ClandesTime 181 – The Cinema of Iran-Contra
Iran-Contra is in many ways the definitive government conspiracy – involving guns, drugs, anti-communism and black operations, it went all the way to the White House. This week I examine several films that implicitly or explicitly incorporate the Iran-Contra conspiracy into their plots, as well as movies about Iran-Contra that were never made due to government interference. Ranging from macho 80s cop action films through to biopics of Gary Webb and Barry Seal, the cinema of Iran-Contra is a microcosm that represents the movie industry as a whole.
(Films examined are The Man With One Red Shoe, Extreme Prejudice, Above the Law, The Presidio, The Last of the Finest, Kill the Messenger and American Made).
The Man With One Red Shoe
The first film we’re going to look at is 1985’s The Man With One Red Shoe, but before we get into all that we should first get everyone on the same page about Iran-Contra. During the 1980s, under the so-called Reagan Doctrine, US foreign policy wasn’t about fighting full scale wars against rival states, but instead focused on supporting resistance movements against Soviet-backed or otherwise Leftist governments. The classic example is the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front took power in Nicaragua in a coup against the Somoza dynasty, a familial dictatorship that had ruled the country since the 1930s. From 1979 to 1990 they ran the government of Nicaragua, along broadly socialist lines. Supported by communist Cuba and several Eastern bloc countries, the White House considered them an affront in Central America, which the US foreign policy machine has always considered its ‘backyard’.
So Reagan ordered the CIA to begin funding and otherwise supporting the remnants of Somoza’s national guard as a counter-revolutionary force, who became known as the Contras. The guerilla civil war between the Sandinistas and the Contras continued for most of the 1980s and contributed to the downfall of the Sandinistas and them losing control of the government.
There was just one problem: the US congress were not in favour of the not-so-covert war and began passing legislation (the Boland amendments) which first restricted US aid to the Contras and in 1985 banned it entirely.
Meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq war was ploughing along, and the US were equipping both sides. This was back when Saddam was a US ally, so US arms sales to Iraq were fairly open and public, but Iran was subject to an arms embargo which the US politely ignored. Starting in 1981 they began covertly shipping arms to Iran, for reasons that still aren’t clear. When this came out later they tried to use the excuse that this was some kind of arms-for-hostages deal aimed at freeing several US hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the arms shipments began before those US citizens were transported to Lebanon, so clearly that isn’t true. It appears the ultimate aim was to keep the war going, and keep the two nations focused on fighting each other, thus limiting their ability to gain influence elsewhere.
In 1985, after Congress shut off the official funding to the Contras, Lt Col Oliver North of the National Security Council diverted some of the money from the arms sales to the Contras, in violation of congressional policy.
Where things get particularly interesting is that the Contras were also fairly major drugs traffickers and the CIA colluded with them and other drugs gangs to help them import drugs into the US and use the money to buy weapons, medical equipment and supplies for their counter-revolutionaries. The exact nature of this collusion is shrouded in mystery, it still isn’t clear whether high-ups at the Agency knew what was going on. But given that several of the main covert operatives involved in the drug smuggling had done similar things back in the early 70s during the US covert war in Laos, many people believe that this was a fully CIA-sanctioned program.
The arms shipments to Iran were first made public in late 1986, after an air shipment of guns went down over Nicaragua and the survivor of the plane crash said two of his colleagues were working for the CIA. The drugs angle had been reported a year earlier, when Robert Parry wrote pieces for the Associated Press and Newsweek on how the Contras were involved in drugs smuggling, and that US officials in the CIA, FBI and DEA had either helped them or turned a blind eye to what they were doing.
So it’s interesting to me that the first movie to touch on this scandal came out months earlier – in the summer of 1985. The Man With One Red Shoe stars Tom Hanks as a musician who unwittingly becomes the target of a major CIA surveillance and harassment operation. Based on a French movie from 1972 which has basically the same plot, the film opens with a CIA operative getting caught smuggling drugs in Morrocco. This is part of a power struggle between the CIA director and his deputy director, who wants the director’s job. The CIA come to believe that Tom Hanks is a special witness who is going to appear before the Senate, and begin tracking him and trying to assassinate him.
