Refreeze: The Cold War in Contemporary Culture

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Old-fashioned Cold War anxiety pervades a new raft of TV shows, books, and movies.

“The spy had vanished.”

The fine first sentence of The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal (Doubleday) could almost have been written with an icicle. A work of painstaking historical research that’s paced like a thriller, this nonfiction book by Pulitzer Prize winner David E. Hoffman concerns a pivotal moment in the history of the CIA’s Moscow station. Literary virtue and bona fides notwithstanding, though, if The Billion Dollar Spy becomes a best-selling beach read, it would be fair to give Vladimir Putin at least a little of the credit.

As Putin reasserts Russian influence in Eastern Europe, a glut of new books, TV shows, and movies appears ready to satisfy a Western appetite for Cold War anxiety. Even as espionage is increasingly entrusted to algorithms, old-school spooks have not vanished from pop culture; they’ve crept in everywhere. Other books on the theme due out by summer include the memoir How to Catch a Russian Spy (Scribner), by Naveed Jamali, an American civilian who worked as a double agent (and learned his tradecraft from watching Bourne and Bond films), and The Spy’s Son (Atlantic Monthly Press), by the accomplished investigative reporter Bryan Denson. The latter book’s subtitle tips a pulpy hand: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia.
 On television, BBC America’s The Game is a stylish psychological snapshot of the 1970s cat-and-mouse games involving Britain’s MI5 and the KGB. The Americans, on FX, just finished its third season, telling the Reagan-era story of a suburban D.C. couple who work as travel agents by day and Russian spies by night. Looking to the future, TNT’s The Last Ship depicts a post-apocalyptic world where, even though there are no governments, Russians still come off as the baddest of bad guys. (The short-lived NBC espionage series Allegiance starred Hope Davis as a retired Russian agent who gets back into the business. It was canceled after less than one season.)

Even Steven Spielberg is about to have his say on the Cold War, albeit on a bigger screen. In his next movie, Bridge of Spies, cowritten by Matt Charnan and the Coen Brothers, an American lawyer (played by Tom Hanks) is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of a U.S. military pilot whose spy plane was shot down over Russia in 1950. Due for release in October, the film will likely be received with the solemnity normally reserved for démarches. (During filming in Germany, Angela Merkel visited the set.)

Could it be a wild card that wins the cultural arms race to make the most of this new Cold War? (And could that mean making the least of it?) By summer’s end, director Guy Ritchie will unveil his feature-length adaptation of the wry 1960s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., in which nuclear proliferation threatens the future of the planet and agents of the CIA (Henry Cavill, better known as Superman) and the KGB (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) join forces to stop it. You read that right: Join forces. Why not? A Guy can dream.