Of all the US intelligence agencies, the FBI has the longest-running relationship with Hollywood. From spying on A-listers as to helping blacklist screenwriters, through to manipulating scripts for PR and propaganda purposes, the Bureau’s influence on Tinseltown is very broad. Using documents from throughout the FBI’s history, today we’re going to look at this relationship and ask: whatever happened about that Sony hack?
Podcast: Play in new window | Download | Embed
The FBI and Hollywood in the 1930s
The most famous depiction of the FBI in entertainment is probably The X-Files, at least in recent decades. On the one hand, The X-Files explores government criminality and conspiracy, on the other it depicts the FBI fairly positively, with our heroes being two dedicated, intelligent investigators. It also suggests that if the government is keeping secrets unlawfully that the Bureau are the guys to find out the truth. I do not know if The X-Files was produced with help from the FBI, it would surprise me either way.
Gillian Anderson, who plays the sceptical agent Dana Scully, did front a video in 2012 celebrating 40 years of women in the FBI. And herein lies one of the dark deceptions of modern identity politics, and the attendant government PR – alongside celebrating 40 years of women in the FBI we should have been asking ‘why only 40 years?’. After all, the FBI has existed in some form since 1908. The answer is that J Edgar Hoover didn’t trust women, he didn’t think women should work as FBI agents, so the Bureau didn’t begin employing them until after Hoover died. To their credit, they did begin employing female agents immediately after Hoover died, but still. By comparison the OSS and the CIA – while dominated by men, and exclusively so in the leadership – employed a great many women. Indeed, there’s a new series about the TV chef Julia Child being a CIA agent, extrapolating from her history with the OSS.
It was under J Edgar Hoover that the FBI first started working with Hollywood in the 1930s. They were the first US government agency to set up a dedicated staff for the task, the first entertainment liaison office. Documents made available to The Black Vault give us some details of how things worked in this early phase of the FBI in Hollywood. In 1933, when the FBI was still the BOI (Bureau of Investigation) two different producers approached them with an idea about making a series of short films based on real FBI case files. The first producer was turned down, probably because he was small time and the FBI knew very little about him. Then MGM’s East Coast rep William Orr came to them with an almost identical proposal. It seems the FBI felt MGM were a safer pair of hands, and they were already working with the writer George F Zimmer on a radio series based around the same idea.
They struck a deal which gave the FBI ‘complete control of the material and story’ and even allowed them to write the caption at the start of each film explaining that it was based on real life FBI files. Zimmer explained that the films ‘will help create more respect for law and order and a higher regard for the law enforcement agencies of our country’ and that they would ‘counteract the tendency of “glorifing” the criminal in the recent gang pictures.’ As we have explored before, the romance of high crime is a frequently used theme in Western culture and the FBI were keen to push back against this.
While this series ended up being made without FBI assistance under the title – Crime Does Not Pay – the documents do show Hoover’s script notes on two of the proposed episodes. One, titled The Two Gun Auto Thief, was based on the story of Martin James Durkin. In one scene he shoots and kills someone who is trying to arrest him. He checks the body and realises it is a BOI officer. ‘Just my luck’ he mutters, ‘a Federal dick!’. Hoover’s handwritten note changed this to ‘a Federal agent’.
Other scenes they changed or removed included one where criminals melt the registration plate off a stolen car, which was changed to them filing it off. The Bureau had methods to restore filed-off numbers so they didn’t want to encourage criminals to use better means of removing number plates that couldn’t be reversed. The Bureau also removed any references to them wiretapping telephone lines and listening to people’s calls. So this wasn’t just about Hoover’s dislike of the term ‘Federal Dick’ or about effective law enforcement, it was also about the politics of the FBI’s public image. In the end the Bureau pulled out, saying they were too busy and this was taking up too much time. The series ended up depicting private investigators rather than FBI agents, but otherwise maintained the same ideas and values the producers agreed with the Bureau.
Indeed, in 1935 two different studios approached the FBI with plans to make a film titled ‘Federal Dick’ or ‘The Federal Dick’. Hoover wrote a memo saying ‘I do not know whether it is possible or not but I do think Mr Brylawski [the lawyer for Paramount] should be told that the title of the picture is particularly obnoxious. The Agents of this Bureau are not “Dicks” and I think it is a most humiliating and repugnant title, and believe that if possible Mr Brylawski should be so advised.’ While the other film titled ‘The Federal Dick’ appears to have never been made, the Paramount movie was released under the title Men Without Names.
