1. Mercury Rising (1998)
Despite recent “leaks” that the National Security Agency has been conducting intrusive surveillance of American lives, it’s hardly a revelation to anyone who’s been paying attention to the movies. For decades, filmmakers have been trying to warn us that the NSA can’t be trusted, and the agency’s inscrutable methods and enigmatic authority make it an excellent choice for any story in need of a shadowy, possibly unscrupulous government organization. And while NSA agents have occasionally played the heroes in big, loud action movies that had no time for ethical questions—xXx and Die Another Day—far more common are characters like Alec Baldwin’s NSA division chief in Mercury Rising. As the head of a department so covert it’s winkingly referred to as “No Such Agency,” Baldwin plays a man obsessed with protecting government secrecy and controlling information, to the point where he has no qualms about trying to kill a 9-year-old autistic boy who accidentally cracks his precious secret code. “This might be difficult for you to grasp, but I am a patriot,” Baldwin tells dubious, all-American cop Bruce Willis by way of defending his actions, foreshadowing a real-life justification that was soon to come called the Patriot Act, and providing a (probably hyperbolic) glimpse into the NSA’s at-all-costs mindset.
2. Enemy Of The State (1998)
In the conspiracy thriller Enemy Of The State, Jon Voight, the onetime counterculture movie hero turned conservative wingnut, plays an NSA official who is not above murdering a United States congressman whose opposition threatens to scuttle proposed legislation that would give his agency unprecedented powers to spy on American citizens. One of the first big-government paranoia films of the Internet age—released the same year as the similarly themed Mercury Rising—Enemy Of The State shows how overreaching, power-mad villains like Voight might join forces with computer geeks, whose excitement over the possibilities of new technology could crowd out their moral compasses. In one of the movie’s wittiest strokes, the hero—an apolitical lawyer (Will Smith) who’s accidentally come into possession of evidence of the murder—tricks Voight and his NSA gunmen into fatally challenging a trigger-happy gangster whose offices are under surveillance by the FBI, a ploy made possible by the fact that the rival agencies would never dream of sharing intelligence with each other.
3. The Simpsons Movie (2007)
As yet another example that “The Simpsons already did it,” the PRISM story broke nearly six years after The Simpsons Movie depicted the National Security Agency keeping tabs on the average American citizen via wiretaps and unmanned drones. But one man’s Orwellian nightmare is another’s farcical misuse of defense-department resources (in terms of The Simpsons Movie’s credited writers, both men are probably staunch Libertarian John Swartzwelder), so when an on-the-lam Simpsons clan is tracked down by the NSA, it’s cause to take a chink out of the armor of our new surveillance overlords. Pointing out the basic foolishness of seeking terrorist needles in ever-accumulating haystacks of pizza-delivery orders and idle chitchat, the NSA wonk who locates Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and Marge—who’ve escaped from a federally quarantined Springfield—declares, “Hey everybody, I found one! The government actually found someone we’re looking for!” In the grand tradition of The Simpsons, it’s a throwaway satirical barb that now looks eerily prescient—much like the “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others” platform adopted by all viable political candidates in the 2010s.
4. The Forgotten (2004)
Government conspiracy thriller shades into X-Files territory in The Forgotten, starring Julianne Moore as a mother who is haunted by the memories of a son she believes died in a plane crash. Her grieving process is complicated by the assurances she receives from everyone—including her husband and her psychiatrist—that she’s out of her mind, and she never really had a son at all. After she befriends Dominic West, a drunk who may have lost a daughter in the same crash, the two of them are hounded by NSA agents who, it turns out, are in cahoots with extraterrestrials who are engaged in a science project intended to determine whether all connections between a human mother and her child can be broken, including memory. One of the NSA men they encounter warns them the truth “won’t fit inside your brain”—a line strongly recommended to the president for his next press conference.
5. Good Will Hunting (1997)
One of Good Will Hunting’s edge-of-believable, genius-level monologues is inspired by the title character being offered a job by the NSA. When the smarmy suit asks Matt Damon why he wouldn’t want to work for the agency, he launches into a two-minute speech about the ills of American foreign policy: It all starts with innocent Will Hunting cracking a code for the NSA, which leads to a village being bombed, his buddy from Southie being maimed, and innocent animals being coated with oil. For all his insight, however, it ignores a more fundamental question about Mr. Hunting: If he’s got such strong feelings about the NSA, why did he agree to this meeting in the first place? (Oh, it’s because he’s in a movie…)
6. Starman (1984)
E.T. gets laid in John Carpenter’s sci-fi love story Starman, in which an alien whose spaceship has been shot down in Wisconsin drives to Arizona with a young widow (Karen Allen), after taking on the human form of her husband (Jeff Bridges). Everyone the Starman meets likes him as much as sane, decent people usually like Jeff Bridges, but the head of the NSA (Richard Jaeckel) is in charge of the search for this intruder, and his eagerness to see this innocent, childlike being killed and vivisected makes it clear that being sane and decent is not part of his job description. In the end, the Starman, having impregnated his traveling companion, makes his escape and returns to his home planet with the help of a good-hearted scientist who figures it’s worth risking the wrath of the U.S. government, just to see the look on Richard Jaeckel’s face.
