Richard Franklin’s film Cloak & Dagger (1984) very cleverly takes a cookie-cutter Cold War espionage narrative and replaces the usual square-jawed hero with a little boy. It’s a rough and tumble bit of children’s fair but it works. Children who grew up during the Cold War and even afterwards indulged in the kind of fantasies that in Cloak & Dagger are a deadly reality.
Dabney Coleman plays dual roles as Davey’s (Henry Thomas) father Sgt. Osborne and his imaginary friend, secret agent Jack Black. This creates a compelling dichotomy wherein the paternal role is split between one of play and one of discipline. Davey’s mother has recently died and the film implies that Agent Jack Black emerged as a result to fill that void. Compared to a fictional character, Sgt. Osborne appears a lackluster role model to his son.
Agent Jack Black and Davey manage to evade death and capture at every turn until Davey is cornered. Here his imaginary friend sacrifices himself in order to compel Davey to shoot one of the bad guys. Davey protested time and again against killing. Even though it was the only way to save himself, the death of one of the villains shatters Davey emotionally. Agent Jack Black then begins to fade; Davey has grown up and no longer requires the psychological filter of play to complete his mission.
Similarly the apparent sacrifice of Davey’s father during the climactic scenes on the plane serve as another catharsis. It is only when Davey is confronted with his father’s mortality that he is able to forgive his father for surviving his mother. Suddenly the things Davey values in a father figure are no longer the antics of a James Bond like super spy but are the every day ways which a father takes care of his son.
Richard Franklin audaciously shifts the tone of Cloak & Dagger from fantasy (the shots with Agent Jack Black) to violent reality (the scenes without Agent Jack Black. The film weaves in and out of Davey’s internal life with a rush of adrenaline. The tone may be all over the place but that’s clearly the point. For children it simulates how, during play, fantasy is no different from reality. For adults Franklin’s tactics serve as a reminder of how the psychological nature of play becomes the ability to cope with extreme amounts of anxiety.
Franklin’s on location photography imbues Cloak & Dagger with a sense of place. The world of the narrative is also rendered more nuanced by the caliber of the supporting cast from Bill Forsythe and Michael Murphy to Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire. The more fantastic the plot twists become the more complex the details are. Franklin’s ability to balance the illusions of reality and fantasy are at the core of Cloak & Dagger.
For Henry Thomas Cloak & Dagger is an inversion of his most famous role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). In Cloak & Dagger it is the mother, not the father, who is absent. Likewise, in Cloak & Dagger the medium through which imagination gives way to maturity comes from within the protagonist as opposed to without in the form of a friendly alien. Franklin’s look at the machinations of childhood emotions is much more brutal and far more memorable.