Book Reviews

"The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television," by Tricia Jenkins

By Book Review Editor
Friday, April 17, 2015, 11:00 AM

Published by University of Texas Press (2013) 

Reviewed by Julius Taranto

Though everyone would surely prefer otherwise, public relations crises are part of the CIA’s ordinary business. The fact that so much of its work is classified puts the Agency in one of those tricky, plumber-like governmental roles: when it does its job right, no one should notice. But when it screws up, there’s a mess, and things smell awful.

The nature of any covert enterprise is rigged against popularity: the Agency can’t ordinarily brag about its hard-won successes or even update Americans with news of general competence. The FBI, by contrast, gets to issue press releases detailing high-profile arrests and convictions. But with rare exceptions, the CIA hits the front page only when something has gone badly sideways.

This asymmetry naturally gives rise to an image problem, so the CIA needs a way of loopholing if it wants to shape public perception. Fiction about the Agency—particularly television and movies, the most potent and culture-shaping mediums—has turned out to be that loophole. But it has its risks.

Depending on whom you ask, Hollywood has been either a great friend or a persistent foe in the CIA’s quest for a better public image. Some might point to media characterizations of the CIA as a rogue, hapless, or amoral institution. Just a few weeks ago, at the Agency’s request, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd talked to members of Langley’s “sisterhood,” who were “fed up with the flock of fictional CIA women in movies and on TV who guzzle alcohol as they bed hop and drone drop, acting crazed and emotional, sleeping with terrorists and seducing assets.” The point of these interviews seemed to be to insist that CIA careers are actually much more boring and difficult than they look on television.

But more probing critics might highlight that the romanticized representation of spies in film has, in fact, been a boon to the Intelligence Community. Audiences are probably seduced rather than judgmental when fictional CIA officers fall short of perfect virtue. Homeland’s Carrie Mathison may not be a girl scout or a realistic CIA officer, but there’s no question that viewers are on her side, and that they care about her more than her buttoned-up colleagues, precisely because her flaws humanize her. The Agency—and everyone who likes spy movies—should hope Maureen Dowd’s column wasn’t too persuasive, because no one wants to watch a show about unmarred professionalism and competence. They’d watch The Americans instead.

Absent flawed, interesting protagonists, in other words, CIA-themed TV shows and movies would not exist for long. And that would mean that the only time the public hears or thinks about the CIA is when the Agency is in the news, and something has probably gone wrong. So the entertainment industry’s efforts to portray the Agency hinge, paradoxically, on depicting a more flawed version of the Agency as an institution than is realistic, while depicting individual Agency officials as less lawful, less professional, and less virtuous than is realistic, either. Though possibly the most damaging effect of the television shows is not about the professionalism of individual agents or the Agency, or lack thereof, but instead that because budget constraints push TV production to take place in US locales, not abroad, the general public probably understands that Carrie Mathison is not exactly typical of Langley—but is quite unaware that the CIA is prohibited by law from operating on US soil at all.

Understanding that spy movies and shows will be produced with or without the Agency’s cooperation, Langley has established a suitably quiet relationship with the entertainment industry in the interest of securing Hollywood portrayals that are at least half-accurate, if not cloyingly positive. That Agency-Industry engagement is the topic of Tricia Jenkins’s, well, frankly underwhelming book, The CIA in Hollywood. Her effort contains a few interesting historical anecdotes, but it ultimately fails to do justice to an underserved, rich, and timely topic.

II

Here’s one anecdote: twenty years ago, following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the Aldrich Ames scandal, there was skeptical chatter about the CIA’s continued usefulness. Rep. Dan Glickman, then the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan both publicly questioned whether the CIA should have a future. The Agency met this image problem-turned-existential threat by commissioning a network television show called The Classified Files of the C.I.A. It was to be modeled on the 1960s FBI image-vehicle The F.B.I., and it would feature a real, declassified CIA case each week. Langley would feed fact patterns to the producers, who would use them as the basis for a story and sell the show based in part on its authenticity.

The Classified Files of the C.I.A. never made it to air after the Agency and the show’s producers, Steve Tisch and Aaron Spelling, parted ways over creative differences. But if Jenkins’s account of the concept is even a little accurate, the (alas) never seen two-hour pilot episode sounds like a masterpiece of clunky and humorless propaganda that was, for the Agency’s sake, probably best kept classified. Later, after this failed attempt to micromanage professional Hollywood micromanagers, Langley opted for a lighter touch. Rather than developing its own content, it began reaching out to filmmakers already working on Agency-related projects and offering them insider expertise—and sometimes use of the CIA’s facilities, equipment, or official seal—in exchange for some influence over how the Agency would be portrayed.