The FBI in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s
As part of the war time propaganda effort the FBI did work on some major Hollywood films, including the semi-documentary House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry Hathaway and produced by Louis De Rochemont. Hathaway had also directed DOD-assisted films and even approached the CIA in the 1960s about making a film with them, but was turned down. Louis, of course, went on to produce Animal Farm with CIA money, also made films with the DOD and the OSS and went on to make A Day With the FBI, a 1951 documentary produced with unprecedented access to Bureau buildings and people. I asked the FBI for documents on House on 92nd Street but they told me they couldn’t find anything. Nonetheless, I found one page in their UFO files referring to it as ‘our film’ which I think illustrates the extent of FBI influence on and support for the movie. It also spawned an FBI-supported sequel The Street with No Name, about the Bureau infiltrating a gang of mobsters.
While House on 92nd Street told a very positive story about the FBI infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, they were far less enthusiastic about the similar story of Matt Cvetic, an FBI spy inside the Communist Party of the United States. When Cvetic left the Bureau and serialised his memoirs, they were adapted both into a 1951 Warner Bros. film and a radio series. The FBI monitored all of this quite closely, though they refused all of Warner Bros. requests for assistance making the movie. When the film came out numerous outlets wrote to the Bureau asking for help promoting it, including one slightly over-enthusiastic theatre owner from Kokomo, Indiana. He included a copy of a faked telegram purporting to be from J Edgar Hoover, endorsing the film. He wanted permission from Hoover to take the fake telegram and blow it up to a full size promotional poster, which was refused.
Others who saw the film wrote to the FBI asking how they could help promote it, or just praising the work of the Bureau for dealing with those damn Commies. When the radio show started the following year another flurry of correspondence landed in the FBI’s lap. One letter from an ardent anti-Communist demanded that they vet the scripts due to apparent anti-American sentiments, and concluded that the program was ‘infiltrated’. The FBI did not take him seriously.
So the FBI were perfectly happy with a film that portrayed them as spying on a wartime enemy, but refused to work with a film that showed them spying on a domestic political party – even at a time when a large portion of the public saw that as good and necessary. As with the censorship of references to wiretapping in the 1930s scripts, this is all being done for political reasons to do with the Bureau’s desired public image and, by implication, the image of the US. After all, America at that point was starting to claim that it was the leader of the free world, fighting the good fight against those totalitarian communists who don’t tolerate political dissent. None of which chimes very well with a story about the FBI spying on a domestic political party for a decade.
However, the really ugly truth behind this PR posturing is that the FBI were spying on a lot more than that, including literally hundreds of people in Hollywood who were suspected Communists or radicals. This included Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, Sterling Harden, Grace Kelly and Orson Welles. They even recruited major Hollywood figures as spies within the industry, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan.
I have discussed Disney at some length before, but to quickly recap – they worked together on an episode of Mickey Mouse Club where a young boy visits the FBI Crime Lab. They removed a scene where the boy picks up a loaded firearm, and pressed the producers to include a shot where an FBI agent at the shooting range breaks the clay targets he’s firing at, emphasising his competence and how FBI agents are a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile Disney informed on colleagues, recruited other spies in Hollywood on behalf of the FBI and generally did favours for them through much of the 1950s. The relationship went a bit sour towards the end but nonetheless this illustrates just how high up the Hollywood chain of command the FBI were.
The Bureau was also instrumental in HUAC – the House Committee on Un-American Activities which resulted in the Hollywood blacklist and a general attack on leftists in the entertainment industry. Both Reagan and Disney testified at the hearings, though this appears to have resulted in them becoming FBI informants afterwards, not the other way round. A lot of the information used by HUAC came from Bureau files, which detail not just the Hollywood ten – the original men to be blacklisted – but also many of their films and the supposed Communist content therein. Far beyond the Communist Party of the USA, the FBI were spying on Hollywood as a whole, from recruiting informers to analysing films.
While all this was developing, Hoover got Congress to pass Public Law 670 in 1954, which forbid the commercial depiction of the FBI without his permission. According to some articles Hoover turned down hundreds of proposals, meaning that they couldn’t be made (or had to be civilianised, like with the Crime Does Not Pay series). This meant he had almost total control over the FBI’s public image as portrayed in cinema, television and radio. He even ghost-wrote a book called Masters of Deceit portraying Communism as a massive threat to America that would strip man of his freedom and his belief in God.
Before we move on I want to play you a clip from the 1951 documentary A Day with the FBI, which illustrates not only how the FBI wanted to be portrayed, but also how they saw their mission.
