ClandesTime 119 – The Cinema of the Inside Job
The 1996 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight was only a modest commercial and critical success, but is a cult classic in the 9/11 ‘truth movement’ because it appears to predict the attacks. This week we analyse the film, its apparent predictive qualities, its commentary on the 1993 WTC bombing and its similarity to several CIA-assisted productions. We also consider other more recent examples of pop culture depicting ‘inside job’ conspiracy theories at the centre of their narratives, including White House Down and Designated Survivor.
For those of you who haven’t seen The Long Kiss Goodnight, I wholly recommend you do before listening to this episode. With that in mind, prepare for spoilers. Our protagonist, played by Geena Davis, is a schoolteacher living in a small town in Pennsylvania with her young daughter and her partner, a nice guy whose name I can’t remember and who doesn’t play much of a role in the film. She has amnesia – she can’t remember anything from before 8 or 9 years ago, and in the opening monologue she explains that she has hired numerous private detectives to try to find out who she is, or at least was, and they’ve all failed. We’re introduced to the current PI working on her case, played by Samuel L Jackson in one his most Samuel L Jackson roles. He and Geena Davis discover that before her amnesia she was an elite CIA assassin, and the two of them set out to find out the truth. The covert unit she was a part of is planning a false flag terrorist attack, which – big spoiler – is averted by Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson, who live happily ever after.
As far as I know, the film had no government support, though speculation is rife. It was made just as the CIA were setting up their entertainment liaison office but there are none of the hallmarks of Agency involvement. That being said, the film is packed with the same memes and tropes that appear in a lot of entertainment that the CIA has helped to make. First, the protagonist is a female – like in Homeland, Salt, Zero Dark Thirty, Alias and so on. She is basically a female Jason Bourne – amnesia, former CIA assassin, very adept with small arms and hand-to-hand combat. Both Geena Davis’ and Samuel L Jackson’s characters are willing fools who enter into the dark world of CIA black ops as a vehicle to take the audience into that world. In particular Samuel L Jackson’s character bears a lot of comparison to Will Smith’s in Enemy of the State in that he’s a wisecracking black guy stereotype who gets drawn into this adventure by events beyond his control, and becomes a targeted individual (sic).
The film was also produced by Michael De Luca, who is part of the CIA-friendly gang at Sony Pictures. There are a couple of weird little things too – one of the early shots pans across a street to show the house where Geena Davis and her family live. We see a pair of running shoes hanging from a telephone line, just like in Wag the Dog, another De Luca-produced film which may have benefited from CIA co-operation. There’s also a scene where an older guy who used to be involved in ‘Chapter’, the secret CIA covert ops team, rescues Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson and explains to them what’s really going on. This is very similar to a sequence in Enemy of the State where Gene Hackman does the same thing to Will Smith.
Indeed, the whole ‘secret team within the CIA’ idea turns up in the Bourne films, in Homeland, and in American Ultra, obviously playing on real CIA operations like the Phoenix Program. So even this idea – which was apparently the reason the CIA refused to support Clear and Present Danger – is not as controversial as we might think, and certainly not a reason to rule out CIA support. There is a section in the film where Geena Davis is wrestling between her old self and her new self, even trying to kill off the suburban housewife and re-embrace being a highly dangerous assassin. This is comparable to the scenes of identity crisis in American Ultra, indeed there are numerous points of comparison between the two films.
So while I don’t think the CIA were involved, we can’t rule it out, and it is very interesting that a number of dramatic tools used in this film would become staples in CIA-assisted movies over the following 20 years. Certainly, this film broke some fresh ground in terms of action thrillers and doesn’t get the credit it deserves for doing so.
The Long Kiss Goodnight and False Flag Terrorism
It emerges near the climax of the movie that the secret team known as ‘Chapter’ are planning a massive terrorist attack near Niagra Falls, to be blamed on a Muslim patsy, as a means of scaring more money out of the government. Naturally, it is this plot point and this scene that has drawn attention from observers of how pop culture predicted 9/11. This is by no means the only instance of this happening but it is the only time that I’m aware of that any film has suggested that the CIA enabled or allowed the 1993 WTC bombing.
Indeed, this is one of very few pop cultural references to the 1993 bombing, which is presumably one of the reasons almost everyone has forgotten that it even happened. The only other one I know of is Path to Paradise – an HBO TV movie which I’ve also played clips of in some of the episodes on the WTC bombing. But that is a very straight story about the FBI screwing up their informant Emad Salem, and only touches on the CIA aspect very briefly.
The Long Kiss Goodnight goes full Iron Chef and lays out the idea that both the 1993 bombing and a forthcoming major terrorist attack that will kill thousands of people were ultimately CIA plots. However, like with the NSA in Enemy of the State it is not the whole agency who are at fault, but a small team run by one supervisor – Leland Perkins, who in the end is indicted for treason. So while this is some of the most explicitly subversive and accusatory content Hollywood has ever produced, it still exonerates the CIA as a whole. Just like in Three Days of the Condor, American Ultra and other films, the crimes are committed by a small group of rogue agents.
However, unlike most of the CIA-assisted productions we aren’t given the usual excuse for all this. In many of these films and TV series the underlying idea is that the world is such a dark and dangerous place that these crimes might be necessary, but that doesn’t apply to The Long Kiss Goodnight. Indeed, Perkins explains quite clearly that their problem is that the post-Cold War world is too peaceful, which is why they’re going to have to carry out a false flag terrorist attack. Compare this logic to the excuses given in Three Days of the Condor:
In Condor the whole thing is about oil – which one could argue in the early-mid 1970s was a serious national concern for the US. Likewise, you could argue that ordinary Americans benefit from this approach to economic security. By the time of The Long Kiss Goodnight this excuse – of real world problems necessitating CIA-type solutions – was upgraded to a simple mafia-style money grab. Now, Condor is widely recognised as a film that is very critical of the CIA, and for the time it was. The notion of running covert operations on behalf of oil interests was, in 1975, quite controversial. By 1996, when The Long Kiss Goodnight was released, audiences were more aware of these things, they were less controversial and so the story logic had to be upgraded to have a similarly shocking effect on the people watching.
Another 20 years later and we have extensive documentation on the CIA’s coup in Iran in the 1950s, which was largely motivated by oil interests, and our news media dialogue is sometimes very critical of the oil and other fossil fuel industries. By this point in time what was controversial in Three Days of the Condor is now much more normalised. Not completely, but I’m trying to highlight how dramatic narratives about politics have had to up the ante over the last 40 years as audiences have become more accustomed to this sort of material. I should also point out that a very similar dramatic logic appears in the notorious pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen, which may have been inspired by The Long Kiss Goodnight.
The pop culture of the inside job?
Indeed, the first X-Files movies in 1998 opens with a sequence where Scully and Mulder are trying to stop a bombing in a federal building that’s very similar to the Oklahoma City bombing three years earlier. They discover the bomb hidden across the street and evacuate the building, leaving behind an FBI bomb technician who is supposed to disarm the device. Instead, he just lets it detonate, which kills several people who hadn’t been removed from the building. It later emerges this was entirely deliberate and that they were trying to cover up the fact that these four people had alien DNA. In particular, the shot after the bomb has gone off is almost identical to real footage of the federal building in Oklahoma city.
I’m highlighting these examples to show that there is a ‘pop culture of the inside job’. Numerous people have drawn attention to how films, TV shows and comic books in some way predicted 9/11, or at least some kind of massive spectacular trauma probably involving skyscrapers in New York. However, the common 9/11 truther interpretation of this phenomenon is that this was somehow pre-conditioning us for the forthcoming event. Even in Adam Curtis’ most recent documentary Hypernormalisation he devoted a montage to a load of clips from 1990s movies and TV that seemed to be warning of an imminent, massive cataclysmic event. I’m not sure what his point was, because in Curtis’ usual fashion his argument in that film is so labyrinthine that it’s basically meaningless. I do wonder if he stuck that in there just as catnip for 9/11 truthers.
But as I explored in my second 7/7 documentary and in my book on the London bombings pop culture didn’t just predict the official story or in some way condition people to accept the fascistic, security state responses to these attacks, they did the same with alternative narratives. The Long Kiss Goodnight and The X-Files movie suggested or explicitly stated that the 1993 WTC bombing and the 1995 OKC bombing were in some way government-sponsored terrorism. The Lone Gunmen predicted one of the most popular alternative theories about 9/11.
This is still going on, and to round off I want us to look at two more recent examples – White House Down and Designated Survivor. White House Down was one of a pair of 2013 movies depicting a terrorist attack on the White House and a Die Hard scenario with one guy fighting back against the odds. The other was Olympus has Fallen. Of the two I much prefer White House Down because there’s less CGI (Olympus has Fallen uses CGI to a ludicrous extent) and the cast is better, but they’re both pretty dumb movies.
Now, the makers of White House Down including Roland Emmerich approached the Pentagon for support but their request was refused. According to Phil Strub this is because, ‘The basic premise was a fundamental show-stopper for us. Imagine the same scenario at Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace. Obviously Roland likes to blow up iconic real estate around the world, but we saw no compelling reason to join in his efforts. Plus the picture wasn’t likely to help military recruiting or retention, or inform the public.’
So that’s nice and clear – the DOD refused because they didn’t want to help make a film where the White House gets blown up. But there are two big reasons to think this is bullshit.
1) The DOD also refused co-operation on Independence Day, the film that really announced Roland Emmerich as a director. But none of their objections were about the White House getting destroyed, it was more to do with removing references to Area 51 and notions of the military being involved in UFO cover-ups. They also supported the film Deep Impact – the asteroid film that like White House Down was a ‘twin movie’, released in the same year as Armageddon. In Deep Impact the Capitol and indeed most of DC is destroyed by a giant tidal wave, but the military had no objection to that.
2) The military did provide a consultant on the competing film, Olympus has Fallen, which tells almost the exact same story as White House Down. A guy called Darryl Connerton, who had worked for the Pentagon for decades, was an adviser on the film. I’m not sure whether this was done via the entertainment liaison offices because there’s no reference to the film in any of the documents, but Connerton was definitely working for the Pentagon while consulting on the movie. He also briefly appears in the film playing the director of the CIA.
So what’s the crucial difference? Why did they support one film and not the other, and give what appears to be a bullshit reason for doing so? My best guess is that it’s because of who is behind the plot to attack the White House. In Olympus has Fallen it’s North Korean terrorists who somehow manage to penetrate the multi-trillion dollar US national defence system. In White House Down it’s an inside job perpetrated by the Speaker of the House and the military industrial complex.
One of the consultants on White House Down was Rich Klein, an inside the beltway DC lawyer who used to work for the Clinton White House and the State Department. He employs lots of former government officials, notably ex-CIA and ex-FBI, who consult to the entertainment industry, and Klein himself is also a consultant and facilitator. He helps negotiate with foreign governments to gain access to shooting locations, for example.
Despite saying in an interview that he’s ‘not a movie guy’, Klein has progressed from consulting and is now producing a very high-budget TV series, Designated Survivor. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it stars Kiefer Sutherland as a politician who is the ‘Designated Survivor’ during the State of the Union address. The idea is that if some bright spark decides to blow up the Capitol during the address and take out the government all in one go, Guy Fawkes style, that there’ll be someone left to take over and maintain continuity of government.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, minutes into the first episode some bright spark blows up the Capitol during the address and takes out the whole of the government, Guy Fawkes style. A very satifying moment for any anarchist. So Kiefer Sutherland becomes president and has so far spent over 20 episodes dealing with random crises with such earnest goodwill and respect for the office that it’s entirely inappropriate given the real state of the White House at the moment.
It gradually emerges that the perpetrators aren’t an Al Qaeda offshoot as everyone immediately suspected and it’s actually a semi-inside job semi-private domestic conspiracy largely being run by the head of a mercenary military firm. Given that this trope is central to the plot in both White House Down and Designated Survivor, I can only assume Klein quite likes this idea, at least in its dramatic form.
As a piece of entertainment Designated Survivor is very popular, and if you can stomach the saccharine waffle about doing the right thing for the country it’s a bit repetitive but quite fun to watch. There’s even an attempt to assassinate Kiefer Sutherland Lee Oswald-style, which is part of the overall conspiracy. Amusingly, the series does show that if someone took out the government in one go that most things would just continue as normal and everything would be fine. I’m not sure that’s true, but it still makes me laugh.
What does this mean?
What does all this add up to? Well, I think we should recognise that these notions are, while not common in our pop culture, at least present in some major productions. This does not appear to be a state-sponsored phenomenon, though in the case of Designated Survivor they do seem to have filmed at the Pentagon and at other government buildings, though some of that may be CGI. Nonetheless, it portrays the FBI and the Secret Service in glowing terms, so if any government agencies were involved they would be my guess. Klein has worked on a few FBI-supported productions and obviously has a good relationship with them.
I will also say that none of this is particularly misleading or duplicitous. The conspiracies portrayed in The Long Kiss Goodnight and the other entertainment we’ve looked at today are quite realistic. The notion that small groups within these institutions, often in league with private networks of wealthy, power-driven people, would conspire to carry out serious crimes is not at all implausible. If we look at Gladio in Italy, for example, it revolved around the P2 Masonic Lodge, which included everyone from senior judges and intelligence officials to wealthy industrialists and media moguls. If we look at the BCCI scandal we seem a similar structure. Iran Contra primarily involved government officials, so there are perhaps some counter-examples too.
As a result, I think these writers and producers deserve some praise for incorporating these themes in a relatively realistic fashion, even if it is a bit dramatic and sensationalised for entertainment purposes. No doubt they’re aware that this material will appeal to the conspiracy theorists and to people who are cynical or sceptical about the real power centres in our society. Conspiracy culture has grown to the extent that it’s become a good-sized market, we should also recognise that.
Most fundamentally, I would say this is a great example of where neither the conservative, consensus approach that this is ‘just entertainment’ nor the paranoid conspiracist approach that this is a dangerous psyop are sufficient. I think we need to be more clever than that when examining this material, and not fall into the easy binary opposition of simple explanations.
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