Approaching the ‘Entertainment State’

James Bell

Still from  Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden  (2012)

Still from Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (2012)

Whether at the box office, on television or through video streaming, most televisual media is produced in the United States. In 2017, box office receipts for films produced in the US stood at $11 billion, whilst revenue derived from the streaming market grew to a staggering $107.9 billion. With the US dominating this market, it’s safe to say that most viewers experience its productions regularly.

On 9 October, 2017, BuzzFeed News published 709 pages of FBI documents secured under a freedom of information request lawsuit. They show how agency has worked within the entertainment industry to control and sanitise its own image, making edits on hundreds of films and television programmes over the last five years alone. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The US state has a long history of meddling in film and television, reaching back as far as the early 1900s and stemming from every branch of its secret services and military.

The way US imperialism uses this influence is both complex and multi-faceted. Not only are there distinctions between how different branches of the state work within these industries, but also between different tactical priorities at home and abroad, and shifting geopolitical objectives. To grasp how contemporary media manipulation functions and what its objectives are, it is imperative to understand its history.

Birth of a National Security Cinema

The earliest examples of co-operation between the US state and the film industry date from around 1910, with Hollywood studios aiding the US military by filming air shows. In 1915 the military began to reciprocate this and first gave use of personnel and equipment to a film production: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. This film follows the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, openly presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. The result clearly pleased its state supporters, as it was the first film screened at the White House.

The relationship that developed from this somewhat on-the-nose fascist co-operation was cemented by the success of Wings (1927), the first film to win an Oscar for best picture. Clearly recognising the value of cinema, the US army continued to support the production of war films even as it entered the second world war. The war itself created a change in the attitude of the military toward film production. While it maintained neutrality and early in the US’ participation, the military was open to supporting anti-war films like The Big Parade (1925) and Dive Bomber (1941) to avoid Hollywood being labelled as a propaganda outlet. By 1945, this attitude had disappeared, and the military offered support exclusively to films that portrayed it favourably. This shaped the ideological character of the genre profoundly for a simple reason: productions requiring complex military equipment must gain access to these resources and people who understand how to operate them. A refusal to co-operate from the army made an anti-war cinema essentially impossible. Film had emerged as a powerful propaganda tool.

Alphabet soup: the FBI and the CIA

In 1933, two separate producers approached the FBI with plans for similar series covering their casework. They struck a deal with one of these producers (MGM) granting the agency ‘complete control of the material and story’ in exchange for support in other films and television series, establishing its operations with the film and television industry for decades. Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s the FBI’s image was sanitised, with all references to wiretapping, monitoring phone calls, infiltration of domestic communist organisations, or even agents’ personal vices (smoking, drinking or putting their feet on the table), removed from submitted scripts. These script changes began to shape public understanding of crime, with edits ranging from the relatively harmless removal of scenes showing more effective ways of damaging property to the overt criminalisation of oppressed groups. This control was cemented in 1954, with unauthorised portrayals of the agency prohibited by the passing of Public Law 670.

Alongside these efforts, the agency cultivated a network of spies in Hollywood. This was instrumental in supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee to form its 1947 Hollywood blacklist, which banned over 300 artists from working in the industry. The FBI recruited more spies based upon testimonies to the committee – notably John Wayne, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan.

In contrast to the FBI’s approach, the CIA attempted to avoid media representation in this period. This was enforced by a combination of factors. The strictness of US defamation law in this period allowed public officials and agencies to take legal action against depictions which displeased them. This had a knock-on effect on the film-industry censor, the Production Code Administration (PCA), which routinely advised studios not to depict real governmental agencies without their explicit permission. The CIA never gave permission and so it wasn’t mentioned in a Hollywood production until Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).  Even here, the reference is veiled  – with Hitchcock adopting the PCA’s advice to hide the reference among the initials of other governmental agencies, jokingly referred to in the film as an ‘alphabet soup’.

Though the CIA worked to censor its depiction, it exercised substantial covert influence over the production of cinema by the cultivation of special relationships. A significant example of this can be seen in the relationship formed between the CIA and Luigi Luraschi, the head of Domestic and Foreign Censorship at Paramount Studios in the 1950s. Luraschi worked with the CIA to cut unfavourable depictions of US citizens or society and to engineer positive depictions, planting what he termed ‘well-dressed negroes’ with lines describing themselves as ‘free men’ into films. The intention of these edits was to prevent the Soviet Union from being able to politically intervene over the US state’s appalling racism, just as racial tensions in the US were erupting.

The work performed by the CIA and FBI in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s firmly established how these agencies were to shape media throughout the US-led campaign against the Soviet Union, and even beyond. The FBI was focused on maintaining its image, spying and shaping the public’s understanding of crime domestically through open co-operation. The CIA was concerned with film as a component of its broader cultural war against communism, which involved all the arts, acting at most times covertly. Though the CIA was forced to manage its image in the media with the liberalisation of defamation law in 1964, it maintained this strategic direction and secrecy – only forming its public entertainment liaison office in the mid-1990s.

