The FBI Thinks It Can Pass Off Downtown D.C. as Shanghai

The bureau turned to a Northern Virginia production company to make a film warning American students of becoming spies while studying abroad — and made us cringe in the process.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4884) }}If you're a movie director, low on cash, in need of a nightlife shot in Shanghai, but can't fly to China, there is a solution: Just film in D.C.'s Chinatown.

That's the approach the FBI took in a new 28-minute film it released Monday, warning American students of the dangers of committing espionage on behalf of foreign governments.

Called Game of Pawns, the film follows Glenn Shriver, who is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for espionage. While in China as a student and desperate for cash, he was approached by Chinese government officials who offered him thousands of dollars to apply to the CIA and provide intelligence. He took the cash, and was arrested before flying back to Shanghai.

The film is packed with clichéd Hollywood lines like, "He's cooked," and, "Why did I do it? I don't know. I guess it was just hard to turn off the tap." But what's any film about counterintelligence without showing shady people (in this film called "Mr. Tang" and "Mr. Wu") handing over envelopes full of cash?

But one of the biggest faux pas in the film isn't the writing or acting. It's where the film was shot. Although it was supposed to take place in Shanghai, several nightlife shots were actually just the Chinatown neighborhood in Washington.

(Google Maps)And when they didn't have something vaguely looking Chinese to show on the screen, they turned to the green screen to show the skyline of Shanghai.

And to cap off all of these errors, the film becomes even more absurd by showing what appears to be the world's friendless, least-overworked U.S. Customs agent in history, playfully bantering with the would-be spy Shriver as he returns home to apply to the CIA.

Customs official: "So what were you doing abroad?"

Shriver: "I told my friends I was leaving the country until the Lions had a winning season."

Customs official: "Lucky you made it back."

A Northern Virginia-based production company called Rocket Media helped produce the film. The company has helped produce, direct, and write several short films for the FBI in the last several years. They were allowed to film at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and splurged a little on cool helicopter shots.

(When Shriver was back in the U.S., one of those helicopter shots, in error, showed Georgetown as he was just leaving Langley, which is quite a distance away.)

After writing Betrayed in 2011, a film about members of the counterintelligence community becomes compromised, screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy explained in a blog post about the process of working with the FBI.

What is fascinating is that instead of making a traditional training film, the powers-to-be decided they to make a narrative film to try to capture the emotions as well as the minds of the viewers.

This looks to be the angle that Murphy and directing partner Tom Feliu took in this latest film, as well.

Ironically enough, the best part of the movie was the ending credits, which showed the real Shriver reflecting on his crime. It showed true emotion that would make anyone, not just an American student going abroad, shy away from espionage.

The movie was not Hollywood quality, many of the scenes inaccurately portrayed China, and the lines and acting were laughable at times. But a dramatization is probably far better than a traditional government-training film.