During the opening of Get Smart, the new big-screen re-visitation of the '60s spy spoof TV show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, we're shown a montage detailing the mighty workings of the modern intelligence apparatus; covert microphones, satellite communications intercepts, frantic translation, secretive meetings. As top analyst Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) walks the streets of Washington to the hidden headquarters of the secret agency where he works, listening to intercepted conversations to better understand the plans and thoughts of America's enemies, his iPod switches over ... to Abba's "Take a Chance on Me." Spies, it seems, are people too.
And pause here to think about the challenges facing any director who wants to make a spy comedy in our modern times. If you depict spies as too competent, the audience unconsciously fears for their civil liberties; depict spies as too incompetent, the audience unconsciously fears for their lives. Make the film's threat to the free world too credible, and the film's more scary than silly; make the threat to the free world too fantastic and foolish (as in the earlier Get Smart big-screen project, 1980's The Nude Bomb) and the film's more goofy than gripping. The makers of the new Get Smart seem to have thought about this, and have transformed the character somewhat from Don Adams's nasal know-nothing in the '60s TV show; as played by Carell, Smart is a bright, dedicated, insightful analyst for the secret agency CONTROL who dreams of being a field agent. And Max learns he's passed the field agent's exam with flying colors; still, his boss The Chief (Alan Arkin) rejects Max's request for transfer to field work because he needs Max behind a desk.