Tales From Earth:CIA The forbidden fruit of Hollywood
CIA: The Forbidden Fruit of Hollywood
The CIA is an organization that has been shrouded in secrecy from its beginning. Due to the sensitive nature of their daily business, they cannot reveal anything about themselves that might endanger the United States or its citizens. The allure of this secrecy causes public demand for anything pertaining to the CIA. This has caused a wonderful genre of film to expand its borders into governmental conspiracy. Hollywood takes a bit of knowledge about the CIA, fabricates the rest, and mixes it with drama, suspense and plot twists to create a movie.
How do these movies create such a semblance of the reality of the CIA? First it is necessary to know the history. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to move towards organized, governmental intelligence when he asked William J. Donovan, a New York attorney, to draft a plan for a new intelligence service. Donovan was appointed Coordinator of Information (COI) in July 1941, creating the nation’s first non-departmental intelligence organization in times of peace. After America entered WWII in December of 1941, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) came forth as a means to gather and assess strategic information needed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to perform special operations that were not assigned to other agencies.
In January 1946, Truman, then the president, established the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), whose mission was to provide strategic warning and conduct ‘clandestine activities.’ The CIG consisted of a Presidential representative, Secretaries of State, War and Navy. The first Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, USNR, who was also the Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence.
The CIG was disestablished in December of 1947 due to the National Security Act of 1947, which also created the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This Act gave the CIA the responsibility of coordinating the nation’s intelligence activities and correlating, evaluating, and disseminating intelligence affecting national security as well as giving the DCI authority as head of the Intelligence Community, CIA, and principal intelligence adviser to the President.
During the Cold War, the CIA tried to discretely manipulate the way the rest of the world viewed the US. In 1953, executive Head of Foreign and Domestic Censorship at Paramount Pictures, Luigi Luraschi, reported to a CIA contact known by the alias ‘Owen’ through letters. Fourteen of these letters from Luraschi to ‘Owen’ were recently declassified by the CIA. In them, the role that Luraschi played in ‘cleaning’ our American films that would be played abroad through implanting of ‘dignified negroes,’ the removal of alcoholics, and an emphasis on nationalism is seen. For example, in the Martin-Lewis gold comedy Caddy, Negroes were planted in the crowd wearing nice clothes and driving ‘up-to-date cars.’ (Eldridge 11) Or in the film Houdini, an entire character was cut from the movie because he was written as an alcoholic. (Eldridge 19) Luraschi also advised his contact of things he might want to try influencing in other production companies, what to be wary of, and who he might be successful at trying to manipulate in order to create a better image of America abroad. This being only the sixth year of the CIA’s operations, they had an incredible, yet subtle influence over the American Film Industry.
Contrary to popular belief, the CIA cannot and will not spy on American citizens unless they are suspected of espionage or terrorist activities. The law specifically prohibits the collection of intelligence concerning the domestic activities of US citizens. In order to collect information on US citizens suspected of espionage or terroristic activities, there must be higher approval, sometimes coming from as high as the Attorney General, or the DCI. This rule was laid out in Executive order 12333 of 1981. Furthermore, this order prohibits the CIA from taking part in assassinations, whether directly or indirectly.
Today, all of the CIA’s operations are done in secret, leaving the only public knowledge of the CIA to be reported through movies and television shows. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has no real knowledge of the CIA; instead, the Agency is used to tell a fictional story. Most stories have a semblance of truth, but lack much fact, because who needs facts to make a movie? It’s not the facts that sell movies, it’s the suspense. The existence of the CIA is immanent in Spy Kids, a children’s film about young CIA agents, where the Agency is a wonderful, fun world filled with amazing gadgets and bright colors. The CIA takes on a slightly more covert role in the adolescent hit Agent Cody Banks where a young teenage male is recruited to get close to a female teenager in order to retrieve important information about new weapons. This film shows the CIA doing their teen agent’s homework so he can perform his duties. Again, the Agency is a wonderful, fun, yet secretive organization still dealing in gadgets, but with a bigger emphasis on the actual retrieval of intelligence.
The CIA takes on a less childish approach in Bad Company. This film also portrays the Agency to be overtly good, mainly dealing with the issue of preemptively buying a nuclear weapon to keep it from terrorists. In Spy Game, a compromise that the CIA might make is seen, letting one of their field agents die rather than risk having anything get in the way of a trade agreement between the U.S. and China. In The Recruit, the danger of a rogue agent using his rank to manipulate people unknowingly into helping him smuggle out secrets from Langley, the CIA headquarters is shown. This film uses plot twists to change the audience’s viewpoint throughout the movie, keeping them from knowing who is good and who is bad. This movie is a great example of the ‘darker’ side of the CIA, where the Agency is still good, but the prevailing view is of a sinister, rogue agent.
The CIA also plays a role outside of the big-screen. Every Sunday night on ABC, Agent Sydney Bristow of the TV show Alias works as an agent for SD-6, a rogue agency posing as the CIA, while being a double agent for the CIA in order to bring down SD-6. This takes the world of the intelligence community even further by bringing forth the idea of the ‘double agent’ and the dangers that go along with that role. Get Smart, first airing in September 1965, had a comical view of spies. Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86, was a horribly inept, underpaid, and overzealous spy. Probably one of the most hilarious spy shows in history, Get Smart featured a slew of crazy gadgets ranging from phones hidden in shoes to baby doll recording devices, to bulletproof pajamas. “Looking for an agent? Check under your seat cushion. Want a weapon? Try your finger gun. Need to make a phone call? Open up that bologna sandwich.” (TVTome)
So how does the CIA feel about their portrayal in media? As stated on their website, part of their public affairs office includes a ‘Publication and Film Industry Liaison Officer’ whose job is to “provide advice and guidance to authors, screenwriters, directors, and producers who need information and insight into the world of foreign intelligence gathering.” The CIA feels that by working with film production companies, they can help provide a “more realistic portrayal” of themselves and promote a “better understanding of and appreciation for the Agency, its mission, and its employees.”
Sometimes in films, you see the same basic organization, with the same underlying storyline, only the Agency is different. Hollywood’s perception of our government for the purpose of entertainment has ultimate portability. They use different names, but they are still portrayed in the same manner. After all, what’s in a name? In this case, it doesn’t matter if it is called CIA, NSA, FBI, or ARA (any random acronym) it’s still the same basic fabrication that is seen. The only difference between the CIA and other entities is a lesser shroud of secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the organization at hand. It is this same basic fabrication seen in Enemy of the State, showing what happens when an ordinary citizen unknowingly obtains evidence incriminating an NSA official of a political assassination and cover-up. In this instance, the NSA was portrayed rather than the CIA, and they were very corrupt, using illegal means to bring forth the political changes needed to help their organization move forward and gain more power.
Now the roles that the CIA plays in Hollywood productions have been set forth. There is the role of the good guy, or protagonist, and the role of the bad guy, or antagonist. In instances where the CIA is the protagonist, they are battling against villains across the world in order to stop the nuclear armament of terrorists and to gain intelligence to be used by the US government to protect the safety of our nation and its citizens. In instances where the CIA is the antagonist, they are using all means necessary to gain control of the country, its citizens, or its money. Usually in movies, the entire CIA is not corrupt, only a few high ranking individuals. These individuals act as a rogue element, taking it upon themselves to gain power, information, or assets without the orders from higher powers.
So what is it about this genre of entertainment that is so entertaining? Why is it so enjoyable? For one, we as humans are drawn to the forbidden. When you’re a child and your mother tells you not to touch the iron, what do you do? When you’re walking down and empty street and there is a bench with a sign informing you not to touch it because it freshly painted and wet, are you not inclined to touch it? Of course you are. It’s human nature to be attracted to what is forbidden. In Genesis 3, it didn’t take much influence to get Eve to eat the ‘forbidden apple’ causing the ‘fall of man’ and the subsequent inborn drive to the forbidden. By shrouding their actions in secrecy, the CIA makes itself attractive. Since we cannot know the truth about it, we are inclined to speculate and fabricate one. We desire to know what we cannot. As humans we strive for knowledge, we are an inquisitive species. It’s innate.
Another part of this genre that is so attractive is the action. Anyone possessing a predominance of testosterone to estrogen (meaning men) and many of the opposite (meaning women) love a good action movie. What is a movie without action? You cannot have a CIA movie without action any more than you can have a bad horror film without cheesy gore and nudity. How about gadgets? Any self-respecting male loves gadgets. There is nothing cooler than a BMW that can be driven remotely from a wrist watch, or a credit card that picks locks. Electronic surveillance equipment, miniature sound recording devices and the radio frequency jammers that keep those recording devices from transmitting are all part of the intriguing aspect of high tech gadgets. And who can resist a gun wonderfully disguised as a walking cane or a telephone hidden in a shoe. (And a sink!)
The real CIA is at work everyday behind the scenes to keep our country safe and informed of approaching danger, however Hollywood’s fabrication of the CIA is a wonderful form of entertainment soliciting itself in many suspense films. Due to the secrecy required to carry out their duties, the CIA will remain shrouded in doubt, but at least movies can shed light on the lie that keeps us all entertained for anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours.
“An Epic Mini-Series Event” 5 Feb. 2004 <http://www.cbc.ca/taken/>
Agent Cody Banks. Dir. Harold Zwart. MGM, 2003.
CIA Factbook. CIA.gov. 16 March 2004. <http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/facttell/index.html>
Eldridge, David N. “’Dear Owen’: The CIA, Luigi Luraschi and Hollywood, 1953.” Historical Jornal of Film, Radio and Television. Vol. 20, No. 2 (2000)
Enemy of the State. Dir. Tony Scott. Touchstone, 1998.
“The Enemy Walks In.” Alias. Dir. Ken Olin. ABC. 6 Sept. 2002.
Joey241. “The Recruit” Movie Spoiler Archive (2003). 5 Feb. 2004 <http://www.themoviespoiler.com/Spoilers/recruit.html>
RDToo. “If Hollywood Deal with Reality…” Online Posting. 20 Oct. 2003. Gardenweb. 16 Feb. 2004. <http://glyphs.gardenweb.com/forums/load/circle/msg1002444428809.html>
The Recruit. Dir. Roger Donaldson. Touchstone, 2003.
“Spies: Secrets from the CIA, KGB and Hollywood.” 21 Feb. 2004 <http://www.cia.gov/csi/exhibits/ReaganSpiesExhibit.htm>
Sterrit, David. “New Spy Kids on the Block:[ALL EDITION].” Christian Science Monitor Mar. 2003: 15
Sylwester, Robert. “How Mass Media Affect Our Perception of Reality –- Part 1.” Brain Buzz Dec 2001. 16 Feb 2004. <http://www.brainconnection.com/content/172_1>
TvTome. “Get Smart.” 23 Feb. 2004. http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/ShowMainServlet/showid-1014/