Life is almost always more interesting in the movies than it is in reality.  That’s because Hollywood uses artistic license to entertain us, by embellishing the truth and engaging us with concepts just plausible enough to be real.  No place is this truer than in the spy film genre, which is filled with globe-trotting action heroes like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt.  These characters incite epic car chases, gunfights, and explosions wherever they go, relying on elaborate gadgets in order to accomplish their respective missions.  Their films are hardly realistic, but not entirely far-fetched either.    

Anticipating its blu-ray release on April 17th, I watched Ethan Hunt’s fourth big screen outing “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” which features enough quality popcorn action sequences and slick spy equipment to keep fans of the genre appeased.  In “Ghost Protocol,” Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team, are forced to go rogue in order to clear their name, after they are implicated in a bombing of the Kremlin.  Meanwhile, they must also stop the real culprit from instigating global nuclear conflict. 

When I watched espionage movies like this one, I used to wonder what parts actually reflect a spy’s experience.  However recently I was lucky enough to satisfy that curiosity, by traveling to the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, where I took part in a full afternoon of behind-the-scenes espionage activities.  My exciting journey helped me uncover which elements in “Ghost Protocol” are actually influenced by fact, and which ones are simply the products of movie magic.

Upon arrival, I checked out some of the props from the film like the nuclear trigger briefcase, Ethan’s gecko gloves, and Brant’s maglev suit.  While the maglev suit wasn’t mind-blowing, I was impressed at the level of detail in both the gloves and the briefcase despite their lack of real life function.  Honestly, it was just cool to come into contact with actual props immortalized on screen in the movie.    

Next on my agenda was Operation Spy, the museum’s interactive adventure, which gives participants a chance to try their hand at espionage.  Based on actual CIA operations, the experience represents a rare instance where real life is just as interesting as the movies.  You are placed in a fictional country where a nuclear device has gone missing and charged with retrieving it before it falls into the wrong hands.  To accomplish your mission, you’re taught the art of surveillance and sneaking as you gather intelligence on the players involved. 

The only slightly disappointing thing about it, is that characters in Operation Spy only exist in pre-recorded video, like in the game show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.”  This adds a slightly corny feel.  Otherwise, the operation gives you profound insight into the thrilling work of a covert operative.  You learn that instead of explicit violence against the enemy, real spies prefer to gather information peacefully and entirely in secret.   

After recovering from the operation, I attended two very informative Q and A sessions, where I found out more about the lives of real spies and factoids about “Ghost Protocol.”  Both were moderated by the International Spy Museum’s founding executive director Peter Earnest, who spent 25 years as a case officer in the CIA’s Clandestine Service.  The first panel included weapons and technical expert Dale Shelton, who served as a consultant on “Ghost Protocol,” and three founding board members of the museum who had careers in espionage: General Oleg Danliovich Kalugin, Jonna Hiestand Mendez, and David G. Major.  This session was all about separating the elements in the film that are influenced by real life, from the ones that use movie magic to make things more exciting.   

First, Dale Shelton illuminated us on his process for developing the gadgets in “Ghost Protocol.” Shelton consulted military and university research officials on the latest technologies available.  Using this information, he created gadgets based on whatever the next generation’s functionality should be.  Shelton explained that one of the major items in the movie that does not exist in the real world is the gecko gloves that Ethan uses to scale the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  There is technology in development similar to that, but nothing on the market yet. 

Given her employment in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, Jonna Mendez also provided great insight into the technical aspects of espionage.  Using her experience in disguise, she was able to tell us that the cyber imaging used for mask making in “Ghost Protocol” was something very real in a spy’s toolkit.  Perhaps the most interesting bit that she shared was the unreliability of the gadgets they used.  “Technology will always let you down,” she said.  That’s why she always made sure her agents had an analog way of accomplishing the same tasks. 

The other panelists dispelled myths about the amount of bloodshed in the spy world.  Retired KGB member General Kalugin stressed heavily that violence was rarely used to accomplish a mission.  David Major agreed with him, indentifying the spy game as much more cerebral, with layers of complexity, something he felt was well done in “Ghost Protocol.” 

My second Q and A session was with director Brad Bird, who made his live action debut with “Ghost Protocol,” after experiencing major success in the animation field with “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” Bird expressed some amusing thoughts about working in live action, collaborating with Tom Cruise, and why he chose to not to shoot in 3D. 

Bird indicated that live action was slightly more stressful in that there is a dollar amount at stake for each minute of time that passes.  He loved working with Tom Cruise, who he mentioned is high energy and well-versed in all aspects of the filmmaking process.  The most profound thoughts that Bird shared was his reasoning why he shot “Ghost Protocol” in IMAX instead of 3D.  His opinion is that you can get 3D at home, but what really gives people a unique experience in theaters are the audience and large screens.  He wanted people to enjoy this film with an audience and to be wowed by the power of the imagery on a large screen.

To top my night off, a group of us were taken on a private tour of the International Spy Museum by historian Mark Stout.  He was able to show us gadgets actually used by real spies and to provide fascinating anecdotes to go along with them.  As I left, I felt deeply privileged to have participated in such a fun afternoon of events, and thrilled to have seen what it’s really like for people working in espionage.  In the end, it wasn’t as different from the movies as I thought.  There is less violence and explosions, but it’s exciting in a more analytical way.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol arrives on DVD and blu-ray April 17th, 2012.