Cinema Nitpicks: The Company

Tuesday, August 25th, ©2009 Marcus Brooks
CBM PET in CIA, in 1976?

CBM PET in 1976?

My wife Shea started this. She turned to me and said, “This show has one of your little cameras in it.”

She was watching the third episode of The Company, a 2007 TNT mini-series starring Chris O’Donnell. The “little camera” in this case was a Minox, the classic subminiature spy camera. This earns the show a mention in my old Subminiature Camera Cameos web page.

As is my habit, I took the DVD set when Shea finished so I could do my usual screen grab and jot down notes for the submini entry. Sure enough, I found the Minox example and a couple of other nice photographic items. Then I noticed something that nearly made my jaw drop. There, sitting in pride of place on a CIA agent’s desk, was a Commodore PET computer! Then later we see another PET on a table full of other displays and equipment.

I doubt either of you is old enough to know what a PET computer was. Even if you read its Wikipedia article, you might not fully understand what a shock it was for me to see one on that desk. Here are a few thoughts it brought to mind:

  • The PET was released in 1977, but in The Company‘s chronology it shows up in 1976.
  • The model shown has a more-or-less “real” keyboard, so it likely dates even later, to 1978 or ’79. (The first run had a smaller “chiclet” keyboard sharing the front console with a data cassette drive.)
  • The early PET was a practically useless toy compared to the mainframe computation that CIA agents would almost certainly have access to. For comparison, this would have been about the time when the CIA bought its first Cray-1 supercomputer.

I can’t prove there were no PET computers at the CIA in the late ’70’s, but any agent who needed computer time was more likely to have a mainframe-connected “dumb” terminal, such as a DEC VT52, Lear-Siegler ADM-3, or IBM 3270. Perhaps the producers of The Company simply couldn’t find an appropriate terminal in presentable condition, so they settled on someone’s cherished old PET as the best stand-in for close-up shots. Curiously, one PET scene has some background “green screens” that look like they might actually be part of a painted backdrop.

Come to think of it, any sort of video terminal would have been cutting-edge stuff in 1977. That’s the year I fed acres of canary-yellow paper through my high school’s ASR-33 teletype. Then I graduated to UT, where I did all my “home” work on a keypunch machine.

Fake Computer Room Sequence

Fake Computer Room Sequence

The Company does try to capture a bit of the real mainframe data processing feel, but apparently they just couldn’t find the right equipment. In one scene we see Michael Keaton in a room full of large tape machines, screens with strange moving blocks of light, and a wide-platen line printer. But the scene is mostly fake:

  • The tape machines in the scene look like audio recorders. For example, the ones that move turn steadily. A real computer tape machine jerks its reels back and forth in fits and starts, as it seeks from one data block to the next. Also, the scene’s machines have rows of knobs that look suspiciously like audio equalizers.
  • The screen with the blocks of light is probably a big microfilm reader. The moving blocks are just registration marks on the film leader. The screen is too large, too white, too square, and too flat to be a contemporary computer monitor. It should be small, curved, with rounded corners, with green or amber text and maybe one small flashing block (the cursor).
  • The line printer may or may not be chronologically accurate. It didn’t seem noisy enough to convey the right feel, though. In those days a serious machine room line printer was really a line printer: 120 print wheels would spin into position and slam down with a bang, printing a whole line with each stroke, two or three strokes per second.

Later in the show chronology, around 1987, the temporal infractions are a little more subtle. On an agent’s desk, we see what looks like a PC screen with a nice high-res spinning CIA seal animation, complete with moving specular highlights and whatnot. Again, I can’t prove the animation is impossibly anachronistic, but it’s just not the sort of thing that would be ordinary in 1987.

I’m sure most viewers didn’t notice any of these anachronisms. How many little misconceptions about technology can a society absorb without harm? As most movies go, I guess these nits are minor indeed. But for those of us who remember the period, little things like this can distract us from the story.

I am a little more concerned that the producers couldn’t find real period technology to use in their film. Maybe they just didn’t try very hard, but I rather suspect nobody is preserving these things in a state that lends itself to realistic demonstration. I guess that would be a lot to expect, but still, it’s a little sad to see familiar old things disappear like that.

Movies often show beautiful old airplanes and railroads that have been either preserved or replicated. Is it possible that, someday, people will do that with old computer equipment? I hope so.

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4 Responses to “Cinema Nitpicks: The Company”

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