Have you ever seen the 1984 American movie Top Gun? It features a young, handsome Tom Cruise at his most energetic and charismatic, following him and his merry band of Navy pilots as they fight off the Soviets in dramatic, rock-n-roll fashion. The movie grossed over 350 million dollars worldwide, and the sequel is due out this year. If you watch it today, it will probably seem a bit cheesy, over the top, not particularly inspiring. However, less than a decade after the Vietnam War, the US government hoped it would restore the American military’s positive image throughout the country. In fact, the US Department of Defense worked directly with the film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, hoping that the movie would attract new recruits to the Navy. In return, Bruckheimer and co got to use actual military equipment to make their sets as realistic as possible.
Believe it or not, this type of partnership has been going on for nearly a century. Blockbusters like Apollo 13, Iron Man, and Transformers were partially shaped by the hand of the American government. Along with every branch of the US military, the CIA and FBI also have dedicated liaisons to Hollywood. These liaisons seduce the film’s creators to ensure that the movie reflects them in a positive light. In some circumstances, the military has the power to cut entire scenes in exchange for priceless intel and equipment.
Altogether, the result has been highly effective propaganda, making the US government look heroic and powerful. But, sometimes, the propaganda takes on a much more political message. The truth is, we’ve probably all seen and enjoyed at least a few movies that could never have been made without the inclusion of the American military. The question is, just how deeply involved the government is in the films we watch?
America’s civil servants have long attempted to influence public opinion via propaganda, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. The practice has taken several forms, always changing to utilize new technologies. The earliest types of propaganda were posters or public speakers on street corners. Julius Caesar was the first to use newspapers for spreading his political ideas, and the US government followed suit. However, these types of propaganda had a glaring weakness. In most cases, people were aware that the government was influencing the messaging. Newspapers couldn’t always be trusted, as any journalist could be in the government’s pockets.
With the advent of film, though, this idea began to change. One of the earliest films ever was a sort of racist propaganda tool in its own right. “The Birth of a Nation” lionized the KKK for its fight against non-Aryans in the Civil War. When the film was released in 1915, the bigoted ideas were already controversial, but they were conveyed in such a dramatic, compelling way that some people were convinced.
Officials throughout the US government took notice. According to the head of the Office of War Information, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they’re being propagandized.”
The Army had its first opportunity to test this theory in the 1920s when a famous filmmaker sought to portray a story of love and drama in World War One. The movie, called “Wings,” focused on two American fighter pilots in love with the same woman. The silent film’s producers needed realistic military equipment to ensure that the movie would seem genuine to pilots who flew in the war. So, they reached out to officials in the Army, who responded enthusiastically. The Army administrators reviewed the early screenplay, ensuring it made the military look good. As their stamp of approval, the Army provided thousands of soldiers to act as extras, along with millions of dollars of equipment. In 1927, the film won Best Picture at the first-ever Academy Awards.
Over the next fifteen years, the Army collaborated with filmmakers a handful of times, but the partnership reached new heights during the Second World War. With millions of young men joining the military and women at home needed in factories, the government needed to ensure public support. America needed the people to trust that they weren’t sending young men to die in vain. Rather than developing their own film expertise, the Army decided to collaborate with the experts, so they established an official Hollywood liaison office.
In the following decades, nobody knew just how involved the military was in the movie business— nobody, that is, except for those in Hollywood. Whenever a studio began production of a new war film, they called the local military rep. Not until 2017 did the numbers become clear. Since the production of “Wings” in 1927, the Department of Defense had its hands in more than 800 movies and 1,100 television shows. But, this begs the question, what exactly did this involvement entail?
For a long time, it was believed that the relationship was apolitical. The studio allowed military officials to request script changes in exchange for advice, permission to use locations, and equipment, like aircraft carriers. Sometimes the changes were limited, and other times quite extensive. For the 2003 movie “Hulk,” it was the latter. Throughout the movie, the Hulk was referred to as a monster, one created in a US military lab. The DoD insisted that the military be dissociated with the film entirely. They didn’t want to be blamed for creating the giant, green killer. In the movie, the plan for capturing the Hulk was called Operation Ranch Hand. The DoD requested a name change to Operation Angry Man, as Ranch Hand was the name of an actual chemical warfare program in Vietnam. Most script changes reflected these two values: one, don’t associate the military with negative things; two, don’t reference real-life mistakes or atrocities.
According to some film industry experts, the military didn’t just offer support, though. Ambitious movies with small budgets often relied on military equipment to keep costs down. In that case, the military could essentially hold a film hostage, refusing to supply the necessary gear and facilities unless the script was tailored to their tastes. By withholding their aircraft carriers and weaponry, they could bankrupt the production. Keep in mind, though, that these aren’t only war films we’re talking about here. For the second half of the twentieth century, the military was involved in almost any movie using firearms or large explosives. Besides those already mentioned, some of the most famous examples include “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Terminator.”
While the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines have their hands in Hollywood, they aren’t the only ones. The CIA established their film liaison department in 1996, but they were involved in movie-making for almost as long as the Army. Initially, though, they played a very different role.
In the 1940s and 50s, the CIA did its best to ensure that no one knew it existed, so they discouraged studios from including any mention of the secretive agency. The first on-screen reference to the CIA was in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest.”
However, sometimes the CIA directly influenced stories for a political purpose, but in a much stranger way than the Army. The most famous example was the 1954 movie “Animal Farm,” based on George Orwell’s novel. The entire book was an analogy for world ideologies, with each farm animal representing a political belief. In the eyes of the CIA, the pigs, representing the Communist masters, were far too powerful at the book’s end. In the movie, the story was changed so that the rest of the animals overthrew the pigs. This seemed like an odd change at the time. However, in the 1990s, a Cold War historian discovered something strange. Through a secretive shell company, the CIA had purchased the rights to the film and ordered the change. While the movie’s British producers knew they were working for Americans, they had no idea it was the CIA. The agency hoped that the pigs’ comeuppance would resonate throughout Europe, perhaps spurring an anti-Communist revolution.