Shortly after the CIA officer is arrested, the CIA director is grilled by a Senate committee about the Agency’s role in drug trafficking:
While Nicaragua is not mentioned and the arrest of the CIA officer takes place in Morocco, the film alludes to the drugs angle of the Iran-Contra scandal months before it was reported in the news. Obviously some people knew what was going on for a while before it was reported, and in all fairness the original French film also begins with a secret agent being arrested while smuggling heroin.
Nonetheless it is interesting to note that The Man With One Red Shoe is one of the first movies to be made with assistance from former CIA officers. In the film the leader of the team carrying out surveillance on Tom Hanks is a blonde woman (the first in a long line of such characters). So one of the producers, Robert Cort – himself ex-CIA – hired two female ex-CIA officers to provide technical advice. Given that this was a time when the CIA themselves were refusing to have anything to do with Hollywood this makes The Man With One Red Shoe a historically significant, if otherwise rather mediocre film.
In the years following the initial Iran-Contra revelations we got a cluster of four very similar films which involve Iran-Contra elements in their plots. We will take them in chronological order, beginning with Extreme Prejudice. Co-written by ‘zen fascist’ John Milius, the film is essentially a modern Western, set in several border towns around the Mexico-Texas border. It stars Nick Nolte as the most macho, tough-guy Texas ranger you’ve ever seen and our story begins with him investigating a murder. Keep this in mind when we look at the other three movies in this cluster.
Nolte is investigating links between the murder and his childhood friend Cash Bailey, a former police informant who has now become a major drugs trafficker in Mexico. Cash initially tries to bribe Nick Nolte to look the other way, and when this fails he warns Nolte to stop looking into his drugs business, saying he’ll end up dead.
Meanwhile, Michael Ironside is running a zombie squad of special forces guys who are officially dead. They rob a bank in Nolte’s town, resulting in one of the men getting killed and two others getting arrested. This leads to a confrontation between Nolte and Ironside, who has been pretending to Nolte that he’s a DEA agent investigating Cash Bailey.
In this scene Ironside lays it all out – Cash Bailey is actually a DEA informant, and they robbed the bank to try to get copies of documents implicating the US government in Bailey’s drug-running. This leads Nolte to join forces with the zombie squad, and they all travel down to Mexico and get into a big shoot out with Bailey’s men.
For various reasons this film does not make a lot of sense. I’ve watched it twice and I’m still not quite sure why most of the characters do what they do, or what the hell is happening in the big shoot-out at the end which is obviously an homage to Sam Peckinpah’s classic Westerns. One of the reasons for this is that the film was heavily edited to remove some of the gory violence in the final battle, which makes it difficult to follow who is fighting who.
The other reason why the film is confusing is that there was originally another character involved with the zombie squad who links it all together, but he got cut out of the finished movie. As Ironside told AV Club:
Andy Robinson and I play CIA agents, we’re trying to do this whole covert op, and my character was the go-between between the military side of the story, the police side of the story, and the government side of the story. But when they put it all together, Walter said to me, “It looks like it’s starring Michael Ironside, with Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, and Rip Torn supporting him, so we’re gonna cut the whole Andy Robinson side of the film out.” [Laughs.]… They cut something like 45 minutes out of it!
So the original script had two CIA agents running the zombie squad who were somehow in league with the drugs smuggler Cash Bailey, but that got taken out for commercial and marketing reasons, with the resulting film not making a huge amount of sense. Despite this it got fairly positive reviews, though the film lost money at the box office.
Above the Law
The following year we got two movies that deal with Iran-Contra themes – Above the Law and The Presidio.
Above the Law stars a young Steven Seagal in his film debut, alongside Pam Grier and Sharon Stone. Seagal plays Nico Toscani, an Italian who is recruited into the CIA by an officer called Nelson Fox. They work together in Vietnam carrying out covert operations, but Nico quits the CIA after his station chief starts torturing prisoners. Interestingly, the torture exactly – and I do mean exactly – duplicates methods describes in a CIA torture manual from the 1980s that was provided to the Contras and used by the School of the Americas.
