Hollywood is the only way that the public learns about the Agency. – Paul Barry, CIA Entertainment Industry Liaison Officer
All of these films and TV series superficially mask the old theme of the American Hero. But, as I write in Chapter Seven of my book, they are completely consistent with stories of him and his evil opponent – the Other – who have been stock characters in the stories we’ve been telling each other about ourselves since the early 1700s. For nearly four centuries “they” have attacked “us” for no reason other than their hatred of our democratic way of life, and “our” sacred responsibility has always been to “terminate them with extreme prejudice,” even if it means breaking the law to do so, in the quest to save the innocent community from the clutches of pure evil. Nicholas Schou continues:
…while Homeland’s CIA protagonists are portrayed as flawed, and often tormented, heroes, the bottom line is they are heroes. Their Islamic militant antagonists, on the other hand, are generally filmed in conspiratorial shadows, and are portrayed as fanatics whose souls have become twisted by years of struggle against the West.
The American Hero, of course, has always been extremely masculine. Women first broke this particular glass ceiling as comic book superheroines such as Wonder Woman and later in films, but usually in the same, familiar tongue-in-cheek, comedy/action/kickass mode that most male spy and superhero movies have offered. The new twist is that some of these protagonists are women, even (see below) if still drop-dead gorgeous.
Regardless of gender, Schou concludes:
With few exceptions, Hollywood has long functioned as a propaganda factory, churning out jingoistic revenge-fantasy films in which American audiences are allowed to exorcise their post-9/11 demons by watching the satisfying slaughter of countless onscreen jihadis. This never-ending parade of square-jawed secret agents and bearded, pumped-up commandos pitted against swarthy Muslim madmen straight out of central casting has been aided and abetted by a newly emboldened CIA all too happy to offer its “services” to Hollywood.
Oh, come on, aren’t we more sophisticated than that? In 2014, Clint Eastwood, producer/director of the film version of American Sniper (destined to be listed on many “Top Ten” lists), obviously couldn’t give Chris Kyle’s primary Muslim adversary the traditional black cowboy hat. So he did the next best thing (in American mythic terms): he dressed the bad guy entirely in black.
In 2016, Tom Hayden reviewed Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television, which detailed the very long collaboration between these two purveyors of “deception,” or in the mythic terminology readers of this blog may be familiar with: stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to renew our sense of American innocence:
Jenkins documents how the CIA has been influencing Hollywood for years, formally accelerating the effort in the 1990s when the Cold War ended, shocking spy scandals were unfolding, the mission was uncertain, and recruitment was down. In Jenkins’s account, the CIA needed a remake, and only Hollywood could supply it…it’s not that Hollywood is in bed with the CIA in some repugnant way, but that the Agency is looking to plant positive images about itself (in other words, propaganda) through our most popular forms of entertainment.
Movies and TV are only two types of electronic media that normalize war and line the pockets of military contractors. Now, drones and computer-controlled weapons have blurred the line between war and video games. Scott Beauchamp writes that as early as 1980,
…the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) set about appropriating the Atari game game Battlezone and repurposing it as a revolutionary new training system called Bradley Trainer…Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell’s The Military-Entertainment Complex is required reading for anyone curious about just how insidious the Pentagon’s raids on our collective imagination have become…the real work of sanitizing Pentagon operations for public view resides in making the work of war seem mundane and familiar: “Routinizing war is important for a globalized capitalist empire,” they write, “and…implicit in this process is the understanding of war as a project with not only military but also ideological and political dimensions.” In particular, they observe, video games and television are indispensable to the challenge of “habituating civilians to perpetual war.”
This is a complex and expensive process, part of which includes valorizing its actual (if virtual) practitioners. As I write here,
The banality of madness: In February of 2013 outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta announced a new medal for these desk-bound warriors. The Distinguished Warfare Medal will recognize drone “pilots” for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” The drone medal will rank above the Bronze Medal and Purple Heart, meaning computer screen heroes will receive awards more prestigious than troops who get shot in battle.
We usually have to look outside of the United States for filmmakers grounded in older cultures that understand tragedy and loss, from nations that have witnessed two world wars on the ground, people who have been able to counter the seductive pull of the image and create masterpieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Behind the Lines (1999) or the elegiac Testament of Youth (2015). Paths of Glory (1957) is the one American film I’d include in this list. All four of these films depict World War One. Perhaps filmmakers need that kind of time bridge to get some distance from their own unconscious fascinations.
I’m not aware of any films about later wars that can do this, with the exception of the 1985 Soviet film Come and See. But they remain quite rare among the thousands of war movies (not counting Holocaust films) made in the past century. And even the best of them must dance around the inevitable clash between noble intentions and the seduction of images.
In other words, depiction almost always is endorsement, and no one should understand that concept more clearly than a highly intelligent director such as Bigelow.
And there certainly are other issues that Bigelow glossed over – or deliberately framed. Every single CIA agent in ZDT is presented as idealistic rather than cynical, reluctantly violent rather than sadistic. Most of the actual violence is left to their Third-World accomplices. The film also portrays both the spooks and the Navy SEALs as young, hip (lots of beards), diverse (several black and women agents) – and, true to the tradition, drop-dead gorgeous, such as the main protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain. They encounter breathtaking adventures as often as tedious deskwork.
In other words, ZDT makes a career in the CIA look very attractive – especially for women. CNN approved, pronouncing the film a “reworking of the war on terror as a feminist epic.” Indeed, writes Cora Currier, Donald Trump’s 2018 nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA chief
…points to a long and fraught history of the CIA trying to burnish its image by highlighting women’s advancements in the agency…the agency’s Twitter feed celebrated Women’s History Month in March with a series of threads on Haspel’s female forebears at the CIA…
The mythmakers and deception experts have far more in common with each other than any of them have with the rest of us. But at some point we may find ourselves asking, “Who writes this stuff – Hollywood or Langely, Virginia? Are they one and the same?
