“They frequently conflate the FBI and the CIA. Pretty much every film. It’s constant,” Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, tells The Daily Beast. “They’re constantly attributing domestic work to the CIA, and overseas work to the FBI. And they act like CIA is a law enforcement agency, which they’re not.”
During the Iraq War, Bakos led the agency’s team as a targeting officer, tracking “America’s nemesis in Iraq” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from 2004 to 2006. She previously worked as an analyst in the Counterterrorism Center. (You can check out a rundown of some of her work in the HBO documentary Manhunt.) When she runs into people who’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty, Bakos is often asked, “Are you Maya?” like the lead character in the movie. When it happens, she rolls her eyes or utters an “ugh.” (She’s not the human-rights violator that Maya—the fictional Osama-hunting CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain—was in the movie, for one thing.)
So when Bakos was asked to help ensure—at least in a small way—a modicum of accuracy for a new movie involving the Central Intelligence Agency, she was more than happy to lend a hand. Except this wasn’t heavy dramatic fare like Zero Dark Thirty or the 2012 Best Picture winner Argo. It was this summer’s Spy, Paul Feig’s feminist action-comedy starring Bridesmaids standout Melissa McCarthy and Jude Law. McCarthy plays a globetrotting CIA analyst-turned-superagent, and writer/director Feig refers to the film as, “Harry Potter for adults.”
Bakos isn’t listed in Spy’s closing credits. But in early 2014, she was paid to read through Feig’s screenplay, and “pick out the bits” that were egregiously wrong about her former employer— even for the realm of goofy Hollywood action-comedy, where accuracy isn’t exactly a primary concern. Essentially, she fact-checked Spy before it was shot.
“I sat around with a glass of wine, reading a script, sending email,” she says.
“All [Feig and the producer] had me do was read through the script and take notes and provide feedback on sections I thought would be different in reality—things that really stood out,” Bakos explains. “Granted, the movie itself is not based on a totally realistic portrayal of anything, but at the same time, they wanted to be as close to what an analyst would be doing, and what the agency is like. While filming, they had a couple questions.”
The former CIA analyst landed the gig through her literary agent at CAA Speakers. (She is writing a memoir for Little Brown, with an anticipated 2016 release.) The talent agency works a lot with Hollywood, so they were happy to connect Bakos with Feig and a producer, with whom she communicated over email and phone.
“A lot of [my notes were about] proper nomenclature and naming of different spy stuff,” Bakos recalls. This included some technical pointers on SCIFs, rooms for processing classified information. “I also explained what the different jobs are at the agency: analyst, staff operations officer, case officer, targeting officer, and so on.”
She also had a chance to offer the filmmakers a couple of quick lessons in foreign affairs and separatist groups.
“There was a part I read that involved a Basque separatist,” she says. “Well, in the context of that scene, I said that maybe it should be a Ukrainian separatist instead—just what would make more sense in terms of foreign policy.”
Bakos, a fan of McCarthy’s work, hasn’t seen Spy yet (“I was hoping to go to the premiere with Melissa McCarthy—kidding!”), but is aware of the critical acclaim and plans to catch a screening soon.
“I wish I could read movie scripts everyday,” Bakos says. “It’s fascinating. I’d like to do this more.”
Big Hollywood projects—even the less-than-serious ones—will often recruit professionals and experts to bring a touch of accuracy to the script or the production. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne, for instance, was brought aboard to craft the artful science behind Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, and a Caltech theoretical physicist consulted on Marvel’s second Thor movie.
The latter is about a Norse-myth-inspired superhero flying through space, fighting elves with a hammer, saving Natalie Portman.