You see how not only is the FBI portrayed as incredibly professional and competent, but that the film slips in a line making out that common criminals are a threat to national security. This gives you a sense of just how totalitarian the culture at the FBI was during this period. A bank robber was viewed the same way as a team of saboteurs working for a foreign government. A movie star going to a protest was the same as being an active Communist who was trying to overthrow the government. I know I’m not the first person to suggest that Hoover’s paranoia over being outed as gay was projected outwards by the institution he was at the head of for nearly half a century.
The FBI in Hollywood in the 1960s
Perhaps the best example of the FBI’s ability to have a major influence on entertainment is the long-running drama The F.B.I., which was produced with full co-operation from the Bureau in exchange for Hoover having veto power over scripts, casting, the writers and crew and even sponsors. It was produced by ABC, who got a foot in the door because they had bought the rights to Masters of Deceit. They agreed that Hoover and his number 2 Clyde Tolson would review the scripts and could change anything they liked.
However, a series by David Robb, one of the pioneers of this area of research, shows that Hoover exerted almost total control over the show, like a really powerful producer or studio executive would. He prevented them from casting one actor because his agents did a background check and found he had once signed a petition in support of the Hollywood Ten. An FBI agent assigned to the show interviewed the actor and determined he wasn’t a Communist and said it was okay to hire him, but Hoover overrode this decision, writing, ‘I do not want even a fellow traveler in the cast nor one who is stupidly naïve.’ Other memos make clear that the FBI prevented the hiring of ‘drunkards, kooks, perverts, faggots, junkies and others of this ilk’ including ‘people like Jane Fonda and Dalton Trumbo of the Hollywood Ten’.
Script approval was absolute – FBI agents in the program were not allowed to smoke, or drink or have girlfriends. Or put their feet on the desk. They weren’t allowed to be shown tapping phones, and violence was kept to a minimum because in Hoover’s view this was a family show. He ordered the rewriting of one episode that depicted the killing of a police informant, because he didn’t want the idea out there that informants were putting their lives at risk. In 1969 he forbid any more depiction of killings on the show, and so for the final few years of its run there were no murders whatsoever on The F.B.I.. Likewise sex and sexual innuendo weren’t allowed in pretty much any form, especially what Hoover saw as ‘promiscuous conduct’.
In return the producers toured FBI headquarters, spoke with Hoover at length, got the rights to depict the FBI and use their case files as inspiration and even featured J Edgar Hoover himself in a number of episodes. The second season was launched with a clip of Hoover presenting a Freedom Foundation award to the Ford Motor Company – one of the series sponsors, all of which had to be personally approved by Hoover.
A more recent article on MuckRock reveals that the FBI even maintained a file on the star of the show Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Much of the 240 pages consists of gracious correspondence between Zimbalist and Hoover but the Bureau also monitored media coverage about him, and his appearances on late night talk shows. They often wrote to him about these appearances, letting him know they were watching. Even though Zimbalist was a known conservative, they still felt the need to keep tabs on him and to let him him know they were keeping tabs on him. The article by Daniel Welch concludes:
So it’s always possible that the surface-level grandmotherly praise that accompanied seemingly every television appearance Zimbalist gave may have also been meant to carry an implied threat of perpetual surveillance, in the name of securing the FBI a favorable place in the public imagination.
The Modern FBI and Hollywood
Hollywood acting classes for FBI Undercovers
Fast-forwarding to what’s going on today we know that the FBI continues to run an entertainment liaison office called the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit. They have an annual budget of $1.5 million and they work on hundreds of books, TV shows and movies each year. Note – this mixes together books and TV news broadcasts and documentaries about real FBI investigations with movies like The Kingdom, Shooter, and Breach as well as television shows including Without A Trace, CSI, Numb3rs and Criminal Minds. So this isn’t hundreds of movies and TV shows a year – it seems the majority of their work is in factual productions or at least factual entertainment.
A FOIA lawsuit following a FOIA request by Buzzfeed journalist Jason Leopold forced the release of around 700 pages of documents from this FBI unit. I should say, this is one area where FOIA has proven quite effective over the years, even though my own efforts haven’t got very far. For example, I asked the FBI for a copy of the documents they sent to David Robb on the TV series The F.B.I. They replied saying they’d sent them to the national archives. I asked the national archives, who said they FBI had never sent them. The fact that media outlets are having to file lawsuits to get hold of this stuff is absurd, but let’s take a look at what they released.
The first major document is a slide presentation, presumably given at orientation seminars and the like. It explains what the unit does and why, and under the heading ‘why is media important?’ it says ‘“If we don’t tell our story, then fools will gladly tell it for us. Most people form their opinion of the FBI from pop culture, not a two-minute news story.’ This echoes what numerous CIA people have said, that they believe (quite correctly) that entertainment media is more important than news coverage when it comes to general PR objectives like portraying the Agency well.
It goes on to explain that they’ve arranged writer’s workshops for journalists and screenwriters that have involved the Writer’s Guild and the Director’s Guild and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Science and Entertainment Exchange. This is all supposedly for the purposes of ensuring the FBI is portrayed accurately, but as we know from every other agency that does this, ‘accuracy’ means ‘how we want to be portrayed’.
Then there’s about 45 pages which appears to be a database of entertainment projects they’ve worked on in recent years – something I asked the FBI for, but they said they couldn’t find anything. A lot of this is courtesy support – answering a few technical questions, providing photographs for research purposes, providing legal permission to use the FBI seal. We’ll get to the issue of script influence in a moment.
After that there are a bunch of relatively boring memos and letters and faxes relating to various productions going back as far 1999/2000, so it seems the FOIA request was quite broad, or possibly this was multiple requests combined into one. Some of the emails are quite heavily redacted, but they involve a researcher at McLarty Associates who worked with Rich Klein, who I have discussed at some length before. Again, no surprise here because we know Klein has a good relationship with the FBI, he’s said as much in interviews.
The next section of documents mostly relate to the Rocket Media Group who the FBI commissioned to make the Insider Threat and Company Man training films. I mentioned this organisation a couple of episodes ago because they made Game of Pawns, perhaps the last film (in a loose sense of that word) to shoot at Langley. This section includes a paper written by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division titled Don’t be a Pawn – which is all about stopping US students overseas from being recruited by foreign intelligence agencies. It seems that Game of Pawns was produced as part of this program.
There are then hundreds of pages of draft scripts for these various training films that Rocket Media have produced for the FBI, none of which are particularly interesting since you can just watch the videos like I have. And even they aren’t very exciting. There is also quite a lengthy Public Affairs manual, and finally some more emails and other communications about more recently-supported projects. So, as a binder of information it is pretty wide-ranging and comprehensive, but let’s get to the most important part – the influence on scripts.
One of the emails towards the back of the 700 pages confirms that the FBI’s name, logo, seal and initials are all protected by statute and that the Office of General Counsel has to review the script of anyone seeking permission to use them. You can be fined and imprisoned for 6 months for using them without permission, though I’ve never heard of that being enforced. At any rate, the FBI do review scripts in the same detailed way that the CIA and DOD do, and make similar sorts of changes.
They refused to support Empire State, starring The Rock because ‘FBI agents rolling onto screen and immediately condescending NYPD,’ and ‘later in script agents were ‘dragging’ patrons out of restaurants and theaters.’ They also turned down an an independent film about a survivor of human trafficking ‘due to the nature of the script, includ[ing] drug use by special agent’. Other films had scenes changed or were refused support due to their portraits of FBI surveillance and otherwise intimidating, aggressive behaviour. So this all falls into the category of PR, rather than the sort of historical and geopolitical propaganda the CIA and DOD engage in as part of their entertainment industry operations.
Weird Scenes involving the FBI and Hollywood
That was Shia Labeouf talking to Jay Leno while promoting his film Eagle Eye, talking about the FBI consultant on the film who apparently told him that 1 in 5 phone calls that you make are recorded. Several years later Wired magazine tracked down the FBI guy, Thomas Knowles, and asked him about this and he denies saying that and denies playing Labeouf a recording of a phone call he’d made two years earlier. Knowles also said that he’d left the FBI by the time he worked on the film.
Naturally, this has provoked a fair bit of media coverage, speculation, counter-speculation and I’m really not sure what to make of it. Labeouf is known for being a bit crazy and the whole thing doesn’t make much sense – why would they only record one in five calls? The realities of the sheer scale of government surveillance now apparent to us makes this comment almost quaint and naive. And on the subject of quaint, naive things that people have claimed:
Sony Hackers Allegedly Mock FBI Investigation
The FBI claimed, repeatedly and in some detail, that they had evidence showing that the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures was perpetrated by North Korea. I have filed multiple requests with the FBI for their investigation file on the hack, fully expecting them to say that they couldn’t release it due to pending legal action. But no. They said they had no such file. Which begs the question: did they actually investigate the Sony hack? Or were these public statements politically motivated and not based on any evidence whatsoever?
This was the biggest hack in Hollywood history, and provided no end of details about how Sony Pictures really works, as well as plenty of important information about the production of The Interview. I find it difficult to believe that they didn’t call in the FBI, unless this whole thing was just some promotional trick dreamt up by Sony, which is outlandish but still possible. So I can only assume the FBI are just not telling me the truth and that they do have an investigation file on the Sony hack. I also assume there’s nothing in that file that really points towards North Korea.