Nico becomes a cop in Chicago, and while investigating a drugs ring he and Pam Grier arrest a couple of Salvadorian dealers with crates full of C-4 explosive. But the CIA and FBI intervene to have all the arrested men released, which doesn’t make Nico very happy.
Shortly after the men are released the priest in Nico’s parish is murdered, using the same C-4 he found when they arrested the drug dealers. This is based on the real life murder of Father Oscar Romero, the fourth archbishop of El Salvador. Romero was known for being something of a leftist, who used his position to speak out about social injustice and poverty and devoted a lot of his time to trying to help the poor. He also spoke against state repression, torture and assassination.
Romero was assassinated in March 1980, and some years later an investigation found that Roberto D’Aubuisson was responsible. Roberto was a former Salvadoran soldier who became head of the right-wing ARENA party in El Salvador, and also headed up ultra-right wing death squads in the country. The assassination of Father Romero was an international incident, which was condemned by politicians and commentators all over the world. While in the film the priest is killed by explosives, not shot to death like Romero, it’s a clear and obvious allusion.
Following the assassination Nico continues his investigation and discovers that the drugs gang are working under his old CIA chief from Vietnam, who is being accused of widespread human rights violations by a Central American priest who was being sheltered by Nico’s priest. While Nico is carrying out surveillance on the gang, Nelson Fox catches him, and Nico lays out the whole deal.
Now you might ask whether this film is genuinely referencing real events or whether this is just a screenwriter throwing in a bunch of stuff to fill out the plot. Fair question, but there’s a conclusive answer. On the DVD the bonus features include production notes for the film, quoting Seagal saying:
‘The story we wrote is one that could be torn right out of today’s headlines… This is not a martial arts film, it is based on a true story about CIA complicity in narcotics trafficking for the purpose of funding covert operations’.
So, Above the Law is definitely about Iran-Contra, and of this cluster of late 80s movies it is my favourite. Seagal is pretty good – much better than in most of his later films so it seems he got worse at acting as time went on. It has a nice, moody rock/jazz soundtrack and feels like more of a thriller than an action movie. Plus it has one of the most hard-hitting plots that you’ll find in any Hollywood film.
While Extreme Prejudice and Above the Law didn’t get any help from the government, a film that was DOD-supported but which fits into this sub-genre is The Presidio. It’s basically the same as the other two movies – an investigation into a murder stumbles across a smuggling ring.
But The Presidio includes some other elements that help make it more rounded than the other movies. Our protagonist, Austin – a cop in the San Francisco PD played by Mark Harmon – is looking into a murder on The Presidio, a military base. He gets into a relationship with the daughter of the head of military police on the base, played by Sean Connery. He and Connery also have some history from when our protagonist was in the military police.
Nonetheless the film follows a familiar pattern – the two investigate, discover a smuggling ring involving government agents, and it ends in a shoot-out with the righteous men coming out on top. However, the gang aren’t smuggling drugs, they’re smuggling diamonds. So, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with Iran-Contra?
I wondered that, until about halfway through the film when our protagonist has tracked down one of the guys from the base who is involved in the smuggling ring, tries to arrest him and a footchase through the streets of San Francisco ensues. The suspect is hit by a car, which speeds off. Shortly afterwards, Sean Connery arrives with a vital piece of evidence in explaining what’s going on.
So we have a gang of smugglers who are ex-CIA, some now working for the military, who are smuggling something into California that begins with the letter ‘d’. Again, this is a fairly unambiguous reference to the drug-smuggling aspect of Iran-Contra, and the writers were trying to disguise what they were talking about.
Our next question thus becomes – did the military change the drugs to diamonds, as part of their script changes in exchange for allowing access for filming at the Presidio? As far as I can tell, the answer is no. The producers did ask for military support and did rewrite significant parts of the script in order to placate the DOD, but by the time they reviewed the script the diamonds were already in there.
