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The Very Real Connection Between Hollywood and Washington

The Very Real Connection Between Hollywood and Washington
Hollywood has long been respected as a centre of excellence – the world’s premier film making centre. And perhaps quite rightly so. But there is a mostly unknown aspect to Hollywood – the influence of Washington on scripts and production. The two authors of the new book ‘American Security Cinema’ reveal the extent of this involvement.

The authors are: Dr. Matthew Alford, who is a Teaching Fellow in propaganda and theory at the University of Bath in England and Tom Secker, who is a private researcher who runs — the world's premier online archive about government involvement in the entertainment industry.

Tom starts the program by tracing the history of US government involvement in Hollywood. "It really got going in the 1920s and 1930s and then accelerated rapidly during World War II, and into the post-war period. The FBI got involved in the 1930s, and up until the death of J. Edgar Hoover had quite a prominent influence on Hollywood. The CIA had a covert influence, at least from their inception up until the 1990s when they founded their own entertainment liaison office, and now we have other agencies such as Homeland Security; it's now quite a large operation."

The motivation for the DOD getting involved, Matthew says: "is primarily and most overtly to recruit more people. To recruit soldiers and other people and personnel because the movies obviously appeal to young people in particular, and they make no particular secret about that, although they may say sometimes that recruitment efforts are just incidental; that we just like to help out in the movies, that sort of thing… What Tom and I find more sinister is the by-product of that in that they tend to rewrite history through the movies and give a very benign spin on the nature of their own institutions. A benign spin on the White House and the same goes for the CIA, the Department of Defence, and of course the FBI for a historical period of time, much less so now."

As regards present day motivation for government influence, Tom says: "I would say that in the current period, it is not so much about the individual wars themselves, indeed what we found is that when we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, there are very few films being made about these wars. Virtually none of them have benefitted from military support. So it's not really about that anymore. It's more about promoting the DOD and the Security State itself, and the broad paradigm of US and NATO foreign policies. That there is a world out there that is full of threats and we need these institutions to be about to combat them."

The book documents very well films which benefit from showing and using military hardware, but host John Harrison asks what about the other films that do not have any military effects added on, are they also somehow influenced by Washington? Matthew answers: "Hollywood is a power centre in its own right. It is reflecting a set of dominant ideologies, whether that is capitalism or the idea that the American State is benign and so on. There isn't a secret entity which is controlling Hollywood as far as we are aware, which is dictating exactly what happens in all of these films. Hollywood is made up primarily of eight major studios and the parent companies that own them. These parent companies might not be very nice, they often have links to all sorts of unpleasant industries like the arms industry, but there is no coordinated organisation that rules over them or runs through them to affect every single movie. That's why there is so much potential in Hollywood to create cultural products that are actually dissenting form the Washington line. What we are pointing out is that most people, and that includes leading experts say that 15 years ago, the DOD has only affected a couple of hundred films over the previous century, now if we include the CIA and those other organisations, we are talking about several thousand entertainment products. So although this effect by the government is not total, it is 5 or maybe even 10 times larger than anyone previously knew prior to Tom and I doing this research."

Tom gives an example of how movies are influenced: "One of the best examples we found was the movie ‘The Incredible Hulk.' That film was thoroughly rewritten. Even the Pentagon's own script notes apologise for how radical the changes were that they were making to the script in exchange for access to filming locations and vehicles and so on. For example, they changed the laboratory whether the Hulk is accidentally created; that was originally in a military laboratory, to a civilian facility, the guy running it was changed from a military character to an ex-military character, they removed a dialogue from a scene which referred to military experiments on humans, soldiers, on real people, and they changed the name of the operation to track down the Hulk from ‘Operation Ranch Hand' because that was a reference to a real life Vietnam chemical warfare operation on a  massive scale to  ‘Operation Angry Man.' So you are talking about underlying politics of an essentially apolitical film being carefully and subtly changed so that it distanced the military from any of the negative elements or potentially negative elements of the film, and so that their sole role that was left for them was as a benign entity to track down the Hulk and stop him from smashing everything up."

Host John Harrison mentions the film Avatar, which he says he thought was a pretty good film, about the rights of indigenous people. Matthew says that "Avatar was a film that we saw on the lists provided by the DOD which said that it had had this support, but we don't have details about what happened to the script….This is not just about the censorship of movies, but seemingly quite seriously contrived reluctance by the DOD to prevent this kind of information getting out. I have been in this research field for about 15 years and it has taken a long time to piece together this kind of picture….But the pieces that we can put together on Avatar suggest that there were obvious changes that were made to it by the military. One of them is that there are bits of dialogue in the script that quite clearly points to the idea that the military is not doing anything wrong. That these are private military contractors who are abusing alien indigenous species. Whereas the real military is back on earth fighting for freedom….I know one organisation called Survival International which campaigned to ask James Cameron to make a statement on behalf of indigenous people for the cause that they were fighting for, that this is the real Avatar that is happening here; a place in India that was being mined and bulldozed and destroyed, and there was no response whatsoever [from Cameron] much to the chagrin of the charity."

In the second part of this programme Matthew and Tom discuss Washington's involvement in television and in particular television series. Matthew and Tom say that involvement is actually quite extensive, and not only in obvious cases such as in the series ‘Homeland'. Examples are given in the program.

One very interesting aspect of this story is the fact that at the same time as many Hollywood directors seem to go along with fitting into an ideological straightjacket, we have other directors like Paul Verhoeven, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore who see the world differently and manage to get their films distributed. Tom explains: "They are directors who don't bow to the wishes of the government agencies….Verhoeven managed to make Starship Troopers largely because the film industry system was largely failing [then]. The Sony Board of Directors was in total chaos, for about 6 or 8 months they could more or less make the film that they wanted to… every once in a while the studio system fails, and also on a smaller scale when you are talking about films outside of the majors, there are quite a lot of smaller studios which are willing to rake risks."

In terms of the percentage of films that are influenced by Washington, Matthew says that "if you see a film that has weaponry in it, you have got a 30% and 50% chance that the DOD or one of the major national security organisations has been involved which will have an impact on the script. It's not complete, it's not total but it a sizeable chunk. There are a load of other films which have got nothing to do with the military, like ‘Superman' or ‘Meet the Parents,' which are influenced; you can't always rule it out."

The question is asked why does Hollywood go along with this system, Tom answers: "They are going along with this because it's far cheaper to make a film that way. You can be provided access to a dozen unusual locations, a billion dollars' worth of aircraft, where else can you get that for a few hundred thousand dollars? So for the money men's point of view it's cheaper. A lot of these directors are pretty patriotic and militaristic anyway and would be anyway even if they never worked with the military, because they have grown up in a militarised pop culture. So they are echoing what was already there. Particularly by this point where you have third or fourth generation directors who have grown up watching dozens and dozens of films that were manipulated and sponsored by the DOD, so there are a number of different factors as to why they just go along with it."

Matthew adds: "It isn't the case that these organisations are around to insert propaganda, they are there to make sure that some things don't go ahead. They will stop things like ‘Operation Ranch Hand' being mentioned because it refers to a chemical weapons operation in the Vietnam War; you don't want to have that mentioned. A lot of it is about moving things and just being onsite to ensure that nothing too real comes out on screen."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to this story is that we the audiences go along with this as well. We are willing to pay our ten, fifteen, twenty five dollars for a ticket, otherwise it's not a blockbuster. We also buy into it, we are also a part of the system. Tom comments: "There seems to be very little opposition to this in the industry and from audiences. To be honest when we tell people about this, most are quite shocked that this is even going on, let alone the extent to which it is happening. This is one of the fundamental issues, that audiences are going into this blind. They don't know that the film they are watching has been rewritten by some government PR person, so that puts them at a massive disadvantage in terms of what they then absorb and take seriously in their own lives and what they apply to the real world."

Many other important themes are discussed in this program such as the distribution system and product placement.

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