Written and directed by Michael Reiter, John Murphy recounts his time in Vietnam during 1967, then a military intelligence adviser for the Army, CIA, and South Vietnamese intelligence services, he reveals the grey areas of critical on-the-ground spy work, where trust is hard-won and easily lost.
War is quite possibly the most used subject in film and television, whether it be fact or fiction but there’s still more to be learnt about events that happened decades ago, information that governments would have most likely preferred to be lost. Unspeakable acts have been committed by countless governments for as long as they’ve existed and yet it’s always surprising to hear the supreme lack of ethical morality, Agents Unknown has a few prime examples of precisely that. It’s fascinating to have one of the men that was on the ground in Vietnam and received some of these extremely outlandish orders from superiors recall them, and though he clearly can see their morally dubious nature, still has a hint of the unquestioning obedience the military taught him. It’s almost odd that Murphy isn’t more emotive about the events, remaining matter of fact but showing excitement when describing a particularly unbelievable moment involving a helicopter and bags of money, yet omitting any noticeable criticism, disapproval or resentment of the orders he received.
While that lack of emotion is interesting, it also causes a slight problem given that Murphy is the only voice we’re given; unusually for a talking heads style documentary, the information is limited to one perspective. Murphy’s recollections are complimented by a great deal of visuals but it’s hard not to overly notice his rather slow and almost monotone voice when it’s the only narration the film has. Understandably, it would have been difficult to find other people that were in the heart of the action at that exact time and place but it would have been a nice variation of the content to instead have an expert or historian adding another perspective, as it feels like the film had the potential for more depth.
The film holds its most interesting stories until its final chapters, so you really have to stick with it to get the most out of the experience, but at points it feels like simply recalling a list of events, which may be very in the military fashion but isn’t always what you want from a feature. There are surprising moments where the film becomes more graphic or exciting but that tension doesn’t hold for as long as you’d hope and it’s lacking smoother transitions between each event. It would have been great to have more of the animations that are used to illustrate the stories, as they have a very effective quality to them, complimenting the more factual visuals of documentation.
Agents Unknown has very interesting and morally dubious stories to tell but the way they’re presented could have been improved for a smoother and more varied viewing experience.
Verdict: 6/10 | ✯ ✯ ✯
Available on Amazon Prime now
(For any viewers in the US, you can find it here)
Also available on Pluto TV, Video-On-Demand (cable) and Tubi TV (Date TBC)