But they had already approached the military a few years earlier, and even hired the assigned project officer as a technical advisor after he’d left the military. So it’s possible there were earlier script negotiations or discussions, and that the writers originally did have the gang smuggling drugs but changed this to help in those earlier negotiations. Or were quietly told to do by the project officer turned technical advisor who knew that a story about drug smuggling at a military base would be a non-starter.
It also seems that the original script contained numerous controversial elements that were diluted if not outright removed as a result of the DOD’s feedback. For example, another Vietnam vet who won the Medal of Honor now works at the museum at the Presidio, and he is part of the smuggling racket. He eventually switches sides and joins Sean Connery and the cop in taking down the gang.
The script notes say that his motivation to ‘go bad’ is not adequately explained and that the screenwriter’s apparent intention to portray him as a Vietnam hero who is unable to adjust to life after the war is ‘not convincing’. They also took issue with the depiction of an Army criminal investigation, saying Connery’s character should merely oversee the investigation and not run it himself. It seems they civilianised the Austin character and made him an ex-MP now working as a civilian detective in order to get around this problem.
There’s also a reference to a suicide being covered-up by the investigation, which must have been removed because there’s no suicide or cover-up in the finished film. They also felt that the veteran gone bad character implied that ‘because of their service, soldiers are above the law’, again leading to script changes to dilute this impression.
The original script had the smugglers getting the diamonds in by hiding them in liquor bottles that are delivered to the base. The DOD also complained that the depiction of soldiers drinking alcohol was ‘contrary to Army policy on, and efforts to, deglamourize alcohol.’ So the booze was changed to bottled water – quite literally watering down this aspect of the script. The Army’s final comment was that ‘A complete rewrite of the story line… would be required before we could reconsider this script for DOD cooperation’.
Of course, you could make a film called The Presidio without actually filming at the real Presidio, but what would be the point? So the producers caved in to the DOD’s requirements and committed to a near-total rewrite of the film in order to win approval. As I say, there’s no document proving they changed drugs into diamonds to distance the story from the Iran-Contra affair, but given they changed booze into water there’s a distinct possibility that’s what happened.
The Last of the Finest
The final film from this cluster came out in 1990, called The Last of the Finest (also released under the title Blue Heat). It’s another cop-based action movie where an investigation reveals a drug smuggling ring that includes corporate bigwigs and government agents. No, I’m not kidding – the plot is basically the same as in the last three movies we’ve examined. I’ll come back to this shortly.
I quite enjoyed this film – the cast includes a young Bill Paxton, who gets killed off a bit too quickly, and Joe Pantoliano, two actors I always enjoy. They are part of a group of four LAPD cops who are closing in on a big drugs bust, but things start going wrong. The leader of the group asks his captain to keep the DEA out of it, but the captain tells him to wait for the DEA before moving in. He ignores the order, they bust the gang but the drug dealers burn the money before they can stop them.
The four are suspended pending an investigation, but they continue to look into the guys involved in drugs smuggling. This leads to Bill Paxton’s character getting killed, and the leader of the cops is charged with violating the terms of his suspension. So he and the other two remaining cops retire from the force, and go it alone against the drugs gang. The businessman they are tailing, Reece, is also involved in an organisation called the Central American Relief Fund, run by a guy called Norringer who is evidently CIA.
Without getting into all the details they figure out that the drug-running is being used to raise money to buy weapons for Central American rebels, so they steal over $20 million of it and use that to set a trap. Our lead cop – Daly – confronts his captain about his role in the scheme, including the killing of an old retired cop who helps our protagonists, and we get a similar bit of dialogue to the one in Above the Law.
As you might expect, our three vigilante ex-cops set up the trap at Canyon Park and end up killing Captain Torres, Reece, Norringer and their henchmen, before making off with the $20 million. Like all of these films, it ends with a big shoot-out.
The Last of the Finest got relatively poor reviews at the time of its release and made hardly any money, but I think it’s quite a good film – a pastiche of macho 80s cop films that is pretty funny in places, especially when Daly is driving around town in a car with half a dozen bullet holes in the windscreen. It’s also clearly about Iran-Contra, and the film closes with a shot of a TV showing a White House aide expressing sympathy for the rebels but denying any role in covert arms shipments.
