How liberal Hollywood fell in love with the CIA

By Alissa Quart
March 19, 2013

The new icon of Hollywood is not a celebrity or a movie franchise — it’s the CIA. In 2012, the year’s most award-winning and popular “quality” films  – Argo, Zero Dark Thirty  – as well as 2012′s best television show (Homeland) were all about The Agency, usually bathed in quite a positive light. Why have the upper reaches of the entertainment business started to love the CIA, after years of offering more troubling images on screen?

One answer is that it has been a decade since the invasion of Iraq, and it would seem that the Iraq War itself (Abu Ghraib, civilian deaths, trillions of dollars) has sullied the image of the U.S. military. It has apparently become so tainted that Hollywood believes it can no longer assume officers are gentlemen. Military pilots no longer serve audience desire for moral clarity, as in the age of Top Guntoday, the star performers of the Air Force are pilotless drones, for one thing. And generally there are fewer soldiers and veterans on screen than after other recent wars; no equivalent of Jon Voight in a wheelchair in the Vietnam film Coming Home or World War Two’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which starred an actual double-amputee veteran.

Instead, today’s films have all-knowing agents, who tap, bug and lie with impunity yet somehow always wind up heroes. In Argo, it’s CIA operative Tony Mendez, smuggling American embassy workers out of Iran after the revolution. In Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a CIA employee who successfully hunts down Osama. If we throw MI6 into the mix in Skyfall, it’s a more realistic James Bond saving the agency itself from a plausible threat.

Venerating the CIA and secret agencies in the movies makes for lively, sensational cinema and TV, and seems consistent with their enlarged role in our military policy, through the massive increase in drones. But this glorification of spies is problematic. For one thing, it’s out of step with public opinion. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 53 percent of the public are “very concerned” that drone strikes may endanger civilian lives. And on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, 53 percent of the population considers the war a mistake, according to a Gallup poll.

The new Hollywood CIA love fest not only flattens that public dissent. These shows and films are also celebrating people whose actions are usually clandestine. That means Hollywood has now become another front that supports opacity and secrecy. It smiles at the moral ambiguity that is inherently part of any undercover work. Spies played by Ben Affleck, Jessica Chastain and Daniel Craig are presented as the only people we can turn to for national protection. And we mustn’t forget the only woman who can save the free world in the show Homeland, played by mad-eyed, cry-faced Claire Danes. (The excellent new FX show The Americans takes a different but related position: Noah Emmerich plays a counterintelligence agent  for the FBI who in the Cold War early ’80s has the decency to try to save the beautiful Russian mole he is sleeping with.) Celebrities thanked those in the service in their awards speeches this year, as if traders in secrets are great humanitarians as well. This reveals a troubling amnesia about all the things the CIA has gotten wrong.

There are good reasons why we shouldn’t venerate the CIA, including torture, rendition and drone killings – all of which arguably create more problems for us than they solve. The CIA is also part of the surveillance state that threatens our privacy as well as our fourth amendment rights.

Yet the CIA’s newly burnished image continues to get shinier. This is also a result of more ex-spooks peddling their self-flattering stories in memoirs, from George Tenet to Mendez, the CIA-employed main character of Argo. This upscale cottage industry has made it more likely that the CIA itself is portrayed as a hero rather than a villain.

Spies have often been heroes – take James Bond. And as Frances Stonor Saunders writes in The Cultural Cold War, the animated film Animal Farm in 1954 was funded by the CIA. But Ian Fleming notwithstanding, there have been periods in which intelligence operatives were far likelier to be represented as evil, duplicitous or simply eager to invade people’s privacy. Take Three Days of the Condor, set in the early 1970s, where an agent named Turner (Robert Redford) gets involved in an ethically murky battle with Higgins, the deputy director of the CIA’s New York division. “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” Redford’s CIA researcher character says, amazed, to his corrupt agency master.

Of course, there is a limited history of countries, including the United States, that make movies that directly or indirectly implicate their own intelligence services in real-world crimes or misdeeds. But despite the occasional Hunt for Red October-type of film, more serious American films have tended to offer a skeptical  and even paranoid picture of the CIA. The agency wrongly surveils Malcolm X in Malcolm X and murders foreign leaders in Syriana. It brings us closer to the Vietnam War in The Quiet American. The CIA also apparently killed JFK, according to its screen version via Oliver Stone. As played by John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire, CIA assassins in general are mad – and also try to kill the president. (MI6’s agents were equally ominous, if we are to believe every John Le Carre adaptation.)

Yet today, American spies are far less likely to be shown as ethically suspect, especially in the sort of well-crafted, even urbane, films and TV shows that are to the taste of middle-brow liberals. In an era where even a Great Gatsby adaptation has to be made in 3D if it hopes to attract viewers, few want to make films about moral ambiguity or pony up the money to put a difficult war on screen. (The Messenger, the best Iraq film besides Three Kings, starring Woody Harrelson as the man who tells families that their loved ones have died in combat, was largely unseen.)

One day, though, all of these well-made, CIA-loving films could result in a true and nuanced film. Maybe that movie will depict how the agency ignored the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction. (Tom Engelhardt had other suggestions for CIA “torture porn”  that might appeal to Hollywood producers.) Perhaps another film will be based on declassified agency files of drone attacks on American citizens, which will be made public some day in the near future, as the ACLU has recently requested. I’d be happy to see it.

PHOTO: Director of the movie and cast member Ben Affleck poses at the premiere of “Argo” at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
9 comments

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There are different issues. The first is the general depiction of potential positive or negative actions of a secret agency in forming story or thought provoking art. The other is knowingly, and falsely, teaching torture as historically effective, justified, and necessary for the capture of BL, and for war generally. If the victims were of Any other religion than Muslim, Dark 30 would have been considered by Hollywood as an insult to the art form and humanity, and CIA propaganda housed within a Trojan-horse-esc shell of Hollywood art.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

Alissa Quart has commendably raised very interesting moral questions about Argo. However, some people think the situation is much worse( including ConstFundie, above, as I understand).

In an article at
http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/03/13/ 293328/argo-cias-covert-black-ops/
it is suggested that the CIA or similar organization actually paid for ARGO, and some earlier movies that puffed up the CIA image, and are intelligence operations directed at the public. This seems like a preposterous idea, but is it?

Movies bought a paid for by the US government in order to influence the public is a natural extension of the US administration lies that led us into the Iraq war. In the past, the US administration has been caught pushing their point of view in phony planted news articles.
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/ americas/bush-planted-fake-news-stories- on-american-tv-480172.html

President Obama has taken President Bush’s build up of domestic surveillance to ever increasing levels. Evidently we are being manipulated by our own government for the benefit of the forces they serve, who would appear not to be the American people. People are malleable and very vulnerable to propaganda. Argo could be just another step along the way to Americans marching lock-step with (inhuman) corporate interests.

Its happened before!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Screw your CIA. Screw your Iraq War. Screw your Gitmo.

Your nation is SCUM.

Posted by NeilMcGowan | Report as abusive

Ah, someone else with a political axe to grind.

The motto of CIA’s National Clandestine Service is the Latin “Veritatem Cognoscere”: Know the truth. It’s no wonder that so many believe the function of intelligence services is to discover the “truth”.

Mark Lowenthal, former CIA Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, spent some time in his book “Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy”, now the gold standard for undergraduate and graduate intelligence texts, explaining that intelligence is not about truth at all, but rather about arriving at some informed conclusion about reality, or possible future realities, neither of which can be considered strictly to be “truth”.

“Intelligence is not about truth. If something were known to be true, states would not need intelligence agencies to collect the information or analyze it. Truth is such an absolute term that it sets a standard that intelligence rarely would be able to achieve. It is better — and more accurate — to think of intelligence as proximate reality. Intelligence agencies face issues or questions and do their best to arrive at a firm understanding of what is going on. They can rarely be assured that even their best and most considered analysis is true. Their goals are intelligence products that are reliable, unbiased, and honest (that is, free from politicization). These are all laudable goals, yet they are still different from truth.”

Perhaps the biggest issue with “truth” in intelligence work is the absolute nature of “truth”. If it is an analyst’s job to find the “truth”, then any deviation from that analysis by actual events means that the analysis was a “lie”.

“Is intelligence truth-telling? One of the common descriptions of intelligence is that it is the job of ‘telling truth to power’. (This sounds fairly noble, although it is important to recall that court jesters once had the same function.) Intelligence, however, is not about truth. (If something is known to be true then we do not need intelligence services to find it out.) Yet the image persists and carries with it some important ethical implications. If truth were the objective of intelligence, does that raise the stakes for analysis? [...] A problem with setting truth as a goal is that it has a relentless quality. [...if] an analyst’s goal is to tell the truth — especially to those in power who might not want to hear it — then there is no room for compromise, no possible admission of alternative views.”

This creates an environment where success is impossible, because discovering “truth” by every measure is a standard that can never be reached. It also discourages differing analytic viewpoints, each of which may be equally valid. Ultimately, someone needs to look at the available information and make a decision:

“[T]he role of intelligence is not to tell the truth but to provide informed analysis to policy makers to aid their decision making.”

Synthesizing information into some measure of “truth” needs to consider all of the above. What, then, happened to the “truth” in the case of this famous so-called “intelligence failure”, that of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? The intelligence components of the US, Russia, France, Germany, and the UN as a whole believed Iraq to be in continuing possession of WMD, not to mention that Iraq was in material breach of no less than three binding and in-force UNSEC resolutions (the only kind of UN resolution with the “teeth” to compel member nations to use force to ensure compliance, unlike oft-cited General Assembly resolutions regarding Israel); witness this exchange on NBC’s Meet the Press in 2004:

“MR. RUSSERT: When you look at the CIA information on the weapons of mass destruction, former President Clinton said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, as well as current President Bush. The U.N. inspectors. The Russian, French and German intelligence agencies said he had weapons of mass destruction. What happened? How could there have been such a colossal intelligence failure?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, maybe because what we were all looking at was a body of evidence that gave you every reason to believe that he did have weapons of mass destruction. He had the intention. He used them. He stiffed the U.N. for 12 years. He had the infrastructure. He had the capability. The only thing we haven’t been able to find are actual current stockpiles of such weapons. Everything else was there. Everything else was there with respect to capability and intention. And any reasonable person looking at this regime, looking at the threat inherent in that intention and capability would have come to the conclusion based on unanswered questions.”

So, what was the truth? In this case, the truth, as established prior to 2003, is that Saddam Hussein had the intent and capability to possess WMD. Without physically discovering WMD themselves, all information, history, and evidence — even when viewed in the context of contradictory evidence — indicated that Saddam Hussein had WMD.

Unfortunately, the most important aspect — namely, Iraq actually having WMD — ended up being absent. When the policy of containment with regard to Iraq changed to a more aggressive posture after 9/11, the truth pointed to Iraqi possession of WMD. This enabled policymakers to push forward with a policy to remove Saddam from power.

After the invasion, only then did we discover that the US analysis was almost all wrong. But was the analysis wrong? This is remembered by many, incorrectly, as an example of “politicized intelligence”. In fact, it is simply an illustration of how intelligence is not about truth, but rather is a vehicle to inform the decisions of policy makers.

Furthermore, there is never “one” reason a military action may be undertaken. Does anyone honestly believe there was only a single publicly-discussed reason the US entered World War II? If there were more complex reasons than those put forth for public scrutiny, does that mean our leaders are “lying”? It’s hilarious to me, if sad, that people tend to fall neatly in political boxes with respect to things like the Iraq invasion.

Intelligence exists solely to support policy makers. Most policy makers are politicians. This does not mean that intelligence itself is politicized, only that it is, necessarily, serving a political master.

The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. — William James

There is no truth. There is only perception. — Gustave Flaubert

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. — Niels Bohr

The truth will set you free — but first it will make you angry! — Anonymous

Posted by daveschroeder | Report as abusive

Methinks the author and many of the commenters herein are making too much out of this. The movie biz is just that–a business–and at its core is all about making money. Recent events that already have the public’s attention and as a bonus offer pre-made story lines are a safe bet for making movies that put butts in the seats.

Nothing new here. Let’s move along.

Posted by Art_In_Seattle | Report as abusive

@daveschroeder:

Obviously Saddam Hussein did not have the “intent” to have WMD, so there is a second intelligence mistake.

As for the remaining leg of intelligence on the WMD, “capability”, any junior high kid with a chemistry set can make poisonous chlorine gas. In other words, virtually any country can make WMD, so that “capability” criterion has, per se, little meaning.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

This article is seriously naïve. The military, FBI and intelligence agencies have supplied support for pro-agency TV and movie fare going back decades. The list is very long. Remember “The FBI Story” fifty years ago? Remember “The Agency”, a euphemism for the CIA, although the internal nickname was “The Company”. Many “war movies” and other such projects could not have been completed without significant support from these agencies, especially the Pentagon. “No Way Out” may have been filmed in the Pentagon (wink, wink).

It’s true that a common premise in Hollywood writing is the nefarious National Security Agency (NSA) usually falsely depicted as a covert operations agency (like in “Enemy of the State”), but the NSA has enjoyed the notoriety for the world’s biggest organization of information technology geeks.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

the more things change, the more they stay the same.

leni riefenstahl would be making these movies, if she were still alive.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

Your headline “Liberal Hollywood” should have liberal in quotation marks since Hollywood is only liberal when the PR agent requires it.

Practically all the Hollywood produced politicians (REagan, Temple-Black, Bono) were Republican conservatives. And let’s not forget John Wayne, Charlston Heston, etc.

Hollywood has for years and continues to perpetuate gun violence, racial stereotypes, women as bimbo-botoxed play bunnies, let alone the myths of American families and the so-called American dream. How many Hollywood moguls and stars send their kids to public school? Pay their fair share of taxes? Provide pensions to non-union employees?

Remember, acting is central to Hollywood and most are just acting the ‘liberal’ moniker – certainly not living it.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive