Episode 115: Anti-Muslim Racism in Hollywood (Part III) — How the Pentagon & CIA Sponsor American Mythmaking

Citations Needed | July 22, 2020 | Transcript

Citations Needed
51 min readJul 22, 2020
Iron Man (2008). (Paramount)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I'm Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yes, and as always remember, you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, we really appreciate any feedback you can give us there.

Nima: For over a hundred years, the American film industry has been promoting and glorifying U.S. foreign policy, initially working with the military and Department of Defense, and eventually, the CIA as well. From its origins as a producer of World War I propaganda like 1911’s The Military Air-Scout to its contemporary role as purveyor of high-tech action epics like Iron Man, Hollywood and the American war machine reinforce each other — myth and politics intertwine.

Adam: In the process, the entertainment industry has reaped handsome rewards. Producers, directors, and other top brass in the entertainment industry are lavished with military equipment for filming, personal tours of government headquarters, and inside information — or at least what government officials want filmmakers to believe is inside information — all under the guise of lending quote, “authenticity” and quote, “realism” to film and, to an extent, television shows as well.

Nima: But what, exactly, are the costs of this “authenticity?” How do the U.S. military and intelligence agencies use benign sounding “consulting” and “equipment loaning” arrangements to actually shape and censor narratives so they make U.S. empire look at worst bumbling and good-natured but at best, heroic and pure-hearted?

Adam: In parts I and II of this three-part series, we analyzed over half a dozen films and TV shows, illustrating how state-driven narratives of U.S. nationalism and vilification of an official enemies animate Hollywood’s cultural products, namely those targeting Arabs and Iranians. On today’s episode, we’ll explore the intersection of U.S. military and intelligence agencies with Hollywood, taking a closer look at how the military state helps shape films and television showing that pro-U.S. messaging used to smear Muslims doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is often subsidized by the very forces dropping bombs on them.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Matthew Alford, writer, filmmaker and Professor at the University of Bath, where he teaches Film & Media, International Relations, and British and American politics. He is the author, with Tom Secker, of the book National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood.

[Begin Clip]

Matthew Alford: There are very infrequent productions that are just worked on for reasons of accuracy, but the vast majority of the ones that we've come across have been quite heavily, well certainly have had political changes made, some TV shows are very heavily rewritten to government specifications or to government requirements. Things like The Last Ship, that TV series, and the Jack Ryan series and NCIS and these aren't just, you know, the whole concept, whole plotlines and hundreds of episodes in each of these franchises, which are baked and approved explicitly by the National Security organizations.

[End Clip]

Adam: So yeah, this is the third part of our three part series. When we sat down to work on the history of Hollywood's relationship with promoting U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and consequently, as you may be shocked to learn, smearing Muslims as a sort of product of that, as we've said before on the show, racism is the lubricant of Empire, it's sort of not possible without it, and it's an essential element of it. We would be remiss if we just sort of isolated these cultural products as a sort of collective moral failing on the part of writers and producers. While I think that is partly true, I do think we have to acknowledge other material forces that create the conditions for propping up the premises of U.S. Empire, and one of the big ones and one of the glaring ones and one of the ones that's been the product of a lot of great research over the last 10 years, is how the U.S. military and CIA helped shape and basically fund movies to reflect the conventional wisdom of U.S. imperialism.

Nima: A number of researchers have dug into this for years producing really, really excellent work. People like Tricia Jenkins and our guest today, Matthew Alford. Now, Jack Shaheen, who wrote the seminal study Reel Bad Arabs, has also reminded us through quoting the words of longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, as saying this quote, "Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA." End quote. Valenti was himself before serving as president of the MPAA for nearly four decades, special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, from late 1963, when he succeeded Kennedy to the middle of 1966, at which time the United States already had well over 300,000 soldiers deployed in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, the military's involvement in Hollywood productions arose right around the time of World War One as the film industry was really continuing to establish itself in the 1910s and there was, of course, a global war. Now the U.S. military had been indirectly involved in motion picture production since essentially the film industry's inception, but its direct involvement began in the second decade of the 20th century as the military began to use film as a medium of propaganda.

Adam: In the early 1910s, the army had already begun recruiting filmmakers, resulting in the 1911 film The Military Air-Scout, which depicted a fictional future war between U.S. and Europe. According to the book, Hearts and Mines: The U.S. Empire’s Culture Industry by Tanner Mirrlees, the first feature-length film that received funding from the U.S. military was 1915’s infamously racist Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith, obviously known white supremacist and friend of then-president Woodrow Wilson. To ensure that Griffith’s vision, which romanticized and is credited with reviving the KKK — which had been inactive for about 40 years in 1915, it actually went dormant in 1871, and then came back 40 years later, which isn’t to say there wasn’t white vigilantism but the KKK as an organization was single-handedly brought back by this movie. If anyone ever doubts that film influences people, you know, it's important to remember that. So to ensure that Griffith’s vision saw the light of day, engineers from West Point military academy reportedly gave Griffith technical advice on battle tactics and supplied artillery for the famous battle scenes. After the film premiered, William Brady, head of the contemporaneous Hollywood lobbying group Motion Picture Industry, remarked, almost comically, quote, “The motion picture can be the most wonderful system for spreading national propaganda at little to no cost.” Of course propaganda at that point was not a pejorative, it was a term used quite often up until it became sullied in the 1930s.

A 1915 poster advertising The Birth of a Nation. (John D. Kisch / Separate Cinema / Getty Images)

Nima: Now, according to David L. Robb’s 2004 book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, at the start of World War I, the U.S. established the Committee of Public Information to develop guidelines for various media to produce pro-U.S. war propaganda. So in 1917, when the film industry was still in its infancy, the trade newspaper Motion Picture News published an (now often cited) editorial stating that, quote, “Every individual at work in this industry” had agreed to supply “slides, film leaders and trailers, and posters.. .to spread the propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization of the country’s great resources.” End quote. Military funding dwindled after the end of World War One, but the Army continued to provide funding and other quote-unquote “support” for filmmakers like D.W. Griffith into the 1920s and 1930s.

Now, one of the most famous of the early war films is the silent film Wings, which came out in 1927. Directed by William Wellman, an epic World War One flying film that actually employed hundreds of extras and 300 pilots during its filming, including pilots and planes lent to the production by the United States Army Air Corps in order to provide supervision, assistance and of course, the ever important element of realism to the film. Now Wings went on to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

Adam: And like all military flying movies, it was a huge recruiting tool for the military itself. And, fun fact, shot in San Antonio, Texas.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: Which, if you’re from San Antonio, they mention all the time, it's a claim to fame. The first Academy Award winner for Best Picture was shot in San Antonio. That's very exciting, it’s very exciting San Antonio trivia for San Antonio listeners. Anyway. Military town USA.

Nima: (Laughs.) A couple decades later, after the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, film studios worked very closely with the military, which provided equipment, footage and consultation in exchange for dozens of films that would glorify the United States from patriotic promotional films like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight to countless war films with stars like John Wayne, James Cagney, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, William Holden and Spencer Tracy.