These four films with almost identical plots, if somewhat different styles and settings, represent Hollywood’s reaction to the Iran-Contra scandal. On the one hand, they are only four films, three of which are fairly low budget and aren’t at all well-known, the other of which doesn’t mention drugs or covert arms shipments at all. On the other hand three of them are quite explicitly about Iran-Contra and the fourth is implict but fairly obvious.
My only significant criticism of the three non-state-sponsored films is that they chose to disguise fairly hard-hitting stories as dumb, macho action movies. I like 80s action movies, especially when cars flip over and explode for no reason so I’m not criticising their choice of disguise, rather their decision to disguise their movies as something other than what they were. Given that the 1970s gave birth to an entire genre for exploring this sort of material – the conspiracy thriller – I felt it was a little cowardly to not follow through on the plots and make that sort of movie. Instead they made films where a bunch of heroic guys go up against the bad guys and come out on top – ironically, entirely in keeping with the Reagan White House’s program to encourage Hollywood to make more ‘pro-hero’ movies. It seems that even when criticising the government’s involvement in illegal drugs and weapons smuggling they still conformed to the government’s desires and aims for the movie industry.
Kill the Messenger
While there are a few references to Iran-Contra in movies of the 1990s and 2000s, it wasn’t until 2014 that we got the Iran-Contra movie that should have been made all along – Kill the Messenger, a biopic of Gary Webb. Among serious movie critics and conspiracy thriller aficionados Kill the Messenger is considered a masterpiece. I might not go that far, but it’s definitely one of the bravest, most provocative films to come out of the US in this decade and it is a very good movie.
Just in case any of you don’t know, Gary Webb was a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News who investigated the CIA’s role in colluding with major drugs traffickers to raise money for supporting the Contras and other covert operations. He published a series of articles in 1996, known as the Dark Alliance series, and a book of the same title in 1998.
Webb was initially heralded for his journalistic efforts. Then the CIA provoked and encouraged a media backlash, accusing him of saying things he didn’t actually say, of making up sources, of basing his whole investigation on the words of convicted drug dealers. They went after his professional life and his personal life, ruining both. Webb ultimately killed himself in December 2004.
And I do believe he killed himself. I know the likes of James Corbett and Alex Jones have made a big thing about how Webb was killed by the CIA and how could he shoot himself twice in the head, it can’t have been a suicide, and so on. I have several problems with these claims, not least that neither of them ever knew Webb, whereas the people who did all accepted that he had become very depressed and that he shot himself.
As to the two bullets issue – for one thing I’ve read stories about people being shot twelve times including three to the head and still surviving. So it is definitely possible to be shot in the head, or to shoot yourself in the head, and not die immediately. The story with Webb is that the first shot seriously wounded him but not enough to kill him immediately, so he shot himself again. Entirely plausible, unless you’re the sort of person who gets off on making false claims about CIA assassinations, or makes money from that sort of thing.
I also think it’s extremely cynical to profit from denying Webb’s suffering. To believe the suicide story you have to sympathise with him, see how his life was destroyed and that he became so depressed that he killed himself. To believe the assassination story you have to have no sympathy for him whatsoever, and to pretend he wasn’t seriously depressed and that he had no reason to kill himself. It’s just nasty, and callous, to deny these things, let alone to make money from denying them. I think these people should be fucking ashamed of themselves, and if they had an ounce of conscience they’d issue public apologies to Webb’s family and their entire audiences. But they won’t, so fuck them.
Indeed, Kill the Messenger doesn’t explicitly say that Webb killed himself. The closing caption says he died of two gunshot wounds to the head and that his death was ruled a suicide. So maybe the film’s writer – Peter Landesman, who also wrote the Mark Felt biopic which contains numerous inaccuracies – doesn’t believe the suicide story.
