Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, said Paul Begala (probably). Washington is the entertainment capital of the world, said Jack Valenti. Washington’s influence on Hollywood, the state’s influence on popular culture, is the primary topic of this site. But what about Hollywood’s influence on politics, the influence of popular culture on the state? After all, if mass culture can shape the perceptions of people like us, the general public, then why shouldn’t it shape the perceptions of politicians and the establishment?
The US Presidential Election
The 2016 Presidential election in the US is perhaps the most showbiz so far. Reality TV star Donald Trump is using a combination of bigoted, reactionary rhetoric and vague utopian promises (‘just wait and see’ is a catchphrase of Trump’s) and has got further than anyone would have thought possible. Establishment favourite Hormones Replaced Clinton will probably win, though whether more people will actually vote for her is another issue. The success of this obviously unpopular candidate will seem more plausible thanks to the likes of George CFR Clooney hosting a $353,400-a-ticket fundraiser for Clinton. Unsurprisingly, no such well-connected celebrity has come out in support of Bernie Sanders, the only actual politician in this presidential race.
Former Republican hopeful Ted Cruz was so keen to become the American president that he actually quoted from The American President.
The American President is a 1995 drama that was written by Aaron Sorkin and was assisted by the Pentagon, though exact details of this help are unclear. Nonetheless, this was Sorkin’s first big move into that world, and to find it being quoted by a real presidential candidate 20 years later is probably quite surreal for him. However, this isn’t a first for Cruz – he has previously quoted Jerry Maguire and The Princess Bride while on the campaign trail.
The Peacemaker and Nuclear Terrorism
1997’s The Peacemaker starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman was one of the earlier versions of what is now a tired story about rogue Russian military officers hijacking nuclear weapons and using them to cause havoc. In this case the rogue Russian general is in league with Chechen terrorists but despite the rather ludicrous storyline this film became the inspiration for an entire hearing in the US House of Representatives.
In the week that the film was released, in September 1997, the House Military Research and Development Subcommittee was holding hearings on Nuclear Terrorism and Countermeasures. The Chairman Curt Weldon (who will be familiar to students of the data mining operation Able Danger) referred to the film in his opening statement:
As we all know, the motion picture ”Peacemaker” just opened in hundreds of movie theaters across the country this past week. This ”Peacemaker” film was the first film from Dreamworks, the joint effort of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. It is somewhat ironic to me that Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg may have done more this past weekend to alert Americans of the real dangers of nuclear terrorism than our President, Vice President, and the entire administration has done in the past 4 1/2 years…
…Now, ”Peacemaker” is entertaining fiction, but it is also a disturbing case of art imitating life. Many of the premises of the motion picture are based on grim realities. Corruption and organized crime in the Russian military is a growing problem, and we will hear about that today. It is reaching such proportions that the security of Russian nuclear weapons and materials could well be threatened.
The hearing also heard from Jessica Stern, former Director of Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council. As Weldon made clear, she was the real-life inspiration for Nicole Kidman’s world-saving protagonist in The Peacemaker:
Ms. Stern, who dealt with issues of Russian nuclear security and proliferation while serving on the NSC, is the inspiration for the character played by Nicole Kidman in ”Peacemaker.” Today, if a terrorist event such as portrayed in ”Peacemaker” were to actually occur, Ms. Gordon-Hagerty would be doing Nicole Kidman’s job, coordinating our response to the terrorist threat.
There were other references to the film in the hearing, and the following day Weldon couldn’t help but mention it again as a tool for criticising the government:
It is kind of ironic, Senator, that you have been working on these issues for so many years and that the public has just seemed not to really pay attention, like it has certainly in the past week with the release of the movie ”Peacemaker,” where 1.7 million Americans saw that movie in the first week alone, first weekend alone. It is ironic, I guess I would say, that Nicole Kidman and George Clooney have done more in 3 days to alert Americans of the real dangers of nuclear terrorism than our President and Vice President have done to the American people in nearly 5 years.
The reality – that the US has never been and likely will never be the target of nuclear weapons, let alone ones wielded by terrorists – is irrelevant. The fact that Weldon laid it on so thick shows how embedded Hollywood – with all its images of mass destruction – has become in the political and security establishment. That he was allowing a Hollywood film to set the standards for what should concern us and how we should respond is absurd by any realistic measure, but not once did he face any criticism for it.
Tom Clancy and Nuclear Disarmament
Due to his popularity it is perhaps not surprising that Tom Clancy’s books turn up in the hands of politicians. In a 2003 hearing on the 2004 Defense Budget the Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul F McHale Jr. was asked about remote sensing capabilities for explosives and WMD. As part of his reply he said:
With regard to explosives, the challenge is significant. With regard to weapons of mass destruction, it’s even greater. Just to give you a quick example, a few years ago, Tom Clancy wrote a novel that focused on the transport of an improvised nuclear device across the Atlantic Ocean into one of our unprotected ports. And that novel’s plot went on to describe the consequences following the detonation of that improvised nuclear device.
He is almost certainly referring to Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, and in doing so McHale is in good company. The Reykjavík Summit of October 1986 was supposed to be an opportunity for the US and the Soviet Union to seriously discuss nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev proposed a ban on all ballistic missiles, which if Reagan was sincere about his anti-nuclear stance then he should have accepted. Instead, because a ban on ballistic missiles would also mean the scrapping of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI – the anti-missile shield) Reagan refused this suggestion and the talks quickly broke down.
Recently declassified British government files including Downing Street communications with the White House show that Reagan believed that the Soviets’ insistence on the US stopping development of the SDI was just a cover for the Soviets to go full pace at developing their own missile shield. In reality, by 1986 the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams and was becoming, like in the run-up to the 1917 revolutions, barely capable of putting food in the mouths of its citizens let alone developing advanced anti-nuclear missile technology.
Shortly before the Reykjavík Summit Reagan and Thatcher had a phone conversation where they discussed various issues about the conference. The sheer unreality (or hyperreality) of Reagan’s paranoid fantasies about the Soviet position and tactics is illustrated by him firmly recommending to Thatcher Tom Clancy’s latest novel, Red Storm Rising. In Reagan’s view ‘it gave an excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy’.
1986 Downing Street memo on Clancy’s Red Storm Rising
In the real world Red Storm Rising is as brilliant a piece of Cold War paranoia fiction as Red Dawn (which is presumably where Clancy got the idea for both the story and the title). Unlike in Red Dawn where those sneaky Russians manage to invade the US and meet virtually no resistance from the multi-trillion dollar military industrial complex, in Red Storm Rising there is a full war between NATO and the Soviets. As you might expect from Clancy, the Soviets get up to all sorts of underhanded tactics including staging a false flag attack as an excuse to invade West Germany. That Reagan saw this as a realistic scenario or an accurate depiction of Soviet strategic thinking just shows how away with the fairies he was, even back then.
James Bond and Anti-Communism in Laos
A perhaps even more chilling example is offered by a US embassy cable from 1974. The US ambassador to Laos had met with the Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma where they discussed the ongoing civil war in the country. The Pathet Lao, a Communist insurgency backed by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, were fighting against the Royal Lao government, backed by the US (CIA) and several NATO-friendly East and South-East Asian countries.
The US wanted the Lao government to aggressively respond to the North Vietnamese military presence in parts of the country, and to demand their withdrawal (see State 094148). The response of the US ambassador to this policy is quite surprising:
10. COMMENT: THE PRIME MINISTER APPEARED TO ME TO BE RELIEVED BY THE FACT THAT HE HAD SKATED THROUGH THE CONSTITUTIONAL DILEMMA WITH REGARD TO THE ASSEMBLY AND AS IS HIS WONT, HE WAS EXUDING CONFIDENCE REGARDING THE GOOD-WILL OF THE PATHET LAO AND A SENSE OF OPTIMISM REGARDING THE LIKELIHOOD OF TRUE RECONCILIATION IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE. STATE 094148 WAS RECEIVED AFTER THE FOREGOING WAS DRAFTED BUT I AM HAVING THE PRIME MINISTER FOR DINNER AND TO SEE A JAMES BOND MOVIE ON MAY 10. AT THAT TIME AND INSPIRED BY 007 HE MAY BE WILLING TO DISCUSS COMING DOWN HARD ON THE NVA ISSUE.
This idea, that the Prime Minister of a sovereign country might be persuaded to adopt a tougher military policy as a result of seeing a James Bond movie is eyebrow-raising for a few reasons. For one, it reeks of that old colonial attitude of ‘the natives are dumb, we just have to flatter them and they’ll do everything we want’. By contrast, the idea that James Bond is so inspiring that a politician could be so strongly influenced is not at all absurd (see above re: Reagan), though in the end the Communists won out in Laos, so clearly Bond wasn’t very successful. This whole episode shows not just how pro-establishment the Bond movies are, but how pro-Bond movies the establishment are.
Hollywood’s Influence on Politics
Politics and entertainment are a lot alike, and are often mutually dependent. After all, it was only the conquering and colonising of the Western regions of what we now call the US that led to the establishment of Hollywood. Were it not for the largesse of Wall Street funding the massive and rapid expansion of the West coast entertainment industry it likely would not have become the behemoth it is today. Bringing us into the present, without the paranoid fantasies of the security state creating new images of the consequences of the human will to power there would be very little originality in current movies.
Likewise, politicians are just D-list celebrities. Those with enough sparkle to make the A-list, such as Barack Obama, get to go to the big show and then are used to sell everything from bailing out the already massively overpriced and profitable medical insurance industry to invading Libya. Meanwhile celebrities are used to sell everything from Kony2012 to fizzy drinks produced on land stolen from Palestinians. The recent controversy over an anti-vaccination film being scheduled and then pulled from Robert De Niro’s Tribeca film festival made headline news all over the world.
This is not just the occasional intersection of pop culture and politics – Hollywood and the state exist in a curious and often worrying symbiosis. Without Hollywood depicting so many images of US exceptionalism would that political philosophy manage to maintain itself? Without so many compelling portraits of a dark dangerous world would the Pentagon seem so necessary to so many? How else would the Pentagon sustain a position where its annual funding is greater than the entire combined revenues of Royal Dutch Shell and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China?
The circular, symbiotic relationship is perhaps best illustrated by a comment the team behind Enemy of the State made while visiting CIA headquarters. According to What’s News at CIA they ‘gained a new respect for CIA professionals help protect Americans “making it safe to attend our movies”.’
The logic behind this is perfectly circular – we make movies about how the CIA makes it safe for us to watch movies about how the CIA makes it safe for us to watch movies about how the CIA… Hollywood provides us with both a sense of danger and a feeling of security, and tells us who and what to attribute both of those things to in the real world. The major consequence of the symbiosis between the state and the entertainment industry is a more fully-formed, convincing and effective politics of fear.