Hey, Kids, Remember You're On Our Side: The FBI Makes A Movie

Apr 20, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2014 6:43 pm

Earlier this week, the FBI posted a video on their website. It's a 25-minute movie called Game of Pawns, based on the true story of Glenn Shriver, an American college student who was recruited as a spy by the Chinese government.

According to the FBI's website, the film is aimed at college students about to study abroad themselves. The message is obvious: Don't be a spy. The rationale is that a dramatic movie will capture young people's attention better than public service announcements or PowerPoint.

In recent years, the FBI has been making movies to get their message across — both to the general public and their own agents. In fact, the FBI spends between $500,000 and $800,000 each year on videos for training and development.

"They really demand accuracy," says Sean Paul Murphy, the film's screenwriter. He tells NPR's Arun Rath "they want something that is as close to reality as possible."

When it came to actually writing the script, Murphy says FBI agents were far easier to work with than Hollywood types.

"Generally, everybody's on the same page, and you're not being pulled in different directions by people's egos. On this, everyone was pulling in the same direction."

Murphy has written movies for two other FBI films. Betrayed, his first film, is about an inside threat in the intelligence community. His other film, called Company Man, is about selling trade secrets to foreign powers. Both are short, dramatic narratives that emphasize the importance of national security.

In the week since its release, Game of Pawns has generated a lot of Internet ire and snark. Critics call it cheesy and cliche.

"I think it actually has very decent production values," Murphy says. "Some people were complaining about cliche dialogue, and some of the things they cited as examples were things that Glenn had actually said in the interviews."

Shriver himself cooperated extensively with the FBI in the making of Game of Pawns. Murphy says Shriver was pleased with the final result.

"He didn't like the way his father was presented," Murphy says, "but other than that, he had no complaint that I'm aware of."

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. The FBI posted a short film on their website this week, a drama called "Game of Pawns. It tells the true story of Glenn Shriver, an American college student who was recruited as a spy for the Chinese government while studying abroad in Shanghai.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Friend) It is the destiny of our two countries to stand together as partners and bring peace and prosperity to the world. That's why we would like to help you with your education.

RATH: "Game of Pawns" falls somewhere between a spy thriller and an after-school special. The target audience is college kids and the message is obvious. Don't be a spy.


RATH: The thinking behind "Game of Pawns" is that movies do a great job of reaching young people. For a peek into the world of FBI movie making, we turn to the film's screenwriter, Sean Paul Murphy. He says making movies for the FBI is quite a bit different from Hollywood.

SEAN PAUL MURPHY: Well, the biggest difference is that they really demand accuracy. And we do take some artistic liberties and mainly because we have to compress the story down quite a bit too.

RATH: Murphy says getting script notes from the FBI is much easier than dealing with Hollywood executives. And big personalities don't seem to be as much of a problem.

MURPHY: Generally, everybody's on the same page, and you're not being pulled in different directions by people's egos. And on this, everyone was pulling in the same direction.

RATH: Game of Pawns" is not Murphy's first film for the FBI.

MURPHY: I've also done a film called "Betrayed" about how to spot someone if they're possibly spying for an enemy. And I subsequently done one called "Company Man," about a true attempt stealing, you know, American trade secrets from a corporation.

RATH: I asked him what it was like to write what some would call FBI propaganda. He doesn't see it that way. It's really just writing with a message, something Murphy has been doing for a while.

MURPHY: A lot of my work, I've done a lot of, like, faith-based films. And generally the producers would want a purpose for those as well. So I really don't feel it's propaganda, in the sense that we are conveying an accurate story. Obviously, it's a story they want told.

RATH: There's been a fair amount of snark posted online about "Game of Pawns." It's been compared to old hygiene films and PSAs. Here's Glenn Shriver about to fall into the clutches of the Chinese government.


RATH: You might call it all a little bit cheesy.

MURPHY: Well, I don't think so at all. I think it actually has very decent production values. And I was reading some people were complaining about some cliched dialogue and some of the things that they cited as examples were things Glenn had actually said in the interview.

RATH: Sean Paul Murphy is a screenwriter based out of Baltimore. He wrote the script for the FBI's "Game of Pawns."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.