Adam: A bit of context: The Department of Defense was not officially founded until 1949, its predecessor, the War Department, the more honestly named War Department, was established in the late 18th century. The War Department became the National Military Establishment in 1947—

Nima: Literally that’s what it was called, the National Military Establishment.

Adam: I like that. They should have called it the complex.

Nima: I don’t want it to sound like that’s just something Adam said, like N-M-E are all capitalized, it's actually called the National Military Establishment.

Adam: And in 1948, the Pentagon formalized its quote-unquote “film approval” process and founded its Entertainment Liaison Office. The office would coordinate with film and television productions on storylines, provide props and vehicular equipment like aircraft, offer stock footage and B-roll, and generally seek to shape narratives in films in order to both expand the prevalence of military-themed mass media and of course to promote more favorable tone that encouraged enlistment.

Nima: Now, the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, has also had a hand in shaping Hollywood’s cultural products. The agency, which was founded at the dawn of the Cold War in 1947, wasted virtually no time before becoming involved in Hollywood. One of the most familiar early examples of CIA-backed films is 1954’s Animal Farm. Now, of course, Animal Farm, the film, is based on the book by George Orwell, the allegorical novel, which famously has this kind of both-sidesy, anti-capitalist but also anti-communist, namely anti-Soviet, message. The CIA found this ambiguity not to their liking so they acquired the rights to the book in order to make its film adaptation more overtly anti-communist, and sort of scrubbing a lot of the anti-capitalist sentiment out of the original story.

Adam: Yeah, if you watch the animated version from 1954 of Animal Farm, which was produced by the CIA using shell companies, it wasn't revealed till decades later, it is way more staunchly anti-communist than the book, which itself is anti-communist, and it’s super obvious when you watch it, if you get a chance to watch it, it's one you sort of watch in school, they apparently also tried to buy the rights to 1984 and make a version of 1984 around that time, but it fell through and then eventually the version in 1984, I believe was not produced by the CIA and it has definitely has a more sort of sterile, not overtly anti-communist tone as a result.

Nima: Yeah, it kind of keeps with the tone of the original book a little more.

Adam: But they were in production to make one in the ‘50s but it fell through.

Nima: Yeah. In 1977, the CIA actually established its own media and communications arm known as the Public Affairs Office. Author Simon Willmetts has argued that this arose in the context of a PR nadir for the agency, following Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and other disclosures that completely eroded public trust in not only government agencies in general, but the CIA specifically.

Adam: It wasn’t really until the mid-‘70s with the Church Committee and the Watergate scandal that you saw a shift away, I mean, this was again, the Church Committee revealed the CIA was doing all kinds of crazy shit and including, by the way, infiltrating and paying off journalists, which was a huge scandal at the time, because journalists viewed themselves as being independent. Of course, many of them were on the payroll of the CIA. So, in the late 1970s up until even the early ‘80s, you have a cultural shift where journalists, filmmakers now view the military as being skeptical, as we discussed earlier in episode one, the idea that the military and the war effort are sort of separate from cultural products is a fairly modern concept. It was sort of taken for granted that we were fighting the evil Soviets and that we all had to work together. It became kind of gauche and sort of counter-intellectual, if you will, in the 1970s. So you began to see the emergence of the thrillers which made the CIA seem more sinister. So you saw things like 1974’s The Parallax View in 1975’s Three Days of the Condor.

Members of the Church Committee convene. (Henry Griffin / AP)

Nima: As a subset of the Office of Public Affairs, the CIA established its own Entertainment Liaison Office in 1996. Professor and Author Tricia Jenkins contends that this, again, aligned with a period of bad press for the CIA, amid the fall of the Soviet Union and questions about the organization’s necessity and actual legitimacy, as well as the story of Aldrich Ames, the former CIA officer who began to work for the KGB in the 1980s. So you can see how bad press, bad PR, the deterioration of the noble image of the American spy then is used by the agency, is used by the CIA to become more closely aligned with the storytellers of the American film industry, right? So that our own national mythmaking, our own heroes, the stories that move us, that entertain us that take us away from the daily drudgery of going to work, go to the movies and see something fucking fun, if that stuff can be seeded with pro-U.S. and namely pro-military and pro-spy propaganda, that will really help the PR side of things when you read countless stories in the news about spies doing horrible shit.

Adam: And of course, there's a concrete result to this in terms of recruitment numbers, which we'll talk about later, we're going to drill down some of the movies we're talking about here. This episode's guests, Matthew Alford, along with his partner and co-author Tom Secker, have been instrumental in kind of uncovering the network between state agencies and mass media. Alford obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and it showed that between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 feature films received funding or other assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense. Alford also found that the CIA has been involved in the production of at least 60 film and television shows since it was created in 1947 that we're aware of. While the list of films given DoD support includes relatively predictable blockbusters like Transformers and Iron Man, The Terminator, U.S. government influence productions aren't limited to action films and thrillers. It's important to note the Defense Department has exerted influence over seemingly anodyne TV shows like America's Got Talent and the Cupcake Wars. While the CIA helped shape ostensibly apolitical comedies like Meet the Parents and the television show Top Chef. On one 2010 episode of Top Chef for instance, contestants were asked to cook for former CIA director Leon Panetta. Vice obtained a declassified CIA inspector general's audit from late 2012 stating that for the Top Chef episode, foreign nationals, quote, “may have participated in briefings, interviews, and visits provided by the CIA.” This is kind of the softer end of the spectrum. This is sort of the equivalent of the NYPD getting the cat out of a tree. It's sort of to show that they're, they're just like us, man, they're just our buddies. So we're going to start by talking about the process of Defense Department approval, which is to say you submit and the Defense Department will give you equipment worth millions of dollars and consultation worth millions of dollars for free, effectively, giving you in kind donations, fund your movie effectively.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So the way it works is that by most accounts, the process for a Hollywood producer to get the DoD to greenlight their participation is as follows. First, production sends a request for assistance, whether for vehicles, locations, personnel, or otherwise. Next, production sends five copies of the script to the Defense Department, which distributes those copies to various military branches for approval. The criteria for approval are wholly unsurprising: A film must quote “aid in the retention and recruitment of personnel” and project a positive image of the DoD, no matter if it’s historically accurate or not, though it probably is not. In an interview with Mother Jones, author David L. Robb stated, quote, “Almost always, they’ll make you make changes to the military depictions. And you have to make the changes that they ask for, or negotiate some kind of compromise, or you don’t get the stuff.” Unquote. If a script passes muster, someone from the military is appointed to supervise filming. Producers must sign contracts binding them to using a military-approved version of the script. Once the film is completed, it’s prescreened for Defense Department officials.

Nima: See it's just that simple, folks.

Adam: They get veto power.

Nima: And that's how you get to shoot on an aircraft carrier. Now, oddly enough, the CIA which you know is obviously clandestine and secret and overthrow-y, their own website actually directly addresses filmmakers to propose collaboration. And it reads this, quote:

If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development. That can mean answering questions, debunking myths, or arranging visits to the CIA to meet the people who know intelligence — its past, present, and future. In some cases, we permit filming on our headquarters compound. We can also provide stock footage of locations within and around our main building.

End quote.

So, The CIA’s entertainment liaison also offers storyline recommendations for future films, they really, really want to be involved in this stuff, right? So get in touch, we'll give you some B-roll of Langley, it'll rule.’

Adam: So there are scores of instances of the Defense Department, CIA influencing the actual writing, editing, and other components of film. So we're going to list a few of those. We’re going to start with the Defense Department. In the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies in exchange for DoD assistance, the Pentagon required a few script changes to the Bond film notably they cut a joke about the U.S. losing the Vietnam War. In Black Hawk Down in 2001, the U.S. Army insisted the script be changed to alter the name of a particular soldier who had been convicted of sexually abusing children. So they sort of wanted to omit that nasty fact. The 2002 film Windtalkers, directed by John Woo starring Nicolas Cage, at the request of the Pentagon, the production removed a scene of a marine threatening to kill a Navajo codebreaker to keep him from falling into enemy hands, and also another scene in which a marine rips the gold teeth out of the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier. So of course, the net effect of this is that the Marines are always seen as noble and heroic versus more morally compromised.

Nima: Another example is the 2008 film Iron Man directed by Jon Favreau, during which the military liaison to the production successfully pushed Favreau to rewrite a line during filming from an off the cuff reference to someone willing to quote “kill themselves” for an opportunity, to someone walking over “hot coals” for the opportunity. So like, even in that case, something that's pretty innocuous in the script, the military liaison wants to make sure that every turn, the military is being treated with respect and seen as upright citizens doing just the best they can. According to Andrew Whalen in an article in Newsweek after Iron Man's release, Marvel Studios agreed to quote, “mutually beneficial marketing initiatives” end quote, including, quote, “encouraging the involvement of recruiters.” End quote. So again, as we've been saying, so much of military interest and involvement in Hollywood films from the earliest days in World War I still today, so much of it has to do with making the military look so fucking cool that more people are going to want to join it so that they can fly in those fun looking planes, they can shoot those fun looking guns, and they can kill those terrible looking Arabs.

Adam: So the most quintessential example of this, we'd be remiss to not mention, is Top Gun, the 1986 Navy recruiting film starring Tom Cruise. I'm going to read an excerpt from the 2011 David Sirota article that he wrote for The Washington Post when he discusses how the Pentagon helped to make Top Gun. Quote:

The 1986 movie, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was the template for a new Military-Entertainment Complex. During production, the Pentagon worked hand-in-hand with the filmmakers, reportedly charging Paramount Pictures just $1.8 million for the use of its warplanes and aircraft carriers. But that taxpayer-subsidized discount came at a price — the filmmakers were required to submit their script to Pentagon brass for meticulous line edits aimed at casting the military in the most positive light. (One example: Time magazine reported that Goose’s death was changed from a midair collision to an ejection scene, because “the Navy complained that too many pilots were crashing.”) Although “Top Gun” was not the first movie to exchange creative input for Pentagon assistance and resources, its success set that bargain as a standard for other filmmakers, who began deluging the Pentagon with requests for collaboration. By the time the 1991 Persian Gulf War began, Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s liaison to the movie industry, told the Hollywood Reporter that he’d seen a 70 percent increase in the number of requests from filmmakers for assistance — effectively changing the way Hollywood works.

There are several reports contemporaneously and since then that Navy recruitment went up by a whopping 400 percent the year after Top Gun came out, and of course it would, it makes it look cool as shit. He's the badass Maverick who gets the women and drives a motorcycle. You of course will not be surprised to learn that Top Gun 2, which is coming out this year, the Pentagon was completely involved in that filmmaking. One article in BizJournals.com wrote, quote:

According to a production assistance agreement, Paramount Pictures Corp. was given a tremendous amount of access to Naval facilities and personnel in California, Nevada and Washington state — including permission to fly aircraft, place cameras on and in F/A-18 Super Hornets and Navy helicopters, as well as escorted access to a Nimitz-class nuclear submarine. The Navy was also expected to train cast members in water-survival and seat-ejection training.

The Defense Department also received some privileges in return.

The DOD assigned a senior staff officer “to review with public affairs the script’s thematics and weave in key talking points relevant to the aviation community,” according to the agreement.

Nima: I'm glad that the military came in and trained actors on ejection seats because, you know, we saw what happened to Goose, right? So, thank god they've learned. But actually, according to a Pentagon document obtained by the research site Spy Culture, the collaboration with the making of Top Gun was itself a very concerted effort to sort of exorcise the demons of previous defeats. The document itself says this quote, “Film completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam War,” end quote. And so you see this so often that by the mid-70s, the military reputation had fallen so low that the Pentagon needed to really start influencing these stories to make it cool again and so by 1986 when Top Gun came out, you have one of the prime examples of how this shift started to happen and it hasn't stopped. Much more recently, let's take the film Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson. So it's, you know, another entry in the Marvel Universe, endless superhero movies, but this one particularly, even though, you know, Marvel has long received tons of assistance from the Pentagon and then also the Pentagon also like huffed and puffed and pulled funding when there were scripts that they didn't get to approve in later Captain America movies, but for Captain Marvel, it's basically just straight-up military propaganda.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (2019).

Adam: Yeah, so the Air Force in the months leading up to its premiere in March of 2019, the Air Force basically did a massive recruiting drive using the film because in exchange for them using their aircraft equipment and military support e.g. subsidizing, funding the movie, they let them use the Marvel logo and the actors and they even did some cross promotions where the director and Brie Larson talked about how much they love the Air Force and how great it is. So we're going to listen to that Air Force promo real quick.

[Begin Clip]

Anna Boden: Captain Marvel has this rich human past.

Brie Larson: The core of her is the Air Force.

Brie Larson: It’s going to be fun!

Woman: It’s a great honor for the men and women of the 57th wing to be able to share this thing that is the Air Force.

Brie Larson: So cool. (Music) That spirit of her, that sense of humor and total capability in whatever challenge comes her way is really what Air Force pilots are like.

Man: Do you know how to fly this thing?

Brie Larson: Yes.

[End Clip]

Nima: Whoo, man, that’s so cool.

Adam: There was a cross promotion with the Air Force and Marvel at the premiere of the movie, they had Air Force there, similar to the way they when Top Gun was in the movie theater, the Navy had recruiting stations right outside the theater, which is one of the reasons their recruitment was so high because you got out and you were so jazzed up. At the premiere of Marvel there was Air Force everywhere and the U.S. Air Force worked to sort of co-brand the product. I want to read real quick an excerpt from an advertising trade magazine, quote:

Leveraging International Women’s Day and the upcoming Captain Marvel superhero film featuring a female pilot as the titular heroine that releases on the same day, the U.S. Air Force is airing the new film and campaign in partnership with GSD&M, the military branch’s 18-year agency of record.