In 2014, at the height of media attention on drone strikes, an article appeared in Real Clear Politics about “the CIA’s drone queens,” borrowing its title from a “Homeland” episode and stating that “the next time Obama authorizes a strike in Pakistan, the odds are that it will be a woman who gives the green light moments before death is delivered from a drone”…it described a “sisterhood” of women involved in the targeted killing campaign who drank iced lattes and baked birthday cakes for one another (spies — they’re just like us!). The top expert on Pakistan was said to be “strikingly attractive in her stiletto heels” – so attractive, the article asserts, that Barack Obama grinned and said, “You don’t look like a Pakistan expert.”
You can’t make this shit up. Or can you?
In this story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, the old-boy, Ivy League network of the CIA has become a leading institutional factor in the inclusion of the Other – those minorities so long denied their opportunity to compete for the American dream and bequeath it to our long-suffering allies in the Third World. If all these photogenic women and people of color are doing the spook work, then so much the better; we can all relax and trust that we are in good (and good-looking) hands, even as the soft-core porn of the James Bond girls merges with Abu Ghraib’s pornography of violence.
As Facebook posts swoon over women achieving battlefield command positions and Tulsi Gabbard softens her criticism of the American empire with proud pictures of herself in combat gear, we could also keep these quotes in mind:
Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” – James Baldwin
You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. – Audre Lorde
The star of The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck, whose hero as a young man was Howard Zinn, eventually married Jennifer Garner
and brought Argo to the screen. As venerated representatives of the New Hollywood, Affleck and Garner may unwittingly have done more to save the CIA’s image than the entire Republican Party. True, their plots include duplicitous and destructive agents at times, but their credibility depends on a certain balance. The overall effect has been to usher a new brand of hip and sexy spooks into the post-9/11 world.
From the perspective of image, it is hard not to conclude that ZDT is essentially a CIA recruitment film. And because these spooks are perfectly willing to break the law (at least as most of the world outside of Washington and Hollywood interpret it), firstly by torturing suspected terrorists and secondly by invading the airspace of a sovereign ally (Pakistan – as the military would soon do in Syria), they embody our mythic American hero’s disdain for “normal channels.” Here is a big, open secret: this hero has as much contempt for democracy and the rule of law as does his opponent. Can you imagine Rambo – or Barack Obama – waiting for congressional approval? I know, I know: Trump is soooooo much worse, and Joe Biden would revive our pride in America, blah, blah…
Matt Taibbi gets to the core:
The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn’t who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we’ve become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.
That’s why the theater managers showed all those action previews when I went to see ZDT. They knew very well what kind of people were coming to see it. They weren’t going to be intellectuals or students of politics and history, but members of that high-rolling, and much larger, demographic of young, uninitiated males. Maybe not CIA material (such people would likely be seeing the film at university showings), but certainly cannon fodder for the next war. And how could Kathryn Bigelow not know that? Hayden concludes:
Does it matter whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses or rejects torture, or ultimately applauds it for leading stalwart CIA heroes to our greatest enemy? Not really. In the end, perhaps the debate around the film is really just a distraction from what actually does matter: Zero Dark Thirty — by being such an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the CIA that it would compel us to have a debate about it at all — is the greatest public relations gift a secret agency could possibly wish for. There we are, a captive audience, twisting our popcorn bags and Juicy Fruit boxes with nervous, sweaty palms while watching an obsessed, passionate, dedicated female CIA analyst named Maya, played by the beautiful and talented Jessica Chastain, dodge bullets, bombs, and boyfriends on her way to exacting bloodthirsty revenge. Is her revenge our own? By rooting for her, which we doubtlessly do, are we not rooting for the Agency she signifies? When she wins in the end, doesn’t America win too? If that’s not great public relations, I don’t know what is.
As I wrote in The Hero Must Die, a lengthy review of American hero mythology:
…the American hero (exceptions include James Bond parodies and Woody Allen-type antiheroes) doesn’t get or often, even want the girl. Even Bond, in his hyper-sexuality, remains a bachelor. More often, the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and his sense of duty to his mission; he cannot have both. Some, such as Batman and the Lone Ranger, prefer a comical male “sidekick.” How common is this unattached hero? Here are some others:
Hawkeye, the Virginian, Josey Wales, Paladin, Sam Spade, Nick Danger, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry, John Shaft, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, Mr. Spock, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Man With No Name, the Hobbits, Gandalf, Mad Max, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Human Torch, The Flash, Dr. Strange, Hellboy, Nick Fury, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Daredevil, Lone Wolf McQuade, Sargent Rock, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian, Jack Sparrow, Captains Kirk, Picard, Atom, Nemo, Phillips, Marvel and America and the heroes of Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Blade, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Gran Torino, Walking Tall, Delta Force, Missing In Action, Avenger, Extreme Justice, The Equalizer, Terminator, The Exterminator, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Million Dollar Baby, Open Range and The Exorcist.
For 350 years our preferred hero has been Jehovah-like in his vengeance and Christ-like in his refusal to remain grounded in relationship and his longing to return to his Father. Now he has been joined by Maya, she of brilliant intellect, the idealism, the mysteriousness and the drop-dead gorgeousness; she whose first name means “illusion” in Sanskrit; she who is so unattached that we never even learn if she has a last name. Now that’s progress.