7. Sneakers (1992)
In the aging-Boomer liberal fantasy of Sneakers, former ’60s pranksters—represented here by Robert Redford as a pioneering computer hacker overseeing a team of wild-men security specialists—use the latest in technology to keep the ideals of the hippie generation alive. Redford is living under an assumed name, still dodging potential legal fallout from some of his youthful activities, so when agents of the NSA inform him they know his true identity, they’re able to pressure Redford into recovering a mysterious device that would allow the agency to break into computer systems all across the world—including the databases of rival intelligence agencies. Redford and his friends have to stay one step ahead of the NSA goons while making sure the device stays out of the wrong hands, i.e. the government’s.
8. Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)
The third Die Hard sequel carried a stern warning about governmental interference into personal lives and the vulnerabilities everyone—from regular citizens to government agencies—face in an increasingly interconnected world. Not that people probably thought about it much, what with all the stuff getting blowed up real good. Timothy Olyphant plays the typical villain who used to be a good guy, an expert hacker and former federal employee who tried to warn the government about its cyber vulnerability. Well, he wasn’t too good: Under the direction of the NSA, he also created a program to download the nation’s personal and financial records to NSA servers in the event of nationwide catastrophe—like the one he initiates in the film to teach the world a lesson.
9. Grosse Point Blank (1997)
While John Cusack plays a ruthless contract killer in Grosse Point Blank, the real villains of the movie are the hapless NSA agents played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman. While Cusack’s Martin Q. Blank is trying to make a clean break from the murder-for-hire game, agents Steven Lardner and Kenneth McCullers are waiting for Blank to pull off one last assassination so that they, in turn, can assassinate him. The agents were tipped off to Blank’s existence by yet another contract killer, Dan Aykroyd’s Grocer, so the whole thing’s a little murky—but that’s pretty much par for the course. As Azaria explains in the circuitous logic that is the intelligence community’s moral code, “You want to kill a good guy but not be a bad guy… You’ve got to wait until the bad guy kills the good guy, then when you come in and kill the bad guy, you’re the good guy.”
10. The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant, an animated adaption of Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel, follows a mysterious metal man who befriends a young boy named Hogarth. While the film may have been marketed to a younger audience, Tim McCanlies’ screenplay added several storylines and characters that seemed designed to capture the attention of adults as well. U.S. government agent Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald), arrives in Rockwell, Maine, driving a car identifying his affiliation with the Bureau Of Unexplained Phenomena, but his actions make it reasonable to presume that agency was absorbed into the NSA at some point following the events of the film. After discovering evidence that puts him on the trail of the Iron Giant, Mansley leaps to the conclusion that an alien invasion is afoot and contacts the U.S. Army. Refusing to see any possible good in the actions of the Giant and possessed by the conviction that he’s doing the right thing, Mansley lies in his claim that the Giant has killed Hogarth and therefore must be taken down by any means necessary, even if that means using, say, a nuclear ballistic missile. After the missile is fired, however, Mansley realizes his actions have effectively doomed everyone and everything in Rockwell and, like all good government agents, attempts to avoid the consequences of his error in judgment by making a hasty retreat.
11. Echelon Conspiracy (2009)
The sci-fi thriller Echelon Conspiracy stars Shane West as a man who receives an apparently omniscient cell phone, one that helps him re-order his life by sending him text messages that, for example, strongly advise against his boarding a plane that ends up crashing. After West uses the information he gets from the phone to launch a new career as a casino gambler, he lands on the radar of NSA head Martin Sheen, who deduces that the phone is somehow connected to Echelon, an all-knowing computer system. Naturally, Sheen wants to take that system and expand it into ever greater areas of government surveillance and intrusiveness. In the end, West borrows a mindfuck technique from an old episode of Star Trek, forcing Echelon to shut itself down by pointing out that it’s violating its own prime directive: to protect and defend the Constitution.