They both like to dress up, spin fictions and keep their
unsavoury behaviour out of the headlines: No wonder the CIA and
Hollywood are such a natural couple, though they’ve only recently
stepped into the limelight together.
Two of the more prominent films in Oscar contention celebrate the triumphs of the Central Intelligence Agency: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden) and Argo
(Ben Affleck’s film about the freeing of six hostages sheltered by the
Canadian embassy in Iran). Both directors have been effusive in their
praise for the bravery and dedication of the agency. The third sighting
is the hit TV show Homeland, starring Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA agent, fighting al-Qaeda with her brilliant intuitions.
All of these productions have had CIA assistance creating their scripts (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty,
controversially so). And the stories have a common thread: They tell
tales of flawed, emotionally intuitive human beings, who are sometimes
insubordinate to their cautious, by-the-books overseers because they
care so much about American lives.
The soft-propaganda program, marching in lockstep with a gunfight
against terrorism, has changed our perception of the agency. A new
stereotype has emerged: The CIA is neither an idiot nor a sinister
killer, and its agents are no longer thin-lipped Machiavellian spooks,
pulling the strings of international intrigue. They are struggling and
intuitive men and women, making the personal sacrifices to fight the war
on the shape-shifting monster called terrorism.
The typically reticent CIA showed up relatively late to the Hollywood
party, in the 1990s. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had been
managing its image in popular media since the 1930s (1936’s G-Men, and the TV series The F.B.I.)
, and the Department of Defence started Hollywood outreach in 1947,
with the Pentagon offering support to such rah-rah films as Patton, Top Gun and Pearl Harbor.
But the post-Cold War period was a tough time for the CIA, which was
undergoing downsizing, criticism from Congress and questions about its
competency. Hollywood had not been traditional ally. Films from Three Days of the Condor (1975) to JFK (1991) typically showed the agency as either sinister, incompetent or both. Professor Tricia Jenkins, author of The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television (2012), categorized the negative stereotypes into three categories, “rogues, assassins and buffoons.”
In 1996, the CIA appointed its first Hollywood liaison officer, Chase
Brandon (a first cousin to Tommy Lee Jones), to turn that image around.
What could the agency offer? Not tanks and fighter jets like the
Pentagon. But they could provide script advice, access to real spies,
story ideas and an aura of authenticity. The agency started consulting
on movies such as Enemy of the State (1998), The Sum of All Fears (2002) and The Recruit (2003) and television shows such as The Agency, Alias and 24 (in the fall of 2001, coincident with the 9/11 attacks).
The movie-friendly approach worked. Even in the wake of intelligence
failures of 9/11 and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the
controversies over renditions and waterboarding, the agency’s
representation on film and television has generally been more positive.
The CIA does not have final say over the final film, but the agency
won’t help filmmakers if it finds a script unflattering, as in the cases
of Spy Game (2001) or The Bourne Identity (2002). The
benefits aren’t just about sending a message of competence, ingenuity
and intimidating technology (“Terrorists watch TV, too,” Brandon told
one producer). TV shows and movies are also regarded as recruitment
tools, especially as the agency, which was criticized in the 9/11 Commission Report for a lack of diversity, reaches out to women and minorities: Jennifer Garner, star of Alias,
and later Ben Affleck’s wife, did a recruitment video for the agency in
2004, which was posted on the CIA website and used at college
Of course, not all spy movies are officially approved. Retired CIA
agents are also consulted on movies that cast the agency in a bad light,
such as 2005’s Syriana, based on former agent Robert Baer’s memoir, See No Evil. Another retired agent, Milton Bearden, was a key player in The Good Shepherd, an unflattering history of the agency from its inception to the failure of the Bay of Pigs.
The agency doesn’t seem to hold grudges, or miss a PR opportunity. George Clooney, who produced and starred in Syriana, also directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), based on the memoir of Gong Show host Chuck Barris, who claimed in his memoir that he was an assassin for the CIA. Clooney also starred in The Men Who Stare At Goats
(2009), directed by his friend and producing partner, Grant Heslov,
about the intelligence community’s ridiculous mind-control experiments.
Both Clooney and Heslov are in line to win best picture Oscars as
producers on Argo, which was given CIA co-operation and access to shoot at the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters.
In The Recruit, Al Pacino tells a young apprentice that the
public knows only the CIA’s failures, not its successes, but that has
changed. Credit the agency with one of the greatest successful stealth
missions ever perpetuated on the moviegoing public: It has made the CIA
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