Over the years, though, the CIA changed gears several times. In the 1970s, public perception of the agency plummeted. From the mid-70s to mid-90s, the CIA did their best to avoid public attention. When they were featured in films, it was usually as the villain. Without a friendly representative in Hollywood, studios felt empowered to tell stories critical of the government. Films promoted narratives of CIA ineptitude, like Iran-Contra or the Chilean coup of the 1970s.
So, in 1996, they established their own liaison to Hollywood. Instead of working beneath the surface, like in Animal Farm, they adopted the tactics of their military kin. The secret agency had some equipment and facilities to contribute, but their most valuable asset was information. All they wanted in return was to be portrayed in the dramatic, heroic light that had been reserved for soldiers and generals.
The earliest examples of this were in the film depictions of Tom Clancy’s novels. The always handsome and bold Jack Ryan was played by a series of actors, including Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. Eventually, the relationship with Affleck would pay off big time. During the actor’s starring role in “Sum of all Fears,” he was taken to the CIA headquarters in Langley, where he toured facilities that even some agency employees had never laid eyes on. However, not every actor gets the same treatment. For much of its run, the television drama Homeland was among the CIA’s favorite programs. The show’s star, American Claire Danes, was given the same tour as Affleck. Meanwhile, her British co-star, Damien Lewis, wasn’t even allowed in the gift shop. Non-Americans rarely get to step foot inside the building at all.
The CIA’s biggest year in film was, undoubtedly, 2012. That year, Ben Affleck directed and starred in the movie Argo, which told the mostly true story of how the CIA rescued American hostages during the Iranian Revolution of ’79. The film goes to great lengths to portray the Americans as valiant saviors. In doing so, the writers almost entirely cut out the critical role that the Canadian government played in the operation. In the movie’s climax— spoiler alert— the CIA plane takes off from a runway in Tehran as Iranian soldiers chase after it wielding machine guns. That never happened. In return for their friendly portrayal, the CIA let Affleck and crew film inside the CIA headquarters. Their investment paid off. Argo grossed 230 million dollars and won the Best Picture award at the Oscars.
That same year, the CIA had another one of their biggest wins with the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Unlike Argo, Zero Dark Thirty told a recent story— the CIA and Navy Seals’ collaboration to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011. As such, details of the hunt were unknown to the public at the time of the movie’s release. But, that wasn’t a problem for the producers. The CIA director Leon Panetta personally approved the film’s director and writer sitting in on secretive meetings. In most cases, they were the only civilian personnel with knowledge of the operation’s details. Panetta’s main request was that the team do their best to cast Al Pacino to play him. In the end, the role went to the slightly less iconic James Gandolfini.
Yet, Zero Dark Thirty played another vital role for the CIA— a much more political one. In the years after 9/11, the American government began employing “enhanced interrogation tactics”— torture— to uncover details in their search for bin Laden. As stories of the brutal tactics came to light, the CIA once again felt the heat from the American public. Zero Dark Thirty revealed the critical role that information gained through torture played in finding and killing Bin Laden.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be far from the truth. A Senate committee determined that the CIA didn’t find any helpful information from detainees that they tortured. Yet, this wasn’t just something that the producers revealed to make the CIA look good. The agency’s liaison had intentionally misled the writer and director in an effort to craft the film to his— and the agency’s— liking.
Many movie producers understand that this sort of thing happens. The CIA agents tell over-dramatized stories in the hopes of making their profession look glamorous and sexy. Sometimes these stories are harmless, but other times, like in Zero Dark Thirty, they can have enormous political implications. As recently as 2017, polls showed that 48 percent of Americans believe that torture is justified in some circumstances despite proof of its ineffectiveness.
This isn’t just because the American military has a fresh batch of recruits each year, though. It has much more to do with American beliefs on what is going on outside the country. During World War Two, the Army helped produce films that depicted the atrocities committed by German and Japanese soldiers. They did this during other wars, too, showing just how terrible their enemies were.
During Vietnam, the American public grew tired of the military’s involvement overseas. So, the legendary actor John Wayne did his best to change that. Wayne wrote letters to President LBJ asking for help in making a pro-US film about the war. After some correspondence, Johnson granted Wayne the privilege of meeting with generals and soldiers to get the most precise picture of the conflict. The movie depicted the North Vietnamese committing terrible atrocities against American soldiers. Decades after the war, it became clear that the Americans committed these atrocities and, they were transposed to the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes.
In many ways, the Vietnam-era propaganda was much more effective than what came before. During the 60s and 70s, the military poured more money than ever into war films, especially those that stressed just how dangerous the world was. Films focused on evil nations and enterprises hoping to knock off the world’s superpower.
After the first and second world wars, as well as Korea, military spending was cut dramatically. After all, there was no need to dedicate so much money to military spending with the threat neutralized. However, after years of watching propaganda films, public opinion began to shift. Now, the threat was never over, and only the United States could do anything to stop it. In the end, it seems that the 1920s Army official was correct: Hollywood just might be the American government’s most effective propaganda tool.
So what do you think? Does a little propaganda here or there make that big of a difference? Or is it easy to separate fiction from reality? How do you view the American Army or CIA, and how is that view impacted by the films you enjoy? Are Hollywood blockbusters still excessively pro-government? Or has that image changed in recent years?