From Vietnam to alien invasions

In the aftermath of the world wars, Hollywood and the Pentagon sped up the production of war films together. Over 200 war films were produced in the 1950s, with a similar number following in the ‘60s. US imperialism then was able to mythologise its participation in the second world war, presenting its military as an almost divine force for good. And they were very well received. This practice then ran into a severe obstacle: the Vietnam war.

Public opinion was seen as a problem to be solved from the get-go in the representation of the Vietnam war. One of the first films produced about the war, John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), stemmed directly from a desire to combat the growing anti-war movement within the US in the latter half of the sixties. It is a rare example of a pro-war Vietnam film. As the anti-war sentiment in the US grew and the embarrassment of defeat in Vietnam stung, the Pentagon was less inclined to support war films. Though the Pentagon had adopted the FBI’s practice of trading support for script edits, it received few offers. The result was an all but blanket denial of military support to produce war films and the gradual death of the genre in Hollywood through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

This would have been a considerable problem for the Pentagon’s media strategy were it not for one thing: the fantasy war movie. This is now the dominant type of film supported by the Pentagon. It uses fantastical elements to avoid pointing to a direct foe, thus making its propagandist nature implicit. For example, whilst the aliens in War of the Worlds (2005) are not directly representative of Iraqis, the Pentagon inserted the US army uniform used in Iraq to implicitly bolster opinion of the US’ involvement in the nation. This style of film serves an important tactical purpose, cultivated as the result of repeated failure to keep up with precisely who the US wanted to portray as its enemy. For example, the TV-movie Steal the Sky (1988), was rejected for being too anti-Iraq. Three years later, the US was at war with Iraq. As films take a considerable amount of time to make and the expansion of US imperialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that no enemy was certain to remain as such through production, a decision was made to sponsor films that allowed for this need. Robots, aliens and comic book villains came to dominate the screen.

That the decline in popularity of the traditional war film and the rise of its fantastical equivalent clearly coincide with changes in the ideological needs of US imperialism paints a stark picture. Although a few traditional war films are still produced, the genre is comparatively dead. This new kind of film has taken its place. Although it must be understood that war films generally rely upon such support, that the Pentagon can exert such influence as to see a whole genre not simply die but change to better suit its needs is telling of how profoundly it is able to shape the cultural output of the US film industry today. The weapon held by US imperialism in this output is truly monstrous.

Direct intervention: the CIA and Seth Rogen

One utility of this weapon can be seen in the Cold War, with the CIA’s use of film to intervene in the politics of other nations. The most infamous example is the agency’s 1954 cartoon adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The film, commissioned and edited by the CIA, was both made and released in Britain, with the overt intent of further stirring anti-communist sentiment. Whilst it is relatively well known that the CIA used filmed media as an international weapon throughout the Cold War, most would assume this ended after the red flag was wrenched from the Kremlin. It did not.

As ridiculous as it sounds, The Interview (2014) was an attempt to create a mood for regime change in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK. Backed by the CIA, Obama’s State Department and the Rand Corporation, this Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy is based upon a close confidante of Obama’s, Bruce Bennett, theories on how to effect regime change in the nation. The notion is as simplistic as it is racist and absurd. Bennett believed that either killing or embarrassing the Kim Jong-Il would lead to a revolt among the Korean population, as they realised that their leader was not a god. The film’s plot is a literal rendition of this: two Hollywood actors go to the DPRK to compromise Kim Jong-Il, kill him in a slow-motion explosion set to K-pop, and then the Korean population revolt. The resulting film was then to be smuggled into the DPRK on DVDs with the hopes that it would provoke this rebellion. While the work succeeded in becoming a diplomatic incident, with the DPRK rightfully denouncing it as an act of war, it unsurprisingly failed to start a pro-US revolt in the nation.

It is uncertain whether the CIA themselves believed Bennett’s theory or if they wished to provoke the DPRK. Either way, the propaganda worked for them: the western press spun the DPRK’s denunciation of the portrayal of its leader being assassinated as paranoid while blaming the 2014 Sony hacking scandal on them. What the incident does show clearly is that the CIA practice of using film to intervene in international politics and the domestic political arenas of other nations did not end in the Cold War.

Promoting fear, war and torture

The Pentagon’s cultivation of fantasy war films highlights that the US state’s contemporary intervention into the film industry is tied to its actions in foreign policy. It fails to communicate how deeply poisonous this intervention is. It is not exaggerating even remotely to say that the relationship between the US state and the entertainment industry is today used to justify crimes against humanity.

The CIA backed and edited Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a pertinent example. The film claims to represent the US hunt for Osama Bin Laden with historical accuracy. Far from this, it is one of the most explicit propaganda pieces ever written. Although torture was never useful to the US in the hunt for Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty evangelises for its use. Almost a third of the film’s runtime is dedicated to the torture of an al-Qaeda member. He is beaten and subjected to waterboarding. One scene even shows a ‘terror suspect’ being stripped and paraded around on a dog collar. Despite the evident depravity of these actions, the work attempts to portray them as ‘necessary evils’.

