AT A TIME WHEN THE CIA is still hiding the details of its extrajuridical drone strike assassination program from congressional watchdogs and the media, one would think it an awkward moment for Hollywood to confer Academy Awards on films that celebrate its secret agents.
But apparently not. While a robust debate has emerged about Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture, the film largely celebrates the tireless spycraft of a CIA analyst who was complicit. Meanwhile, Argo is an unqualified nod towards the CIA’s collaboration with Hollywood in liberating hostages held in Iran in 1979.
Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are only the latest film productions the CIA has influenced in the 15 years since the Agency opened its official liaison office to Hollywood. Tricia Jenkins examines the history of this version of “Hollywood confidential” in The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television. Short and dry, her book raises serious ethical and legal questions about the relationship between the CIA and Hollywood, and the extent to which we consume propaganda from one through the other.
Paul Barry, a CIA “entertainment industry liaison officer” Jenkins interviewed, says that, “Hollywood is the only way that the public learns about the Agency.”
Think about that: 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. So natural has the CIA–entertainment connection become that few question its legal or moral ramifications. This is a government agency like no other; the truth of its operations is not subject to public examination. When the CIA’s hidden persuaders influence a Hollywood movie, it is using a popular medium to spin as favorable an image of itself as possible, or at least, prevent an unfavorable one from taking hold. If incestuous enough, Jenkins argues, these relationships violate the spirit or letter of government laws.
Take the case of Argo, an enjoyable, even inspiring film about the CIA’s role in freeing hostages from Iran, based on celebrated CIA operative Tony Mendez’s firsthand account. (Disclosure: I loved it.) As we settle into our seats, there is a 60-second background vignette noting that the US and UK “engineered a coup” against the democratically elected Iranian leader in 1953 and installed a friendly dictator who was later overthrown in the 1979 uprising, which is where the film begins. That the CIA implemented the very coup that ultimately led to the hostage taking is not acknowledged. Instead, an innocent CIA operative, played as a family man by Ben Affleck, dramatizes “how the CIA and Hollywood pulled off the most audacious rescue in history.” We are not told explicitly that the Agency precipitated the long chain of events that finally led to the hostage rescue now being so beautifully recreated on screen. As the film ends, a blurb reads that the CIA has not approved, authorized, or endorsed the production, conveying the impression of independence. Then the voice of Jimmy Carter, unidentified, is heard suggesting that history might have turned out differently if it wasn’t necessary to keep the CIA’s role secret for so long. (In the film and the real story, the Canadians prov...read more