iron­ic­ally enough, the best part of the movie was the end­ing cred­its, which showed the real Shriver re­flect­ing on his crime. It showed true emo­tion that would make any­one, not just an Amer­ic­an stu­dent go­ing abroad, shy away from es­pi­on­age.

The movie was not Hol­ly­wood qual­ity, many of the scenes in­ac­cur­ately por­trayed China, and the lines and act­ing were laugh­able at times. But a dramat­iz­a­tion is prob­ably far bet­ter than a tra­di­tion­al gov­ern­ment-train­ing film.

What We're Following See More »
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
19 hours ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
20 hours ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
21 hours ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."