Zero Dark Thirty is exceptional only for how proudly it flaunts its sadism. The CIA has made sure to grant cinematic life to several of its more barbaric practices. It has granted its support to depictions of rendition (Rendition, 2007), overseas assassinations (Lumumba, 2000) and its involvement in mind control/drugging studies (The Good Shepherd, 2006). The intent of these productions is to justify practices of the agency which have become known and controversial. By painting them as effective, necessary or even as a force for good, the CIA and its friends in the film industry are producing propaganda which supports the state in taking nakedly bestial acts.

Actively attempting to justify these practices is not the only way they are approached by the state’s intervention into the film industry. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), which was made with Pentagon backing, provides a striking example of another such approach. The film’s lead antagonist is the victim of what are presented as Nazi mind control techniques. In reality, the inspiration for these techniques is taken from the CIA’s failed mind control programme, MKUltra. This programme subjected US citizens to barbaric torture, with the CIA imprisoning them, depriving them of sensory stimulation, drugging them and causing such trauma as to erase their memories and personalities. It never succeeded in the CIA’s objective of ‘reprogramming’ them. By accrediting this kind of practice to the Nazis, The Winter Soldier eschews its own responsibility for it.

Although the fantasy war film genre already discussed allows the US to propagandise for war in abstract, that does not mean its objectives are quite so indeterminate. The Pentagon backed Iron Man (2008), which started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is an argument for the US’ ongoing intervention in the middle-east. After being kidnapped in Afghanistan, the film’s protagonist, Tony Stark, finds out that his business partner has been selling arms to ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ across the globe. In order to rectify this, Stark needs to fight both the terrorists and their backers. This is strikingly evocative of the US’ role in selling arms to the Mujahideen to destroy the socialist government in Afghanistan in the 1970s and subsequent use of the terrorist groups formed from the Mujahideen’s destruction to justify continued intervention. The logic presented to the public in justification for the 2003 Iraq war and the US’ illegal interventions in Syria is replicated here, fully intact.

More recent films demonstrate that the Pentagon is not only continuing with this strategy, it is escalating matters considerably. Wonder Woman (2017) is clear example. The film features an alliance of US, British, and implicitly Israeli forces as they fight through a cartoonish portrayal of the final year of the World War I. Their objective is to prevent a German commander from launching a chemical weapons attack, which would prevent the agreement of an armistice and elongate the war. Beat for beat, Wonder Woman demonises its antagonists with precisely the accusations levelled by British and US imperialism against the Assad government and Russia in the Syrian war. What is deeply concerning is the decision to root this propaganda in a fictionalised world war. As tensions between Russia and the US are escalating steadily in Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and now Venezuela, the decision is pointed. With another Pentagon backed film, Hunter Killer (2018), receiving approval from the Principal Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy for its portrayal of combat between the US and a peer adversary, justification for such a conflict is already being laid.

That the US state uses film and television as ideological weapons to justify war and torture is undeniable and clear. However, the CIA’s involvement with The Agency (2001-2003) highlights that it goes further than simply justifying its actions, using its influence over filmed media to launch psychological warfare operations against its own population. The series in question has at least two known instances of such manipulation: one episode makes reference to agents possessing biometric technology, which enhances their abilities, and another shows a hellfire drone assassinating a target. At the time, neither of these technologies existed, nor did the CIA believe they could. They were included simply to scare the people watching them, presenting an image of the US state as undefeatable. This highlights something fundamental about the US’ approach to filmed media. In the hands of a skilled manipulator film can do more than simply justify the use of torture, force and weaponry. It becomes a weapon itself.

The film never stops rolling

What has been described in this article only represents a small fraction of the US state’s intervention into filmed media. It is precisely the vast output of the relationship between the state and the entertainment industry that is its most important factor. Films and series as varied as Miley Cyrus’s So Undercover (2012), Homeland (2011–), Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), and Star Trek IV (1986) are produced through state intervention every year in their thousands. The result is that even identifying the distinction between state propaganda and ’organic‘ entertainment products becomes a near impossible task. As can be seen from the decline of traditional war films and their replacement, the state’s intervention into filmed media shapes not only the works it directly edits, but determines whole genres. The sheer ubiquity of propaganda in these spheres shapes the whole culture surrounding them. As such the ‘entertainment state’ is able to ‘regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of [the] age [and] thus their ideas are the ruling ideas’ (Marx, The German Ideology).

By understanding the ways in which this propaganda is shaped, how it has evolved and what kind of objectives it pursues, it is possible to work against the influence cast upon us by the entertainment industry. This is an increasingly urgent and important task. As the digital age envelops us in a permanent buffer of cultural consumption and introduces new forms of media, the lessons of the US’ intervention into filmed media cannot be ignored. With US imperialism’s declaration that it intends to pursue a strategy of ‘great power competition’, the increasingly frenetic drive to war in Iran and Venezuela under Trump’s leadership, and British imperialism’s use of the recently revealed integrity initiative to meddle in the media and further a hostile agenda against Russia, the failure to learn these lessons is proving to be catastrophic.

James Bell is a Marxist-Leninist writer and film maker based in Birmingham. They have written on the Marxist approach to art on their blog. Presently, they are working on a film looking at Postmodernism and cultural decay

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