As I say, the film itself is a throwback to 1970s conspiracy thrillers, and was made on a small budget with Jeremy Renner putting up much of the cash himself. He has said in interviews that in order to make good films, films he can be proud of (rather than another Avengers movie) he set up his own production company to look for projects that mattered. Even though Renner looks nothing like Webb he gives an emotionally complex, intelligent performance that I find very compelling, aided by a great backup cast including Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
I won’t summarise the plot because I don’t want to ruin the film for any of you, but the start of Webb’s journey is when the girlfriend of a drug dealer approaches him and says her boyfriend was selling drugs for the government. This leads Webb to Danilo Blandon, the government’s key witness in a string of drugs cases, so Webb shows up to watch Blandon testify and to slip questions to the defence lawyer so Webb can find out what’s going on.
This is the essence of Webb’s reporting – that the CIA knowingly worked with major drugs traffickers to help fund the Contra war. He never said that CIA officers actually handled the drugs or that they deliberately created the crack epidemic, though he did say that epidemic was a consequence of this covert policy. As far as I know, that’s all true and of course needed to be reported. Likewise that the DEA were involved in using some of these traffickers as paid informants, and thus they deliberately overlooked some of what they were doing.
My one problem with Kill the Messenger is that it focuses a little too much on the impact of all this on the US, and not enough on Nicaragua. But I guess you’ve got to make the film interesting to US audiences so I can forgive that, or at least understand it. Nonetheless this was huge at the time, and led to the unprecedent event where CIA director John Deutch went to Los Angeles to talk to a room full of ordinary LA citizens – mostly black – to try to refute the allegations.
This led to the notorious moment when Mike Ruppert – an LAPD narcotics detective not unlike the characters in The Last of the Finest – confronted Deutch.
A fun moment for sure, and Deutch didn’t last much longer as head of the CIA. It is interesting just how closely Ruppert’s story resembles the plot in The Last of the Finest, complete with the CIA recruiting a police captain to prevent their drug-running being busted. I don’t know of any connection between Ruppert and the film, but it seems someone behind that film knew what was going on, or had at least heard rumours about it.
In some ways the antidote to Kill the Messenger, American Made is a biopic of Barry Seal directed by Doug Liman and starring Tom Cruise. That’s the same Doug Liman who has made several CIA-supported films and TV shows, and whose father was lead counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings. It was Arthur Liman whose ineffective questioning of Oliver North helped turn North into a national hero, instead of the deep state crook that he really is. And that’s the same Tom Cruise who has likewise made and starred in several CIA-supported films.
I don’t know if the CIA were involved in American Made, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Not just because of the key figures behind the film, but also because of the story it tells. In some senses it covers up the real Barry Seal story, but in other ways it exaggerates it.
For those of you who haven’t seen it and don’t know who Barry Seal was, Seal was a pilot for TWA who became a major pilot smuggling drugs for the Medellin cartel. At the same time he was helping fly guns into Nicaragua for the Contras, on behalf of the CIA. After he was busted for drug smuggling he approached the DEA and offered to work as an informant, including testifying against various people he knew who were involved in the international drugs trade.
He even agreed to let the CIA plant cameras in one his planes so he could take pictures of drug dealers, and even the Sandanista Minister of the Interior. Reagan then used this picture to accuse the Sandinistas of being involved in drugs, which may have been true, but which is an accusation that overlooks the much more prolific Contra involvement in drugs. Seal was killed in February 1986 outside a Salvation Army building where he did community service.
To give you a flavour of the tone of the film and the nature of the story they told in it, here’s the moment when Barry first starts moving drugs alongside the weapons the CIA had him take to the Contras.
As covered by journalist Daniel Hopsicker, Barry Seal was likely first recruited into the CIA by David Ferrie at the same Civil Air Patrol unit where Ferrie met Lee Harvey Oswald. Fans of Oliver Stone’s JFK will know all about this. According to Hopsicker’s sources Seal flew weapons into Cuba before the revolution, when the CIA were tentatively supporting Castro. He also flew missions during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and for Air America in Laos. In 1972 he was busted with 13,500 pounds of explosive – an incident the film avoids entirely. Hopsicker says the explosives were to be traded for heroin in Mexico, and the heroin would then be sold to provide hush-money for the Watergate burglars.
Whereas the film begins in the late 1970s so it avoids all of this, and depicts Seal being recruited by the CIA because of his successful cigar-smuggling sideline while working as a TWA pilot. In reality he’d been sacked by TWA some years earlier.