‘Origin Story’ showcases the inspiring and powerful female pilots that make up the U.S. Air Force. It proudly emphasizes the “women power” that exists within the Air Force by saying it can turn anyone into a hero — just like the empowering theme of the upcoming Marvel movie.

So we’re going to watch a quick little section of the Air Force section of the Marvel promotion of the premiere of the film.

[Begin Clip]

Woman #1: The Air Force is such a huge part of this movie we wanted to take a moment to spend some time with some real servicemen and women who are joining us here tonight at the premiere.

Woman #2: I think it’s absolutely amazing because there are so many superheroes we’re going to see tonight, but we get to talk with some heroes right here on the red carpet.

Woman #1: Absolutely. Thank you guys so much for being here. So for you what does it mean to see Captain Marvel up on the real screen, Carol Danvers, member of the Air Force?

Woman #3: I think it’s pretty cool. It’s like we’re being represented by someone who plays and portrays us as someone amazing you know? And we don’t get that recognition often so it’s nice to see it on screen.

Woman #2: I don’t know, folks always kind of ask, why the Air Force? Why would the military, I don’t know you have a reason for why the Air Force, all of you are looking at me like that’s why cause what other branch would we go and serve in? But you know, everyone’s got their origin story and we’re going to see Carol Danvers’ origin story tonight. What’s yours?

Man: My story. So humble beginnings, from the poorest country in the world and becoming part of the greatest nation and had a chance to be part of the greatest military on Earth and to just see us be captured on the screen, what she does and what we do in real life and it’s, it’s phenomenal.

[End Clip]

Adam: So yeah, that was, ‘uh, the Air Force is just your friendly, multicultural, gender neutral,’ of course, the preponderance of the sort of crisis of rape was not mentioned, probably left out at script rewrites. So the Air Force launched this origin story campaign directed specifically to women, women related media, if you actually read the sort of psychotic advertising copy, women related media, websites women read, women television, they were trying to boost young women between the ages of, you know, 16 and 26 to sort of see this and think, ‘Yeah, I’m going to join the Air Force and become a pilot,’ of course, they’re going to end up scrubbing toilets and being sexually harassed but that’s not of course what Marvel wants to promote to you. And so again, you see this sort of perverse, synergistic relationship where you have, it’s not a huge part of the movie, but it’s a meaningful part of the beginning of the movie, where Brie Larson is in the Air Force and that kind of gives her the platform to do what she does in exchange for these really cool, you know, F-16 fight scenes Marvel cross promotes to basically, I mean, it’s selling military recruitment to children, to young girls, two girls and teenagers and that’s what it is and it ties it into the sort of superficial feminist twist, which of course has its own separate thing, but this is just a redux of what Top Gun did 30 years ago.

Nima: Now, the same year that Top Gun came out the military made a different decision with another warplane hero pilot film. This of course is 1986’s Iron Eagle. Now, the production wanted to use F-16s during the filming, but the Air Force refused to supply the aircraft for a movie that depicted the theft of a plane. This is part of the movie, Jason Gedrick and Lou Gossett Jr. steal a plane in order to go rescue Gedrick’s hero, pilot father who’s being held by a fictional Arab dictator, so obviously, steal a plane and go blow people away. But during the course of this production, as I said, the Air Force refused to give them planes but guess what? The Israeli Air Force had no such qualms of providing aircraft as long as the film production paid part of the cost of getting the planes actually airborne and oddly enough, in an airplane, enthusiast’s guide, something called the Aircraft-Spotter’s Film and Television Companion, it has this little entry about Iron Eagle, quote:

Due to conflicts with the script, the USAF would not partake in the film, so the producers were forced to film overseas in Israel. Use of Israeli General Dynamics F-16A/F-16B Fighting Falcon aircraft as USAF fighters and Iscraeli-built IAI Kfri (U.S. designation: F-21A) fighters — doubling as enemy MiG-23 aircraft — was granted under strict rules. All F-16 aircraft had their original bands and serial numbers masked out. Israeli pilots and ground crew served as background doubles, although filming of any one person was strictly forbidden for security reasons. Several times during filming, all aircraft were scrambled to fly off for actual strikes against southern Lebanon, leaving the filmmakers with an empty air base.

So during the filming of Iron Eagle, because they couldn’t get the U.S. Air Force to give them planes, they actually filmed in Israel, where the planes used in the film were the same planes used to commit war crimes against Lebanese and Palestinians in the mid-‘80s.

Promotional poster for Iron Eagle (1986).

Adam: Yeah, so if you can’t get the U.S. to back your movie, go to their sidekick in Israel, and they’ll help you out. So last episode, we talked at length about the CIA’s involvement in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both from 2012, so we don’t need to get into that, but we also want you to know that the CIA is involved as well, to a much lesser degree than the Defense Department is but we can talk about that and much more with our guest.

Nima: We will now be joined by Matthew Alford, writer, filmmaker and professor at the University of Bath, where he teaches Film and Media International Relations and British and American politics. He’s the author with Tom Secker of the book, National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood. Matthew will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Matthew Alford. Matthew, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed. It’s great to have you here.

Matthew Alford: Thanks very much. It’s good to be here.

Adam: Thank you so much. We sort of want to begin by establishing the terms of what we mean when we say things like control or influence and so when assessing the influence of CIA and Pentagon handlers over Hollywood, and content production, the central question I think most people have is you have a sort of gradient, you have something we’ll call sort of consulting, kind of mere consulting, which is sort of seen as passive, and is there just to make sure it’s accurate, right? Then on the other end of the spectrum we have sort of direct control, either through some sort of manipulation or financial leverage, e.g. subsidizing films, which we know happens all the time and given the margins of film is a huge incentive to basically give editorial control over certain production. Now all CIA and Pentagon arrangements are presented as the former, the very sort of benign end of the spectrum as ‘We’re just sort of consulting, we’re just kind of helping out, making sure they got the right information so they’re, they’re accurate.’ And of course, the filmmakers say they need that consulting because they want to make sure it has a certain verisimilitude to it. So I want to begin by talking about this gradient, where you feel like a lot of these films rest on this gradient and to what extent do we actually not even really know what the relationship is in many of these instances?

Matthew Alford: Yeah, I know what you mean about the gradient and the answer is that there are very infrequent productions that are just worked on for reasons of accuracy but the vast majority of the ones that we’ve come across have been quite heavily, well certainly have had political changes made. Some TV shows are very heavily rewritten to government specifications or to government requirements, things like The Last Ship, that TV series, and the Jack Ryan series and NCIS and these aren’t just, you know, the whole concept, whole plotlines and hundreds of episodes in each of these franchises, which are baked and approved explicitly by the National Security organizations. So yeah, I mean, we haven’t actually got numbers on it, and in a way, someone at some point perhaps should get around to doing that, trying to plot everything on a gradient of minimal Department of Defense involvement all the way up to maximal, you know, basically, they take the role as kind of a very heavy handed producer, and you would find you could chart different examples all through that, but for me I kind of think it’s more important to get this story out really about the level of involvement, the general trend, which is that there’s very heavy involvement and very heavy politicized changes.

Nima: You know, something that I think there’s this concept of just the military consultant, right? The person that does, you know, you hear about, ‘Oh, well, actors go on these training boot camps before they film right and like they were working with this sergeant who’ yada yada yada, and that’s the concept that it’s all about what kind of Adam said before, accuracy as opposed to deep involvement on a PR level. Can you kind of talk about the difference between maybe the perception of who is doing the advising, and then who pushes back when there are narratives that say the Pentagon doesn’t want to be put forth through entertainment, who is doing the string-pulling there?

Matthew Alford: So there are cases where there are independent military contractors who come in and advise how to do combat and things like that, on the film, Tropic Thunder, for example, there are various examples of where independent people come in and, you know, I’ve got no particular problem with that. Obviously, those people are very much inculturated in the U.S. military, so they’re likely to be pushing ideas that are very favorable to the U.S. military, but the problem and the much more frequent way things work is that the people who are advising and supporting and working on the script are people who are tied to the system, who are part of the Pentagon’s apparatus. So they’re not independent. They’re not independent contractors. I mean, I quite like the idea of there being just some crusty old general who’s hiding away in a mothy uniform, somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, in a broom cupboard or something who’s just giving you sort of kindly old advice on which way to pin the ribbons on some of the Army uniforms.

Nima: ‘It’s three stripes, not two.’

Matthew Alford: Yeah, exactly. I mean, if that was the case, that’d be fine. But the problem is, it’s a much more systematic process, which is designed to make film and TV products that are favorable to the U.S. military and its objectives and to the U.S. government itself. If you read the small print of it, mostly what they’re talking about, what they usually like to say is that they’re doing this for reasons of accuracy, that they’re supporting these films for reasons of accuracy but in practice, really, they are shaping whole narratives, they are shaping the way that whole franchises operate. Things like NCIS, The Last Ship, Jack Ryan, these whole series have hundreds of episodes and each of them and so they are having a very direct impact on the whole product about major issues, you know, things like sex crimes in the military, mental illness in the military, policy issues like torture, war crimes, anything to do with chemical imbalance or any thing that is in any way controversial, or might reflect badly on the U.S. government, they don’t like it, they want it, what good does it do them, so they are both trying to shape scripts, and very successfully shaping scripts in their own image, but they’re also making sure that they chop anything out that they might not like.

Adam: Yeah, it seems like when people talk about ‘Oh, we need to go consult with them to make sure it’s real’ or whatever, I think what sort of gives the game away is that they don’t consult with, when you make a torture scene on 24, it’s not like the producers are going to consult with, you know, Muslim American activists or the ACLU, or the National Lawyers Guild, they only consult with the people they agree with ideologically. And one thing I want to touch on is this idea that in sort of researching this, what you realize and we talked about this earlier in this episode, is that the idea that it’s somehow scandalous to work with, in bed with and to promote the ideology of the U.S. government is a fairly modern idea and you see this in the Cold War a lot. There really wasn’t this kind of firewall between supposed independent journalism, creativity, filmmaking, and the broader Cold War project of defeating communism. The idea that there was this precious firewall seems like a sort of fairly new kind of liberal convention, kind of a post-Watergate, if not post-Cold War creation and I want to talk about how there’s a sort of double game that is played in, for example, Mark Boal, when he talks about Zero Dark Thirty, I mean, he just gushes over how great the CIA is and how they’re all heroes and how he, you know, he has, he talks to them — this is the writer of Zero Dark Thirty — and how he talks to them, you know, behind the scenes, and they’re all buddies and then the next thing is, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m not doing CIA propaganda.’ Well, it seems like you can’t have it both ways. There’s always been this sort of double game where you have the sort of Tom Hanks, JFK award center, like hanging out with military brass, and then the next ‘Oh, no, we’re actually independent,’ and I guess I’m what I’m asking is how do these two things exist simultaneously and how much of this really is about having it both ways, that we promote, that we sort of openly acknowledged that Hollywood’s ideological while still maintaining this veneer of kind of independence and truth telling?

Matthew Alford: I just think they don’t really care that much.

Adam: Sure. Yeah. All right. Next question.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: You know, they don’t give a shit.

Matthew Alford

Matthew Alford: It is the case, life is full of contradictions and unless people exercise their power to make something different by voting with their fee, then these kind of sort of fudges and peculiarities can persist. To take the part of your question about how there’s this sort of liberal consensus that it’s not very good for the government to interfere in filmmaking, I do think that that did happen more from the 1970s and I think it was a very welcome way of viewing this kind of thing. We don’t want the government to be involved, especially not heavily involved as it is, in these kinds of productions, particularly on such an industrial scale and I do feel like it’s worth mentioning that, you know, we’re talking about thousands of products here and this is one of the main things that came out of our Freedom of Information Act requests from 2014, 15, the historians who have previously worked on this were a group of basically one who would basically monopolize the field were really saying that there are 200, 300 films that were affected in any way, but you know, we’ve shown that it’s in the thousands and then of course, many episodes of TV shows as well shoots through the roof, the number that we’re looking at in terms of national security organizations that have worked on products into the many thousands now, I think we’re pushing 10,000. Yeah. But that was a welcome change, you know, the fact that people did not want to have government propaganda, and there was a breakdown of that trust in the U.S. government. I mean, I say it’s a good thing, it would have been a better thing if the U.S. government had just behaved in a much more trustworthy manner, so that people weren’t really untrusting of them but that’s the way it was and because there was so much fallout from the various aspects of the disaster of the Vietnam War and because 1975 was the year of intelligence when there were a lot of proper senatorial, congressional investigations and complaints, and a mood turn against the CIA, and to some extent against the Pentagon, in the way that they were manipulating casualties figures and all those kinds of things, because there was that move against them, those organizations knew that they had to do something or they were they were in jeopardy, you know, the ’70s was the post-’68 period was a time of concern for them. And to sort of skip on a little bit as well, I think there was another crisis point as well, which is the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. And this combination of there being a greater degree of distrust towards government and national security organization, combined with the lack of an obvious enemy, led these people to conclude, short of dismantling themselves, which is what there were quite high profile calls for, for the CIA in particular, they were going to have to lie more. They were going to have to get better at PR and the CIA could see from the Pentagon’s work on the film Top Gun in 1986, that they could use that as a model. Again because although it had continued to be working on these films, it redoubled its efforts and realized the value of it in the mid-80s as well. So I think in a way, they would probably see it as them having to fight against this rising tide of skepticism and liberalism, and against this kind of liberal narratives, left-wing narratives that are threatening to overthrow them at any time. But of course, it’s not surprising that they are afraid of that because so much of what they’re doing is so illegitimate for the last 40 years and beyond.

Adam: Real quick, let’s talk about what that looks like. When we talk about influence, what is the most common form of it obviously, to me, the most compelling is what is effectively subsidizing or underwriting a film by using military products and then you have a kind of another form of subsidy, which is giving classified intelligence or kind of detailed accounts of real events, which is the biggest currency in Hollywood is novelty, right? Well, it should be, at least in theory, for the kind of art house crowd it is. Can you talk about what that actually looks like and maybe we can talk about a few examples just to give a sense of what we mean when we talk about the kind of causality of how they influence Hollywood?

Matthew Alford: Yeah, I mean, the main thing that the Pentagon has to give filmmakers is hardware. I don’t know if you’ve paid much attention to CGI graphics but, you know, even now, it doesn’t look great. I was watching a movie the other night and I can’t remember what it was but it was actually quite a, it was quite skeptical of the military and it made me think, ‘Oh, I bet they didn’t work on this,’ and I checked and looked into it, but you could see that the helicopter they were using were quite, quite poor quality. It was that one with Samuel L. Jackson, when he plays the American president who crash lands in a Russian forest and has to work with a little, it was a terrible film.

Nima: What is that?

Adam: Oh, it’s called Big Game, yeah.

Matthew Alford: Yeah but anyway, the end of that film, you can see they bring in CGI helicopters, and they just don’t quite look right and so what the military is able to do is provide things like helicopters, and things like aircraft carriers, you know, really hard things and they look so good, they really make a film, you know, visually, it’s just fantastic. Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down, said ‘I could have made this film without the military, but I’d have had to have called it huey down,’ you know, these tiny, rubbishy little helicopters. And I think that’s quite illustrative of how important filmmakers, including quite smart, shrewd, brilliant filmmakers, like Ridley Scott, you know, that’s how important they see these guys and see that kind of hardware and for the filmmakers, that does save them a lot of money.

Adam: Yeah, which is hugely important.

Matthew Alford: Yeah, it’s going to save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars, depending and some things you just couldn’t really do at all well without those things, and I think they do like to have that relationship as well, because they do value the advice and, you know, so they get the language right and all those kind of things. I’m sure that’s all part of it. And of course, anything that fosters good relationships between the filmmakers over a longer period of time, particularly for people like Michael Bay who are doing Transformers, you know, it means he can always go back to them all the time, because he’s got a good relationship, it’s not just about that one film, it’s not just about trying to save half a million dollars on one movie, it’s so that the next movie in the franchise, they don’t even have to bother, you know, this happened with Transformers, it was one of those few films that the Pentagon didn’t even bother to ask for a script for the second or third can’t remember which one it was, either two or three, they just said ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’

Nima: They’re like, ‘We know you’re going to do the thing we want you to do.’

Matthew Alford: Yeah, so usually they clump you into a contract early and it’s all agreed and you can’t breach that so that sort of goodwill and good feeling that goes with that is what a lot of these filmmakers want, what the Peter Berg type, the Michael Bay, and the Steven Spielberg’s as well, you know that he works with them a lot as well.

Nima: Absolutely.

Matthew Alford: Captain Phillips and all that kind of thing. They want to have these good relationships. No one really loses by having this relationship except for the public if they are aware that they are being deceived.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah. It seems weird to me that if the Pentagon wrote a million-dollar check to make, you know, Captain Phillips, there would be a scandal, but if they subsidize a film with a million dollars’ worth of equipment and logistics, and hardware support, that’s sort of normal, but in effect, there’s not really much difference.

Captain Phillips (2013).

Matthew Alford: No, there isn’t really, I think that a constitutional lawyer might say that there is a difference, but I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I think there are legal ramifications to doing the dodgier sounding one, which is why they’re able to get away with it even though I think there is a good case for what they’re currently doing not to being unconstitutional either. But that’s something for someone from another field to come in and judge.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems just like a Pentagon playground, right? I mean, from everything from the equipment used throughout those films, throughout that entire, you know, massive franchise, but also in terms of the ideological kind of conflation of, I mean, if it’s Iron Man, it’s everything from like private capital in industry to foreign policy, right? There’s this idea that superheroes and the U.S. military are in a way the same thing and that the real life superheroes are the soldiers, are the pilots, are the Marines, or the sailors, et cetera and basically this is an enhanced version, you get to see all the same equipment and amazing new computer graphics that then the military is actually also working with so and so like Microsoft on actually making that real, they’re going to make a real Iron Man suit, all this gets conflated. What have you found in terms of how superhero films are really affected by the militarization of Hollywood?

Matthew Alford: I mean, I think you’ve summarized it quite well and also, so many listeners will know Marvel so well that I think that they’ll be drawing their own conclusions from this and yes, the military does work very closely with Marvel to the extent I find it very difficult to watch, usually I can handle watching military movies and I can enjoy them for what they are but Marvel, my goodness, it’s quite hard work for me these days. But yes, this does happen with these films. I’ll give you an instance of where they did actually have a disagreement about the script on Iron Man 2 I think it was, where Robert Downey Jr.’s character basically says, you know, he makes a kind of subtle quip which alludes to the high level of military suicides, veteran suicides, he says something in the original script, something like ‘They’d kill themselves for this job’ or something like that and apparently that led to the Pentagon liaison officer, the head of it at the time, they never could agree about this line and it eventually led to them actually getting onto set and about to film and having what they, by their own admission, called a stand up blazing row about it just before they were meant to be making the production. So, by their admission, they had a stand up row just before production, when production was about to occur and then eventually the filmmaker, I think it was the producer, I think it was Jon Favreau, he backed down. He basically just came up with a slightly fudged line.

Nima: Sure.

Matthew Alford: Something like ‘I’d give my eyeteeth for that’ or something like that, but yeah, I mean that they are Marvel and the Pentagon are very happy with each other, and they don’t need to make that many changes on those kinds of films. I would add though, that what you said about that conflation of these products, these superhero products or films and the drive to recruit, is they’re really explicitly because sometimes they will actually make military adverts, commercials that specifically say, ‘Come and be like the — ’

Nima: Right. Exactly.

Matthew Alford: They are kind of nauseating really because it’s, you know, young people being dragged into it. I know there’s going to be some positive stories that come out of joining the military, I’m not saying that that never happens, but a lot of people have a really hard time, and they’re being dragged into that from a really young age being pushed into that, by these kinds of efforts. The case that comes to mind is the Superman franchise from the early 2010 to 2013 and that was basically, you know, there’s a whole advert series ‘Be like Superman,’ you know, it’s the same thing you know, you guys have covered cops before, haven’t you? And TV shows about where they’ve sort of, you know, they say exactly the same thing, ‘Why don’t you come and defend your city?’

Nima: Yeah, no, exactly, they’re amazing recruiting tools. I mean, Captain Marvel was basically just a commercial for the Air Force and I think what is kind of consistently striking to me about this is how it butts up against the bullshit notion that Hollywood is this liberal bastion, right? Unless you kind of accurately define liberalism as being very aggressively militaristic, but I think the idea is that it’s not right. It’s those are the lefty peaceniks and, you know, yes, they’re telling these hard stories, yes, they’re the superhero stuff, but then there’s also you know, war films, et cetera, et cetera, but this veneer of Hollywood as the fearless truth tellers, the romantic vision that it has about itself, ‘We stand up for the people, we tell the hard stories, this is about engaging storytelling.’ Now, there are a few things I like more than movies and and Hollywood films, I fucking love them, they are amazing, they are part of what I love about being alive and what I love about art but when investigated, you realize just how brittle this veneer of truth telling is when, as you said, Matthew, there are these, you know, CIA and Pentagon liaisons literally being like, you know, ‘I see what you’re doing there, but could you do this other thing?’ And basically, there’s no recourse from filmmakers to even push back, even if they wanted to because the, you know, the phalanx of military hardware on set already is kind of, that’s the payment they get for altering their script.

Matthew Alford: Yeah, I mean, I suppose that’s kind of an age-old story really of the artist versus the machine to which they toil and things can be changed. There are cultural shifts that can help with that. And I think also, I mean, it’s worth remembering that if you go looking, and you find smaller studios and lower funded films, and you search around and you may find that they had difficulty in distribution, you can nevertheless find some really amazing films that are including ones that are quite explicitly against the kind of, you know, the main pillars of Western domination. But a film called The East comes to mind, one about environmental activists which is quite prophetic to those people from 2013. I watched The Report just a few days ago with Adam Driver and that’s an example of a film that really systematically and very carefully attacks one of these major pillars of Western power, you know, the right to torture, and the right to secrecy, and it pulls that apart really quite well. It’s a bit of a cop-out ending, which, perhaps I shouldn’t —

Nima: Yeah, we don’t have to do a spoiler but that’s enough I think.

Matthew Alford: But ultimately it does paint John McCain in a rather positive light but nevertheless —

Nima: Well, that’s also rule number three of Hollywood and all news media. So I guess you kind of can find those, but it’s, you know, almost the exceptions that prove the rule, right?

Matthew Alford: Yeah, I mean, this is the thing, you know, if you want to call it a kind of dominant ideology, you know, that the broad trend is towards supporting the major pillars of American power, and to not question those and yeah you can find exceptions and if you want to make a really cool DVD collection, then you can, and you can find political productions of all different stripes, but look at the patterns of that, look at what kind of budgets those productions had, look at the kind of difficulties that they had in their release and look at the kind of coverage that they had in the media as well, although, you know, all those aspects and almost always they’ve really struggled in one way or another. Or look at a film like Avatar, really interesting case, I really disliked Avatar when I first saw it, but a lot of people were saying, you know, ‘This is a amazing film about these lovely blue people, it doesn’t like the military in it, because they’re sort of imperialist’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t think that’s right because actually, there’s, you know, you kind of got a military character who’s the hero in this,’ and James Cameron went on Fox News to talk about it, I thought it was really interesting, because Fox obviously had made the film, but it kind of had this bit of a liberal thing going on in it and so all the newscasters hated that and James Cameron had to sell this multi-billion-dollar film, but they kind of had to address the elephant in the room, which is that there’s kind of a bit of an anti-imperialist thing going on here and so watch that interview and it’s basically James Cameron saying, ‘Well, that didn’t really matter, you know, it was about a military hero. We think that, you know, people are reading into it too much if they think that there’s an anti-Empire thing going on here.’ They kind of softball it and it’s kind of a really awkward interview where they’re all just trying to keep hold of that billion dollars, you know, don’t drop the ball, because we’re all on the same side, ‘We hate what you did slightly.’

Nima: And he’s like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t really doing that, even though I was actually doing that.’ (Laughs.)

Matthew Alford: It seems to me in that case, he was probably making a perfect, you know, it was hard to get away from the fact he was making a film that kind of opposed imperialism and war.

Nima: Well, and specifically, I’d say the Bush administration, I mean, the whole like, unobtainium is like the oil of Iraq, it really just has this sort of, it’s kind of clear, which I think makes it appealing in a certain way, but also as you said, I mean, when the main characters, when the heroes, when the protagonists of these films are themselves soldiers, then it, I mean, you kind of have to keep questioning, it kind of also gets wrapped up into white saviorism, which is wrapped up into militarism and colonialism. I mean, you have something like The Last Samurai, where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s about, you know, the noble Samurai culture in Japan that’s being overtaken by British colonialism’ and it’s like, okay, sure, but also the hero is Tom Cruise.

Unobtainium, from Avatar (2009).

Matthew Alford: It was, I remember seeing that.

Nima: Yeah, who is a, you know, American soldier who participated in General Custer’s last stand, and he made it out alive but then he has a newfound respect for, you know, indigenous people, it just winds up being gross. If you investigate any of this stuff, it just winds up being like I actually see what they’re doing there and it’s not the thing that you wish it was, at least if you’re me.

Matthew Alford: But let me add something to the Avatar story, which is that, fine, other people might have interpreted it differently and they might have seen this sort of liberal narrative going through it and I didn’t, but that’s fine. But what was interesting was the Avatar appeared on one of the lists that we found of the Department of Defense supported films, which we did not know at the time, because it was not admitted at the time. Now, we don’t know the extent to which they made changes on that script but there’s every indication that it will have been contracted in with the military and of course with Fox and all those parts that go with it, and my suspicion, and there are some areas that we just don’t, we don’t always know, because it’s not the full documentation, there’s hundreds of thousands of pages of documents one way or another, as has been admitted in emails to Tom Secker, my colleague, that, you know, just aren’t available. They just say we’re not making it available for whatever it is, but I think that one of the main changes in that film was probably that there’s some really awkward dialogue in it about when the military are attacking the indigenous peoples and they make it really clear in the script that it is not the U.S. military that is doing it. They make it clear that it is mercenaries who are operating outside of that and that the U.S. military back on Earth, words to the effect of, are still fighting the good fight. It’s a small change and I know a lot of people won’t even notice it but imagine if that hadn’t been in there and you’ve actually got this, you’ve got the biggest production of all time, basically literally showing the American military being these monsters. They make subtle changes like that, really, and it’s important, it changes the whole kind of political fear of an entire production.

Nima: Well, yeah, I think actually, the presence of ex-military mercenaries is an entire genre of villain in Hollywood, right? So, you get all the stuff about, you get all the training, and all the badassery and all the equipment and all the guns and all the, you know, helicopters and shit, but it’s all because ‘Oh, they’re ex-military, and now they’ve turned bad so that now they’re just out for profit but they were trained by the best on Earth.’ That kind of shit.

Matthew Alford: Yeah.

Nima: Matthew, before we let you go, can you tell us a little bit about maybe some new research you’re working on, what we can look forward to from you on this topic in the future?

Matthew Alford: Well, the main thing I’d like to mention, because I think that people will really enjoy it, is a new film that we have coming out in the autumn called Theatres of Command. So keep an eye out for Theatres of Command or follow me on Facebook or my Facebook is the Writer With No Hands and so if you search that, and follow that, you’ll see updates. Theatres of Command is all about this relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood and we’ve come up with a load of new information. In fact, the primary research is led by Roger Stile and by Tom Secker and I’m in the film as a commentator. They have found lots of new information over the past year or so and it’s a really exciting time.

Nima: That is fantastic. I can’t wait to see that. Matthew Alford, writer, filmmaker, professor at the University of Bath where he teaches Film and Media International Relations and British and American Politics, the author with Tom Secker of the book National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood and soon, a part of Theatres of Command coming out later this year. Matthew, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Matthew Alford: Thank you.


Adam: It’s interesting the sort of ambiguity of where you draw the line between mere consulting or loaning planes versus, from Hollywood’s perspective, they don’t really care if the military has control, you know, because they’re more or less ideologically aligned anyway, I think what it does is it really kind of polishes off what was already a symbiotic relationship and, you know, I don’t think that, with few exceptions, you’re not really going to get a lot of subversive war films while there’s this constant cash flow because the incentive is so great. I mean, millions of dollars, the margins on some of these risky movies are pretty good so that extra million dollars can basically be the difference between getting a movie made and not getting made. And again, the exchange of intelligence and inside information and all that stuff matters too and even some massive extras, that influence is not subtle and I think that the culture of cozy relationship between the military and Hollywood goes beyond even these consultation and loan arrangements. I mean, many media companies are massive military contractors, right? You know, Amazon, Comcast, you know, these are, you know, Amazon has a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollar contract with the CIA and they produce a lot of programs, one of the biggest players in entertainment now. So even beyond the arrangements, you have a sort of general culture of not really wanting to ruffle too many feathers.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Now, there are some exceptions, you know, we’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, you know, you have movies like The Bourne Identity, which they do this thing where it makes the CIA look like a bunch of psychos assassinating people.

Nima: And like brainwashing operatives.

Adam: And brainwashing operatives which is sort of bad and the CIA would definitely not sign off on that, but at the same time, the second you’re done watching The Bourne Identity, you’re like, ‘Man, I want to be a super spy who speaks five languages that can fucking kill anyone with a pen.’

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: So the French filmmaker Francois Truffaut said, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” which I think about a lot, because it’s true. Even when you try to make things, with some rare exceptions, in fact, I think the only real subversive way you can cover war is to make it boring and tedious which is why I think movies like The Thin Red Line, and even Jarhead are kind of anti-war films and even to some extent, Full Metal Jacket, because they make it look boring and sad versus Saving Private Ryan, where the second you walk out of that, you’re 14 years old, you’re like, ‘That’s badass, I want to go fight in the military.’ So even Bourne Identity, right? That sort of makes the CIA look bad, at the end you still want to go off and join the CIA and be a super spy because you’re some 18-, 19-year-old adolescent who wants to, you know, who wants to be cool, wants to go off and join the military and be a super spy or whatever and I think that’s one of the things because again, it’s not as if Hollywood doesn’t sometimes produce anti-war things vaguely or criticize the CIA. You know, a lot of that’s gone away in recent years, they really kind of reached the nadir in the ‘70s and ‘80s and you don’t really see a lot of it anymore within the major studio systems, obviously independent films are different.

Nima: The idea that cultural products are the storytelling of our society and that the influence Hollywood has is similar, I mean, it goes back to that Valenti, quote, the DNA of the U.S. government, and certainly its violence is very much the same kind of DNA that built Hollywood. It’s all based on myth-making. So how do you tell these stories even in a critical way and not still sort of feed into the myths like the quote from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut where none other than the character Harrison Starr, noted famous Hollywood director says this, “An anti-war book? Why not write an anti-glacier book instead?” Meaning that this is an inevitable thing. You can’t stop a glacier. You can’t stop war from occurring. This is a natural human tendency. And films just kind of bolster that. What we’ve seen throughout these three episodes, which I think Adam, I can maybe speak for you, were really fun to do, although also really frustrating and the digging into these films that, you know, a lot of them are really fun to watch, that we grew up watching, but that they’re really sinister in some of the stuff that they project and and it’s, again, not just these one offs, the product of screenwriters and directors and producers and actors, but oftentimes for blockbuster movies that feature airplanes and shit and also, you know, Top Chef, there’s actual government influence there.

Adam: We talk a lot about free speech and free expression, and I don’t want to be too cynical, but it’s not as if what’s ultimately produced from Hollywood is purely this pristine a priori creation in someone’s heart. There are so many incentives to push one in a certain way. There’s cultural assumptions there are, you know, a lot of filmmakers, a lot of writers are not very thoughtful about it. They sort of just assume, you know, it’s like the fish swimming in water, they don’t notice he runs evil, of course, right? You have racism, you have a lack of Arab and Muslim representation in the whole process of making it, you have this huge ATM machine in the Defense Department who’s willing to subsidize your movie, if it makes U.S. military look like a bunch of square-jawed heroes. So there’s all these forces that make our culture gravitate towards conservatism, and something that reflects ultimately really the ideology of American exceptionalism and I think, whether it’s anti-Arab racism or the direct influence of the military on films, which of course are interwoven, I think that as creators, as filmmakers, as writers, you want to challenge people to try to work outside those systems and I know some people do and it’s, it’s hard, it’s hard to get financed that way but you really, I think, want to not be part of this inertia or even active form of imperial propaganda or racism or is just mindless kind of DoD propaganda and I think we’re we’re seeing that a little bit more because some of that taboo, that firewall is breaking down with some of the police procedures, now you’re having people that write on police shows starting to push back. So maybe our same kind of cultural shift can happen, albeit a very minor one can happen with Hollywood and think maybe we shouldn’t just do another Air Force commercial, maybe we shouldn’t just do another commercial with faceless Arab bad guys, but think critically about how we’re fueling these systems of empire and hate I think, I think that would be my wish. That’s sort of the thesis of the series, if you will.

Michael Brooks

Nima: And that will do it for this, the three-part episode on Hollywood. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Now, before we go, this past Monday, July 20, we got the news that friend of mine, fellow podcaster, political commentator, and all around just really, really, really good guy Michael Brooks passed away, and so we not only want to mention that and say that for those that were lucky enough to know Michael, lucky enough to hang out with him, I would say for me, lucky enough to have him consistently show up for my very low-key birthday party year after year, it was always an incredible pleasure to know the guy. He did really phenomenal work. He had a moral compass second to none, and he will really be missed.

Adam: Yeah. I didn’t know him, but I know, based on the circles we roll in, I know a lot of people who did know him, including you, and it appears to be universal grief. He seemed to have a huge heart, someone who was politically committed to justice and the alleviation of poverty. If you have a chance, check out his work, look at his backlog, back catalog, and the only thing one can do is to just sort of try to carry on and push forward with the mission of social justice and economic justice.

Nima: Yeah, Michael, from his work on Majority Report to his own The Michael Brooks Show, was just a consistent voice for making this world a better place to be, and as a friend, I will also miss him tremendously. There will be in the coming days more information, perhaps about a foundation in his name, and we can give that information out when we have it. But for now, keep that guy in your mind, listen to his work, read his work. He was really an incredible person, and to all his family and friends, wishing them all the best, and Michael, you’ll be missed, buddy.

Next week, we’ll be back with the final episode of our season. Season three of Citations Needed, we’ve been doing it for three years, and then we will be back in September. So thank you, everyone, as always for listening to Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, a very special shout-out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartelano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, again. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.