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How The C.I.A. Shaped Hollywood Spies

For many, the Mission Impossible movies are fun action flicks that portray agent Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) as he gallivants around the world to foil dastardly plots from evil super villains. Ethan is cut from the same cloth as James Bond, and Jason Bourne (subtle alliteration, I know), except this series, doesn’t bother with the moral ambiguity of many, modern-day spy thrillers. It’s about high-speed chases, explosions, crosses, and doubles-crosses. The actions of Ethan and his US-based agency are depicted as unquestionably noble, which given the nature of U.S. foreign policy in real life, makes it harmful propaganda meant to portray U.S. foreign interventions in a heroic light. This propaganda is not coincidental and is the work of years of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has long sought to control how the citizens of the United States, and the world, perceive its actions. For those that don’t know, the CIA is a global intelligence gathering operation for the United States. Since its inception in 1947, the agency has attempted to manipulate members of the media to focus exclusively on its more positive aspects. Operation Mockingbird, which began in the 1950s and continued up to the 1970s, co-opted hundreds of journalists to disseminate propaganda and even to assist with missions directly. After this was revealed to the public in the 70s, the agency established an Office of Public Affairs to be more transparent with this process (as open as a spy agency can be anyway), but even though the process has become quasi-public, the agency still promotes pro-U.S. spy propaganda.

Propaganda is a loaded word. My go-to association with the term is WWII videos about patriotism, but to those not binging 1940s historical dramas, it might be the image of Che Guevara or the use of the fake news by Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Most people probably don’t have a working definition of propaganda, but most likely do have an informal sense of what propaganda is: terrible people maliciously spreading false information to make bad stuff happen. Nazi’s demonizing non-Aryan people. Mao’s little red book. Donald Trump trashing the mainstream media. These are all perfect examples of propaganda.

The reality, though, is more complicated. People like Donald Trump undoubtedly disseminate propaganda, but their hateful comments aren’t the only type of propaganda to exist. The word propaganda comes from the Latin verb propagare, meaning “to propagate, to disseminate, or to spread.” It is just the term we use for ideas and beliefs that are intentionally spread. Propaganda has been used as long as intellectual divisions have existed. It has been used to promote both bad and good ideas.

The United State’s Center For Disease Control (CDC), for example, has run anti-smoking ads for years now. These ads rely on fear-based tactics to scare smokers into quitting, and they have had great success. Nearly a 100,000 Americans stopped smoking for good as a result of a 2014 campaign. Knowing what we know about smoking’s harmful effects, it’s hard to argue that this type of propaganda is morally wrong. Many things fall into the helpful propaganda camp: anti-gun adverts, the testimonials of LGBT+ couples, pro-choice pamphlets. These narratives all manipulate consumers into adopting positive behavior. It’s propaganda, sans the Nazis.

I am not just calling Mission Impossible propaganda, however. I am accusing the makers of this series of whitewashing U.S. espionage to paint U.S. foreign policy in a more favorable light. Although fictional, the Mission Impossible franchise is meant to seem real-ish. The IMF, the spy agency, may not exist, but the real IMF is a multilateral financial institution that has had espionage-related drama in the past. Tension arising in the Kashmir valley. Blackmarket nerve gas. Rogue plutonium. The movie franchise taps into so many actual events and existential fodder to make us think that, if not real, it’s close enough to the real thing to seem authentic. Comedian Steven Colbert called this “Truthiness” or something having the appearance of truth even if it’s not necessarily true. We are given just enough details to suspend our disbelief and root for the good guys, who, to reiterate, are U.S. spies.

The Mission Impossible Franchise doesn’t merely entertain. It has a definitive perspective. We are meant to think of Ethan and the gang as heroes. The films tell us this repeatedly. At the end of Mission Impossible: Fallout, the audience is told not once, but in three separate monologues, that Ethan needs to be out and about in the world to stop the bad guys. His former love interest said that Ethan is in the exact place he is meant to be. We are expected to believe that Ethan’s spy shenanigans are justified, and that is where we enter into malicious propaganda territory.

It’s not like Ethan is a spy on Coruscant. He is on Earth, working for a U.S. agency, and that makes this whole business messy. In reality, U.S. interventions on the world stage are not as clear-cut as the Mission Impossible franchise makes them out to be. The United States has interfered in the affairs of many, many, many countries and the citizenry there hasn’t always been thankful for our involvement. In fact, with the clarity that only 20/20 hindsight provides, it’s evident that many of our interactions abroad haven’t been morally just.

A common talking point when it comes to the interventions of the US in foreign countries is the nation of Iran. The relationship between the US and Iran is not peachy, and this can be traced back to the actions of the CIA. A Wikipedia-esque summary goes something like this: In 1953, the CIA staged a coup against the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossaddegh so that he wouldn’t nationalize the country’s oil reserves. Mossaddegh is captured and in his stead, is placed a Western-backed monarch or Shah named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah establishes an oppressive security force that violently squashes all challenges to his power. This strategy breeds immense resentment among the populace and creates a reactionary movement led by religious leader Ayatollah Rowhola Khomeini — who considers the Shah a Western puppet. Khomeini and company continue to ferment mass dissent, culminating in the 1979 Iranian revolution — the one inaccurately portrayed in the movie Argo (more on that later).

The Shah is removed from power, and Iran experiences an intense backlash against American influence. Hence, the “death to America” outlook that has persisted among some Iranian circles ever since. All of this can be traced back to that original coordinated C.I.A. effort in 1953. Iran hates the United States because we supplanted their democratically elected government, and propped up a violent dictator so that we could have more oil. That was the work of U.S. spies, and it wasn’t a rarity: CIA-administered electioneering frequently happened during the 20th century.

This type of behavior didn’t end 70 years ago either. The United States is still interfering in elections around the world. In the 1990 election in Nicaragua, for example, the CIA planted stories about corruption in the leftist Sandinista government. Sometimes these efforts succeed, and we are better for it. Other times they fail, and the world sighs a breath of relief. Regardless, the meddling hasn’t stopped, and its merits are not always sure. It’s difficult to know the full extent of these actions (we are talking about a spy agency after all), but while not every interference on the world stage is necessarily harmful, painting these actions as universally okay is equally problematic.

Though it may occasionally make references to it, the Mission Impossible franchise doesn’t live in this ambiguity. Instead, the world is saved time and time again by an energetic, white dude that knows best. Ethan and his team alone have the skills and moral integrity to stop the Big Bads from destroying the status quo. But is the status quo a good thing? Many citizens of Iran would probably disagree, but the films never pause to question Ethan’s ethics. This moral certainty is a pervasive problem in the story-telling of U.S. spies, and we have our friends at the Central Intelligence Agency to thank for this.

Starting in the mid-90s, the CIA hired former spy Chase Brandon to work directly with studios and production companies with the goal of earning more positive portrayals in Hollywood films. Early projects included consultations on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan films, the TV show Alias, and the first Mission Impossible movie, which thanks the CIA in its credits. In an interview with The Guardian in the early 2000s, Brandon commented of his agency’s successes: “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”

Entertainment industry liaisons are not unique in Hollywood — nearly every branch of the military has one — but the CIA is in a precarious position. The Pentagon has valuable assets such as ships, tanks, and missiles that it can offer in exchange for more positive rewrites. The CIA has no such assets, so it has to make up for it in access and heavy relationship-building.

The strategy is to cultivate people by being incredibly responsive and accommodating. The agency tries to make the directors and producers it works with feel like they are gaining privileged information. When working with Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty (which was about the capture of Osama bin Ladin) the agency was extremely responsive to her people’s questions and requests. Staff provided floor plans to real-life locations, direct access to analysts, as well as classified information. Reporters that covered the actual capture of Osama bin Ladin bemoaned Bigelow and Boel’s secure access. Reporter Greg Miller told PBS: “A lot of other people who covered the beat like I did in that search for bin Laden — we didn’t get close to that kind of cooperation from the agency on telling the inside story.”

The outcome of this close relationship was that Bigelow and Boel told a story that adhered very strictly to the agency’s narrative. The movie mentioned that Osama bin Ladin’s capture would not have been possible without information attained from torture. Setting the moral implications of torture aside, there is little conclusive evidence that torture had any significant impact in capturing Osama bin Ladin. In fact, the effectiveness of torture, in general, is questionable. When pressed about the accuracy of the movie, Boel responded: “It’s a movie. It’s not a documentary. I’m not going to go scene by scene or line by line, because first of all, I think I’ve got to have some authorial privilege.” So we have a film that feels real — Zero Dark Thirty is based on actual events after all — but sacrifices the truth to tell a story that flatters the CIA.

We saw a similar dynamic with Hollywood star Ben Affleck when he directed the 2012 movie Argo, which was about an operation to rescue U.S. citizens in the American embassy following the 1971 Iranian Revolution (I told you that history lesson would come in handy). Reportedly, Ben Affleck was the first director in fifteen years to get permission to film inside Langley headquarters. Affleck had unprecedented access to agency resources and staff, and unsurprisingly, the film he ended up making was factually inaccurate. The role of the Canadian government in the operation was erased, in favor of the CIA’s heroics, even though the President at the time of the operation, Jimmy Carter, accredited Canadian intelligence of doing a lot of the work. The violence of the Iranian people was also amped up for the sake of story-telling tension. If a viewer were only to watch the film and do no background research (a high possibility given that this event happened over 50 years ago), you would think of the CIA as the “good guys”, triumphing against “evil” Iranians. Reminder: the CIA overthrew their democratically elected government.

It should surprise no one that Tom Cruise has been afforded a similar relationship with the CIA. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, he personally consulted with the agency to place it “in as positive a light as possible” for the Mission Impossible III film. CIA liaison Chase Brandon was reportedly involved in the development of the Mission Impossible franchise, but because his work was during the pre-development stages, it’s tough to track his level of influence in the creation of these films after the fact. Multiple news agencies have attempted to get a comment on his involvement, as well as the participation of his successor Paul Barry, but remarks on their input have been sparingly given. We only have bits and pieces, scattered across reports and journals.

What we do see is the propaganda the agency has helped to create. From Zero Dark Thirty to Argo to Mission Impossible, the cultural narrative of U.S. spies is one of the beleaguered hero saving the day. The spy may be under a tremendous amount of strain, but pushes forward anyway to help the United States help the world. It’s a narrative that one has to ignore much of history to take seriously. I may sound like a conspiracy theorist for saying so, but this is what the CIA wants us to do: to, bit by bit, ignore the uncomfortable aspects of history. To view American Interventionism in an idyllic light.

These narratives have consequences. For example, when attempting to justify the effectiveness of torture, the late Justice Scalia referenced the action-packed TV show 24. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.” Jack Bauer — and I can’t believe I have to clarify this — doesn’t exist. For better or worse, some people accept the real-enough exploits of fictional U.S. spies as justification for the continued actions of real-life spies, torture and all. Given all of this, we have to ask ourselves if we are okay with this. Is it right for the CIA to shape how society views its work? How many explosions and cool stunts does Ethan Hunt have to do to cancel out the palpable harm imposed by this malicious propaganda?


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