Doug Liman described the film as a ‘fun lie based on a true story’ which is exactly right. The film focuses on the fun, wild, frontier element of Seal’s life, avoids the political ramifications entirely, and at worst suggests the CIA looked the other way and certainly didn’t encourage Seal to traffick drugs. By exaggerating some elements to make the film seem ludicrous, and to give critics an opportunity to say it isn’t a true story, but also downplaying other elements so as not to draw any attention to them, Liman and Cruise created the perfect piece of CIA propaganda. I just don’t know if they did so because the CIA wanted them to, or did it all on their own. It is certainly true that Liman has friends at Langley.
So what does all this add up to?
Aside from Kill the Messenger all these movies are somewhat disguised. Extreme Prejudice is set in Texas, never mentions the Contras and the CIA character was removed by the studio. In The Presidio they draw out the Vietnam connection, which comes up a lot in the Iran-Contra story but they substituted diamonds for drugs. In Above the Law it is set in Chicago, not exactly a hotbed of Iran-Contra activity though the rest of the film is pretty much based in real events. In The Last of the Finest they are also fairly explicit but ultimately the film is about the good guys winning, which is the opposite of what happened with Iran-Contra.
Kill the Messenger stands out as the sore thumb in this sub-genre, but it got a terrible distribution and marketing deal that saw it open in just 374 theaters, which dropped to just 75 by week four. After an online petition drew attention to the lack of promotion the distributors did buy pay for more commercials, but by that point it was only showing in 18 cinemas.
But it was enough that someone – either the CIA or Doug Liman and Tom Cruise, or all of the above – decided that they needed to make an antidote film that would smooth everything over, muddle everything up and leave audiences without a clue what was real and what wasn’t. And American Made is a perfect antidote – it is a comedy adventure film that is opposite in both tone and political content to Kill the Messenger, and is the only film of the bunch to have made serious money.
If you don’t believe me that the cinema of Iran-Contra is a concern for powerful people, I offer you two examples of films about Iran-Contra that weren’t made because of the government. In Nick Shou’s book Spooked he recounts a story from the 1980s where a script about Iran-Contra had drawn the attention of Marlon Brando, and looked like it was going to be produced. So the CIA and Oliver North instigated a bidding war for the script, which they then won, and shut down the project.
Likewise, in the mid-90s a film called Countermeasures was being put together, about a Navy psychiatrist aboard an aircraft carrier who stumbles across a weapons-smuggling ring on board the ship. The DOD rejected their requests to film on a real aircraft carrier precisely because they didn’t want ‘to embarrass the White House or remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair’. The producers tried the Spanish Navy, who found out the DOD had already turned them down so they too rejected the producers’ requests.
In this context it seems perfectly fair to suggest that the government doesn’t want films made about Iran-Contra, and that they would support films like American Made which are lighthearted distractions that contrast with the more hard-hitting films we’ve looked at today.
Two further questions: the first is how does Snowfall fit into these mode of interpretation? Again, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Snowfall is a TV series about the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s which explicitly shows a CIA officer importing and selling drugs in order to raise money for weapons for the Contras.
I have heard that the show has some ex-CIA consultants so I will have to do an in-depth study of it one day but my brief takeaway is this: The show goes further in explicitly showing the CIA’s involvement so that it can be denied that CIA officers ever actually flew in the planes with the drugs. That goes beyond anything Gary Webb or Robert Parry or any other credible journalist has found, and likely isn’t true, so is easily denied. On the flipside for those who take the show seriously – it’s just one CIA guy, who (somewhat amusingly) is the only white guy in the show. Langley aren’t really interested in what he’s doing, so there’s no wider CIA complicity.
In this context another question comes up: Why didn’t they make an antidote film in response to the cluster of films in the late 80s? Well, I think they did, in the form of Clear and Present Danger. So that’s what we’re going to look at next time.
Subscribe to Spy Culture
If you enjoyed this content then keep up with new posts here at Spy Culture by subscribing via email, RSS, Instagram, tumblr or facebook: