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

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.