Garbo: The Spy is a sometimes surprising, sometimes amusing, always engaging documentary about a subject that most Americans paradoxically have heard lots but know relatively little about: espionage.
The title refers to the code name of Joan Pujol Garcia, the only agent to be decorated by both the Allies (Order of Merit) and Axis (Iron Cross). In attempting to explain how one man could have convinced both sides of the conflict that he was working for them and how, even in retrospect, some may still lack absolute certainty that they know which side he was on, the film provides a lucid introduction to how espionage worked during the twentieth century. While doing so it manages to take a famous event—the D-Day invasion on Normandy beach–and give the telling of its history a fresh twist.
The average viewer may think that espionage is about the protecting and/or the uncovering of secrets. I know that I certainly did. Garbo: The Spy explains how, in the wake of modern technology that made large scale events nearly impossible to hide, disinformation became as important (if not more so) than the actual gathering of intelligence.
The fallacy of the modern, technologically driven mindset is the belief that the person with the most information is actually and always the person who is best informed. The documentary, however, underscores that not all information is equal and that greater and greater volumes of it require more and more careful weighing of it in order to ensure correct interpretations. Collect enough data and some of it will suggest alternate theories or conclusions: an invasion may be at Normandy or it may be at Pas-de-Calais. The ability to understand what data is accurate and what data is flawed, to decide which results are anomalies and which meaningful, is the part of the modern world that undercuts the taken for granted dichotomy between art and science, and, in turn, between certainty, conviction, and belief.
The success of D-Day invasion, the film argues, hinged less on keeping the target secret—geography itself limited the number of possibilities—but in convincing the Axis that they had actually discovered it, thus encouraging them to devote the bulk of their defensive resources at the wrong target. Having a double agent was a key part of this process. So certain were the Nazis that Garbo’s information was reliable, the film argues, that even after the invasion at Normandy was completed, the German army still did not shift troops, convinced that invasion was itself a feint or deception designed to divert forces away from what would eventually be the prime target. Thus they stubbornly dug in at Pas-de-Calais, waiting for the invasion that never came, even while the Allied forces secured their foothold after landing at Normandy.
Because World War II ended favorably for the Allies, the film has an understandably triumphal tone. There are darker implications of the story of the origins of modern counter-intelligence for those who contemplate it. An old proverbs states that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. One wonders whether all the skill and technique that developed around conflating truth and fiction ultimately undercut the ability of those who had it to tell the difference. Given that the American government is approaching the second decade of a war that was justified and sold to its citizenry in large part due to misinterpretations and selective attention to intelligence data, there is a painful irony in the realization that we can and do fall prey to belief in some of the same myths—particularly that of absolute certainty—that we exploited in our enemies. (That is a conclusion that I would argue is consistent with the history the film depicts, but I do not mean to suggest it is an argument the film makes explicitly.)
Another engaging theme developed within the film is the psychology of the double-agent. Garcia remains a relatively opaque figure to the end. Given his alleged role near the center of one of the most important events of the century, it is almost shocking to learn that even members of his immediate family were unaware of his secret identity. Was Garcia a rare person who was so humble he didn’t need recognition? Did the survival instinct press him to develop the habit of keeping people guessing to such a degree that it infected his personal relationships? Is it possible, as some speculate, that he was a politically ambivalent opportunist, who shifted sides not so much out of ideology but out of pragmatism? The man who consistently shows one face to himself and another to the world, Nathaniel Hawthorne famously opined (and The Sopranos famously quoted), may wake up one day and find he himself is not sure which is which. Is this what happened to Garcia? Did he spend so much time emulating the chameleon that he finally became one? So much time playing roles that he didn’t know who he was apart from them?
And if he did, given the crucial import of the D-Day invasion to those living at the time and in the shaping of the world that came after, was it worth it?