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A Spy’s Guide To Spy Movies: Ronin

Before I joined, the CIA’s Head of Recruitment recommended I watch Ronin to learn something about the life of a spy. It’s a story set in the years between the Cold War and 9/11, when spies were using old skills to do new things.

The new things in Ronin include a chase for a briefcase. The old skills are the planning, execution and reacting to what happens.

The main character is Sam, played by Robert De Niro. Playwright David Mamet (credited as Richard Weisz) was brought in to write De Niro’s part. Mamet ended up writing much more, according to director John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer told the LA Times, "The credits should read: 'Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet.’ . . We didn't shoot a line of Zeik's script."

Mamet (of Glengarry Glen Ross fame) is known for getting dialogue, details and lingo right. Here Mamet does it for spies.

When we meet De Niro’s Sam, he’s preparing for a meeting. He’s scoping out the location, observing the people inside and preparing for an exit. He leaves a weapon near an exit, just in case. After he enters, he unlocks a back door to allow for escape. He speaks the local language at first, until it’s safe. When the confrontation is over, he explains his actions by saying, “Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.”

In planning for a heist, Sam says, “I like to work backwards.” In A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, that’s the first rule of strategy: Look forward and reason backward.” Sam reasons backward. He plans backward from the objective to what needs to be done to get there, as spies do.

In the planning, Sam says, “The map is not the territory.” They’ve got a map, but the map isn’t reality. The map shrinks the world to a manageable size. They can use the map for planning, but the map isn’t reality (For more background on that concept, see Farnam Street’s “The Map Is Not The Territory”). For reality, Sam wants to see the place and people himself, so he finds a way.

When Sam sees the target, he creates a way to watch the enemy react. He sets up a situation to observe the enemy in action. After observing them, he’s honest in his assessment: “They’re good. They’re very good.”

It’s good planning. It’s honest analysis. It’s good thinking.

But good planning and thinking doesn’t mean you can control all outcomes.

The rest of Ronin is a tighter Data-Analysis-Decision-Action loop (see A Spy’s Guide To Thinking). The rest of Ronin is about reacting with a gun or a steering wheel in your hands. It’s about reacting when a bullet ricochets into your abdomen. It’s about adjusting the plan on the fly.

Like a spy.


This is an excerpt from the coming A Spy’s Guide To Spy Movies, which will be free to anyone who joins the Spy’s Guide email newsletter. You can do that by clicking here.

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