2015 was an important year in government-assisted entertainment. Several major franchises – the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Bond, Terminator, Fast and Furious, Mission: Impossible – released their latest films. All of these enjoyed the involvement of government agents and agencies. In this episode I review this year’s state-sponsored movies (or at least, the ones I have seen). I quickly look at each individual movie before identifying three key themes running through several of these films – Russia as the enemy, the security services themselves being under threat, and the importance of secret societies. I round off by recounting my recent scuffle with Kevin Barrett of TruthJihad, and reading our highly amusing email exchange.
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2015 was an important year for government involvement in the entertainment industry. Several major franchises – the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Bond, Terminator, Fast and Furious, Mission: Impossible – released their latest films. All of these enjoyed the involvement of government agents and agencies.
I put together a list of all the films that had been flagged up throughout the year, either by myself or by others who keep an eye out for these, which is as follows: American Ultra, Bridge of Spies, Child 44, Furious 7, Kingsman, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Point Break, Sicario, Spectre, Spooks – The Greater Good, Spy, Terminator: Genisys, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Man from UNCLE, The Martian and Trumbo.
To be clear: the argument for some of these films being state-sponsored is largely circumstantial, based on the main creative talent involved and the subject matter. Trumbo and Child 44 simply fit into a pattern of the sorts of films the CIA are interested in helping to make, and both involve people who have previously worked on known CIA-sponsored productions. Others like Furious 7 have no known Western government involvement, but were given grants and tax breaks and other assistance by the Abu Dhabi government and had Rich Klein, a very curious and well connected man, working as a consultant to the film. Others such as Mission: Impossible and Bridge of Spies had direct assistance from major NATO government agencies and that is easy to demonstrate. So I’m going to go through these films, at least the ones that I have seen, and review them individually and then collectively to try to paint a picture of 2015 overall.
We will be reviewing this film in depth for The CIA and Hollywood season 2 but this is almost certainly a CIA-assisted film, their logo is all over the place and the whole storyline is Bourne for stoners (Bourne being a CIA-assisted series). The film was promoted as a comedy but is more like a zombie movie set in the world of MK Ultra. So it is another example of the ‘comedy as a trojan horse’ idea that we talked about in episode 02 of The CIA and Hollywood when discussing Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. But we will be discussing this one in detail, so we’ll move on.
Bridge of Spies
I really liked this film, it was one of the best films I saw all year. I thought the acting, the sets, the writing, the pacing – the whole thing was very well done. And that’s not that surprising given that Spielberg was directing and the Coen brothers helped to write the script. The one point that I should make is that the central character played by Tom Hanks is rather similar to the character he played in Charlie Wilson’s War, inasmuch as he’s obviously a CIA asset but the film goes to great lengths to downplay and disguise and minimise that fact. And given that Charlie Wilson’s War was a CIA-assisted production, this one potentially and probably was too, and was certainly a DOD-assisted production – they filmed on a DOD air base.
I have not seen this film but it was produced by the likes of Greg Shapiro (Zero Dark Thirty) Matthew Stillman and David Minkowski (Casino Royale, Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible) and one of the major distributors is Summit Entertainment, a company co-founded by Arnon Milchan. It was also withdrawn from Russian cinemas due to its apparently very bleak and horrible portrayals of Russia and Russians. Given how poor the reviews of Child 44 have been I wonder whether it was because they were so concerned with the political dimensions that they somehow made a poor film despite having a very talented cast.
I am not the biggest fan of this series, I don’t know it that well but Furious 7 was quite fun. Not strictly a Western government-sponsored movie but certainly one that was partly funded by the Abu Dhabi government. It also featured Rich Klein, who is technically a lawyer but is more like a Mr Fixit, a liaison between governments and the entertainment industry who just so happens to work for a well-connected DC law firm. Here is a short making of clip that features Klein saying some quite amusing things.
As I noted in my recent article on the world’s biggest film franchises, Klein statement that ‘This puts a spotlight on the city itself, on its architecture, on its beaches, on its people in a way that you could never buy’ is ludicrous, because money did buy it.
We have reviewed Kingsman at some length both in episode 64 of ClandesTime and in an article I recently wrote outlining the secretive state involvement in the film. There is not much more to add except to say that this is probably the most interesting film of the year in all sorts of ways. Despite being a pretty fucked up movie it is very well made, jam packed with things to consider and discuss.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Probably my favourite of this year’s films, this is relatively predictable but well executed stuff from Tom Cruise and JJ Abrams, both seasoned veterans of the state-sponsored film circuit. Plenty of jokes, plenty of action, attractive women in skimpy outfits, well paced storytelling – it’s everything that it promises to be. And doesn’t even feature that much of Tom Cruise running. The Mission: Impossible series has enjoyed assistance from the DOD and CIA since its inception, though on the DVD commentary for the film Tom Cruise says that you can no longer film helicopter shots at CIA headquarters in Langley. The producers of Rogue Nation took a shot from Clear and Present Danger (which I think is the same shot as from Patriot Games) and digitally touched it up.
The opening sequence of this 5th instalment was filmed at a British military facility and the film employed a panopoly of technical advisors – former Royal Marine Paul Hornsby, director Christopher McQuarrie’s brother Doug, a former Navy SEAL, ‘military expert’ Paul Biddiss (who also worked on Kingsman) and other advisors from the British company Military Film Services, who also worked on Kingsman.
Apparently it was Doug McQuarrie who suggested that the assassin played by Rebecca Ferguson adopt this needlessly sexy leg up posture necessitating her wearing a dress with a revealing split.
They also employed an International Monitoring Company called Intelligent Media who provide a high tech open source media monitoring service to the entertainment industry. Among their many, many credits are numerous high profile DOD or CIA-sponsored films. Finally, Mission: Impossible also employed the seemingly indispensable Rich Klein as a ‘political advisor’, a position that may sound a lot more serious than it really is, given the overall tone of this movie.
Obviously I have not seen this film because it isn’t out yet, but I just wanted to highlight it because I’m a fan of the original and the trailer for the remake is very provocative.
I’m not 100% sure this was a state-sponsored movie but from what friends and reviews have said it certainly appears that way. I have not seen it, and I want to reserve judgement until I have.
I didn’t like Spectre. I did not find this film particularly engaging, there didn’t seem to be much dialogue or jokes, it was all just exotic locations. Indeed, the film’s storyline has Bond go from place to place, each place just providing him with a clue to help him find the next place, as though the main driving force of the film was a series of locations. Finally, Bond ends up back at the MI6 headquarters which the Edward Snowden character played by Javier Bardem blew up in Skyfall. In Spectre the entire building is demolished, and then Bond chases a helicopter down the Thames, conveniently managing to bring it down firing only a handgun from a moving boat, even though it was established in Skyfall that he can no longer shoot straight. The helicopter then crashes onto a bridge, conveniently not killing the bad guy inside and thus enabling Bond to have one last face to face with him before the credits role.
Basically, I thought this movie was poor. As to all this stuff about it being pro-Snowden – well, it is pro-Snowden, but does that mean pro-surveillance or anti-surveillance? After all, Snowden himself said that he wasn’t trying to change the world, and totally accepts the war on terror and the need for surveillance. And the way Spectre ends up, it seems like all that surveillance might be a good thing because you never know who the danger might be. There’s a lot of this ‘enemy within’ stuff that’s becoming increasingly de facto in spy films in Spectre, this idea that we need to watch everyone because the threat might be inside the security institutions themselves (like Snowden?).
Also, and this was always the case to some extent, but I don’t like how the Bond films have become so self-referential. All these in jokes about Aston Martins and other stitch-back gags, I just find it so insular, and more about building a brand, a film franchise, than about being entertaining. There was quite a lot of that in Spectre and I didn’t enjoy any of it. When a movie franchise starts disappearing up its own arse like that, it means they are running out of ideas and are just trying to come with ironic replays of ideas they’ve already used. But then, this film also contained Bond being injected with super blood containing nano-bots enabling Bond to be tracked by satellite, which is basically what also happened to him in Casino Royale. Spectre really isn’t a very original movie, and I can see why Sam Mendes, usually an excellent director, got frustrated trying to make this one.
Spooks: The Greater Good
Despite having a fraction of the budget and being a TV-to-film adaptation I enjoyed this a lot more than Spectre. There was no 40 minutes of wasted screen time that’s just a vehicle for cramming more exotic locations into the flick, it was pretty much all set in Britain. In truth it is a bit like watching an extended or two-part episode of Spooks, but they were often the best episodes (several seasons began and/or ended with such an enjambement episode).
The storyline is somewhat predictable and for those who keep up with the spy-fi genre it does feel a little dated at times but it is nonetheless a well-paced, solid spy film. And let’s face it, the spy genre is all over the place, in recent years we’ve had everything from the quite beautiful period piece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to American Ultra, a zombie movie/stoner comedy set in the world of Jason Bourne. So the Spooks film being quite familiar to fans of the TV show is more like the return of an old friend than having to munch your way through stale toast. Plus it includes (as did some of the later Spooks TV series) an aerial shot of Thames House which they must have either filmed with MI5 permission or simply obtained from MI5.
I have reviewed Spy at length but this is also a film I quite enjoyed in spite of its faux-feminist credentials. I will direct you to my article on Spy and the clip of Melissa McCarthy talking about the former CIA field operative who was a consultant on the film. Also, I’d like to highlight a film coming out next year called Central Intelligence starring The Rock himself – Dwayne Johnson – which looks every bit like a male-oriented version of Spy.
I have not seen this film but it is important to note that the Terminator franchise has had a lot of input from the Pentagon and from retired Marine turned technical advisor James D Dever, who seems to be the most prominent military advisor in Hollywood. The latest incarnation, Genisys, premiered at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps Base a couple of hours south of Los Angeles. This is where a lot of films premiere, typically ones with Marine Corps assistance. To give you a sense of what these events are like, here’s a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger at Camp Pendleton.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
This film does not appear to have been assisted by the DOD, unlike the original Avengers and many other Marvel Universe pictures. However, it was assisted somewhat by the British MOD, though the film is not included in the database that they sent me. The MOD’s contractor Landmarc are credited as a location provider here, which means some of Age of Ultron was filmed on MOD property.
As to the movie itself, I quite enjoyed it but nowhere near as much as the first one. I didn’t really get what Ultron was as an enemy and so I felt nothing when he was defeated. And the whole Balkan village-makeshift meteor thing was suitably absurd but lacked tension because it was so obvious it was never going to succeed in wiping out the human race. So, not an especially good film particularly when compared to the original.
And why doesn’t Black Widow get her own movie? It could just be two hours of her working her way through the various members of the Avengers (pun intended). In Winter Soldier she threw herself at Captain America and in this latest one she’s playing hide the zucchini with The Hulk, so it would fit in with where they are obviously going with this character.
The Man from UNCLE
I watched some of this film before turning it off. It is quite, quite bad. At least Spectre felt like it was going somewhere (even though it wasn’t, especially), The Man from UNCLE felt like a cheap, lazy reboot with little thought or effort behind it.
The Martian and Trumbo
I have not seen either of these films, though NASA were involved in The Martian and there are good reasons why the CIA would be interested in Trumbo though no solid proof they provided production assistance.
The Russia-as-enemy image is quite prevalent, for obvious reasons. I doubt that this meme was put into the films it appears in by the government agencies who helped to make them. It’s the sort of thing screenwriters will put into scripts because it’s a current talking point but also because it helps to flatter the preconceptions of those government departments and makes them more likely to provide the help the film-makers want. This is a largely tacit phenomenon, from what I’ve heard and read and seen, but it is potentially quite influential. Just as when trying to woo a corporate sponsor a sports club might change the colour of their away kit to better suit the branding. Given that in a film it doesn’t necessarily matter who the bad guy is, there just has to be an antagonist of some sort for there to be jeopardy and struggle and resolution, a lot of the time they probably don’t care that much. That was certainly true in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the enemy is the most confusing thing since Magic Eye puzzles.
Perhaps the more important theme was the threat to security institutions themselves. In Avengers, the Avengers and SHIELD have been formally disbanded (which should make Phil Strub happy). In Spectre MI5 and MI6 have been dissolved into a combined agency operating out of that awful City Hall building in London. And that in turn is under threat from this mass international surveillance program called nine eyes, obviously a play on the very real five eyes partnership that’s existed for decades at this point. In Mission: Impossible the IMF are disbanded (sort of) and subsumed by the CIA, and then at the end of the film the director of the CIA becomes also the director of the newly reformed IMF. In Spooks there is a similar storyline about MI5 being heavily criticised and potentially being abolished and taken over by the CIA. You get the picture.
This appears to serve two purposes: (1) It makes the intelligence services look like victims, or like brave, unappreciated soldiers fighting for good in a complex world and thus generates human sympathy towards them and (2) It helps normalise the idea of consolidated or conglomerated international intelligence agencies. In reality they already exist to some extent – the notion that the British and the Americans can keep any major secrets from one another is a joke. The FBI were heavily involved in the security and intelligence operations around the London Olympics. Again, I doubt that this idea appears in all of these films as a result of state production assistance, but it may well appear in there because an intelligent screenwriter will realise it is on the state’s agenda.
The third notion that appears a lot in these films is secret societies. Spectre is a secret society. The Avengers are a quasi-secret society, fighting against the neo-Nazi Hydra organisation, which is a secret society. Kingsman portrays Eggsy’s induction into a secret society. Tom Cruise fights against ‘the Syndicate’ in Mission: Impossible, who are likewise some kind of international secret society. The forthcoming X-Men film follows suit, there is an element of the same in Point Break, at least from what the trailer indicates, I think we should expect more of this in 2016. Exactly why is not something I can think of a good explanation for so I will think about that further and consult with those I consult with and try to figure something out in the near future.