This was the project of longtime CIA officer Chase Brandon, first cousin of Tommy Lee Jones and (not coincidentally) the first CIA Entertainment Industry Liaison. Brandon developed a process at Langley just like the Pentagon’s long-established Hollywood outreach program: guidance and advice are freely given, while filmmakers requesting something more costly—the use of equipment, shooting locations, or technical consultation—have their scripts reviewed to determine whether aiding production aligns with the Agency’s mission. When a filmmaker asks for more than guidance, script alterations are sometimes suggested in the name of authenticity and a more positive take on the Agency.

In Jenkins’s telling, the first two projects influenced by this system were In the Company of Spies and The Agency. After 9/11, there were a slew of others, including Alias, The Sum of All Fears, The Bourne Identity, and The Recruit. Jenkins tries to tell a story in which the Agency, allegedly in violation of the First Amendment, disingenuously attempts to twist spy movies to its own propagandistic ends and then withdraws vital support from filmmakers who refuse to capitulate. The argument is that this unequal treatment of filmmakers based only on their different characterizations of the Agency amounts to an unconstitutional suppression of speech. Where to begin? It’s hard to swallow that Jenkins is shocked, shocked to find that public relations is going on here! Beyond that, even by her own account of which movies Langley lent its hand to and which it didn’t, it’s difficult to discern any kind of consistent pattern of positivity in these films that isn’t already implied by having a CIA officer as a sympathetic protagonist.

For example, despite the fact that neither film takes a terribly positive view of Langley, both The Bourne Identity and The Recruit feature Chase Brandon in the DVD’s “extra features” segments discussing what the Agency is really like. It’s a good move—hey, we all enjoy a good movie and, no problem, we’re kind of flattered being the villains—now here’s something to show you what we’re really about. By contrast, another Agency-aided film, The Sum of All Fears, has some rather heavy-handed touches of CIA cheerleading. (Here’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan, the cool head in an apocalyptic crisis: “The President is basing his decisions on some really bad information right now. And if you shut me out, your family, and my family, and twenty-five million other families will be dead in thirty minutes. My orders are to get the right information to the people who make the decisions.”)

A flawed or overdramatic presentation of the CIA is probably better for Langley than none at all, and over the years the Agency has supported a wide array of films. Even portrayals that caricature the Agency as an institution of ungoverned, amoral assassins aren’t necessarily so bad from a public relations standpoint: they’ll still have a thrilling, outlaw power to them. It’s not despite James Bond’s license to kill that we find him so alluring. The more critical (Syriana, The Good Shepherd) or fantastical (Alias, The Bourne Identity) films likely still help with Agency recruitment (if not internal morale). But Jenkins—an obvious, agenda-driven skeptic of the Agency—rests her whole argument on the simplistic premise that the CIA is flatly against inaccurate or uncharitable appearances in film. If that’s an Agency line, it certainly isn’t the whole picture.

By no fault of its own, Jenkins’s book suffers from a just-too-soon publication date. It doesn’t reach Zero Dark Thirty and the investigation into the screenwriter Mark Boal’s help from Langley. Jenkins also doesn’t have a chance to talk much about eventual Best Picture winner Argo, which centers on the Agency’s creation of a fake Hollywood production company (so convincing that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas submitted screenplays) in order to rescue six hostages from Tehran. Alas, there could hardly be two more fitting moments from which to launch a discussion of the coy romance between Hollywood and the Agency.

The book also declines to connect the Agency’s current entertainment industry efforts to its long history of cultural influence. (Just one example of this—and maybe an opportunity for some future inquiry—was the CIA role in generating early funding and prestige for the now-famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop.) And Jenkins only mentions in passing Langley’s relationship with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where Industry professionals workshop threat scenarios and develop military and intelligence tools. So there are gaps in Jenkins’s coverage, and it misses an opportunity for a larger intellectual discussion about the proper role of a democratic government and its agencies, covert or overt, in the promotion of its foundational political ideas—but the book at least cracks the door on some undeniably cool topics.

III

When the CIA first reached out to Hollywood, it was facing questions about the fundamental utility of centralized intelligence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But after 9/11, the Agency was vaulted to a position of prominence and is unlikely to face such skepticism about its significance anytime soon. This has surely given Langley more latitude in the types of films it can support, in addition to inclining filmmakers to think harder, and more charitably, about what the Agency does and why.

With doubters banished and solid funding, the Agency would now likely prefer to return to its role as a good plumber—where nothing goes wrong, and no one pays attention. But the occasional real scandal or high-profile movie seems inevitable. Intelligence will continue to be fertile ground for high-stakes storytelling, especially while terrorism remains in the headlines. So the question remains how to make the best of an unwanted spotlight. The CIA has a place in Hollywood, whether it wants one or not.

(Julius Taranto, a Student Fellow of the Yale Law School Information Society Project, was a writer in Los Angeles before entering law school.)