The relationship between government liaison offices and the entertainment industry usually works well, resulting in added production value for the industry’s products and the furtherance of the government’s agendas. But sometimes things go wrong. This week we look at what happens when the relationship breaks down, using examples from the DOD, CIA, FBI, NASA, Homeland Security and the State Department.
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We will take these in no particular order, beginning with the State Department and Frozen. For anyone who was living under a rock 5 or 6 years ago, Frozen is an animated Disney film about some characters who don’t matter doing some stuff that doesn’t matter, and singing some songs that people liked, but which don’t matter.
So, just like every other Disney movie.
Nonetheless it was enormously popular. For at least a year you could barely move without seeing some kind of tie-in merchandising whether it be lunch boxes, children’s backpacks, playing cards, special edition cupcakes – you name it, Disney slapped a Frozen logo on it. As someone who has never seen the film and has no interest in it, because it’s a film for young kids, I found the excessive spin-off merchandise thoroughly obnoxious. Indeed, had I not been surrounded by these products I might have downloaded and watched the film, but within a few weeks of it coming out I was utterly sick of hearing about it.
For the sake of a quick diversion – this is where modern advertising fails. It doesn’t assess saturation marketing for its possible downside, where people are actually turned off a product or service because they’ve heard about it too much. The concept of ‘too much’ doesn’t exist in marketing-think. We have, thankfully, finally developed the concept of a person being over-exposed (be it a TV presenter or a politician) but it doesn’t seem this has been applied to promotion campaigns.
So what about Frozen and the entertainment liaison offices? There was a successful collaboration with the Science and Entertainment Exchange, where SEEX helped make the snowflakes in the film particularly accurate. Exactly how this helped promote accurate science I am not sure, but as I established in my episode on SEEX, their stated purpose is not their true purpose. Hence why they were involved with a cartoon featuring a talking snowman.
The other connection involves the State Department, who wanted to use Frozen to help teach kids about climate change. In late 2014 State Dept officials reached out to Disney in the hope of a collaboration. Ideas included a child-friendly website fronted by a Frozen character to teach kids about climate change, a series of PSAs featuring the stars of Frozen and a ‘travelling interactive arctic exhibition’ which was seen as especially important ‘since not all Americans can afford to travel to Alaska or take a Disney cruise to Norway’.
In November the State Dept’s arctic envoy Admiral Robert Papp met with Disney’s vice president for marketing Paul Baribault, but the meeting didn’t go too well. Emails released by the State Department say that the co-branding project was a non-starter because, ‘the negative impacts being seen in Arctic don’t necessarily fit within general Disney messaging of hope and happy things’.
I’m not kidding – Disney turned down the State Department because they felt that informing people about current climate change and warning them about the future conflicted with their desired corporate messaging that everything is fine.
Naturally, when this story first broke in 2015 the usual suspects responded by claiming this proved that the government is trying to indoctrinate our children with their climate change agenda and are getting Hollywood to do their dirty work. In reality, every single part of this interpretation is wrong.
For one thing, climate change isn’t an agenda it’s a fact. The climate has changed, is changing, will continue to change. The notion that humans have no impact on the climate is a childish lie. The greenhouse effect is real, regardless of what other claims and false predictions have been attached to it. And, most importantly for our discussion today, the attempt failed – Disney didn’t go along with the State Department, preferring to keep their audience in a state of arrested development.
However, this didn’t stop Papp from making several speeches where he claimed they were still working with Disney, months after the relationship had fallen apart. In early 2015 he gave several presentations where he referred to them working with Disney in an ongoing fashion.
Disney were, understandably, a bit pissed off about this lazy, shabby deception. One email after Papp’s presentation in March 2015 even threatened to go public and expose Papp as a liar. The email states:
I’m inclined to tell the reporter that there was one informational meeting held in October and no subsequent conversations, emails or phone calls concerning potential collaboration have taken place since.
As the conversation continued another email said:
It’s too bad he felt the need to say that he’s continuing discussions with Disney when that simply hasn’t been the case. I realize he may have been put on the spot, but that‘s a mischaracterization of the situation. I appreciate that he may have not expected the question, but his response happens to be untrue. The next time he’s asked, it might be helpful if he clarified the reality so neither of us are put in this position again.
The upshot of this is that State Dept officials were embarrassed, and started to blame the journalists who had asked and written about the story, rather than blaming their own man for lying to those same journalists. When Ethan Barton of the Washington Examiner asked how much the State Department would be paying for the use of a Disney character, internal emails branded this ‘absurd’ and a ‘silly question’. When Clare Foran of the National Journal continued to ask questions the emails said this was ‘not the sign of a serious reporter’.
I think we should turn this logic around and ask, if the State Department were serious about responding to climate change (whether human-driven or otherwise) why did they turn to Disney for help? Is that the behaviour of a serious government department?
The DOD and Heartbreak Ridge
I have spoken before about times when the Pentagon’s relationship with Hollywood has gone wrong, including on the last episode when it came to NCIS. The most recent documents I got from the DOD show that there was a similar falling out with the producers of Hawaii Five-0.
But perhaps the most fun example was on the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge, where Clint plays a Marine nearing retirement who whips his squad into shape before leading them into battle during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. While it’s supposed to be a tough, macho war film I find Heartbreak Ridge to be a very good comedy, where Clint plays the most badass-in-the-grass Marine you’ve ever seen. He constantly talks back to anyone who tells him what to do, often threatening to shove something up their ass so far that they’ll… you get the idea. It’s basically Snake Plissken in the Marine Corps.
What’s interesting is that the film did qualify for full DOD support but then something went wrong. The DOD’s database says:
Project originally an Army film. But service unhappy with script and particularly language.
Marines agreed to cooperate if changes made. Company agreed. But not clear what changes Marines requested. Marine technical advisor may have given film-makers wide latitude. When screened in Pentagon, both DOD and Marines requested screen credit be removed because of dissatisfaction with picture. For example, actor Clint Eastwood’s Marine character shoots a dying Cuban soldier and takes cigar from his pocket.
I’m not sure why this database says it’s unclear what script changes were made at the military’s request, because David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood and the file on Heartbreak Ridge in the Suid collection both outline the changes in some detail.
For example, in the opening scene Eastwood’s character – Gunnery Sergeant Highway – is talking about his sexual escapades during the Vietnam war. The Army wanted him to remove this piece of dialogue because they felt it reflected poor attitudes towards women and made fun of the US Congress. In particular the line where he describes congress, ‘asshole to asshole ain’t worth a beer fart in a windstorm’ was problematic.
Of course, this is the whole point – that Highway is a throwback who fought in Korea and Vietnam but isn’t a good fit for the modern military. So Clint refused to remove it, and it appears in the finished film.
More generally the original script used some very coarse language and was thoroughly violent, so the Army wanted this to be toned down. Clint relented, though the finished film still contains quite a lot of swearing and violence.
The climax of the film is set during the invasion of Grenada, which in reality took place just two days after the bombing of a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. At the time it was alleged that the Grenada invasion was designed to distract attention from the bombing – a connection drawn out in the original script for Heartbreak Ridge. The Army insisted that the film not draw attention to the connection, so all references to Beirut were removed.
Despite Eastwood making most of the changes the Army requested, they still turned it down, so he went to the Marines instead. They were much more flexible, and only insisted on one major script change – that Highway be made a Marine instead of a soldier.
But this came with its own problems. The title of the film refers to a battle during the Korean War, but it was a battle won by the US Army, not the Marine Corps. Even though it was the Marines who asked Eastwood to change the protagonist to a Marine, the DOD’s Public Affairs people accused Eastwood of trying to rewrite history. But Eastwood refused to rename the film, and instead inserted dialogue saying Highway was in the Army during the Korean War, and then joined the Marines later.
During filming there were further issues, as Eastwood (who produced, directed and starred in the movie) had his actors ad lib a lot of their lines, deviating from the military-approved script. Two days before filming wrapped the DOD threatened to pull out entirely, causing Eastwood to phone up the White House to try to talk to President Reagan. Eventually the Marine Corps relented and allowed the filming to be completed.
Four months later there was a preview screening at the Pentagon, and the military officials lost their shit. Eastwood had included scenes that they thought had been removed from the script. One of these showed a Marine stationed on Grenada using a credit card to call headquarters to ask for support – an incident that really happened and was widely reported. The DOD wanted this scene removed, claiming it never happened, but Eastwood refused.
Perhaps the most controversial and problematic scene is where Highway has shot a Cuban soldier, who is lying face down in the mud, dying. Highway shoots him in the back and steals his cigar. This is a war crime – when the enemy is fleeing or incapacitated you’re not allowed to keep shooting them, so I can understand why the DOD had such a problem with this scene. But once again Eastwood stood up to them and refused to re-edit the film to remove this. As a consequence the DOD told him to remove the DOD credit at the end of the movie, hoping to distance themselves from it.
NASA and Conspiracy Theories (and the FBI)
While NASA has been involved in Hollywood since the 1960s, these days they are almost as active in the entertainment industry as the Pentagon. They’ve worked on hundreds of films, TV shows and documentaries in recent years, and have a system not unlike the DOD’s including script review and approval.
Two films in particular stand out, both mockumentaries – Apollo 18 and Operation Avalanche. In both case NASA provided production support, and in both cases they felt the need to issue press releases when the movies came out. Apollo 18 tells the story of the secret continuation of the Apollo missions to the moon. Supposedly, one of these secret missions discovered that the moon rocks are actually living creatures who are highly poisonous and extremely homicidal. Basically, it’s The Blair Witch Project in space.
Now, the film is very well done and blends NASA stock footage with film shot on movie sets to create a quite realistic and scary experience. Nonetheless, you’d have to be quite stupid or naive to think it’s a real documentary about a real phenomenon, but it still got NASA worried. This led to a ridiculous situation when the film came out and NASA issued a press release saying that it wasn’t a real documentary, that the events portrayed did not actually happen.
How stupid does NASA think we are? As it turns out, pretty stupid.
A couple of years later we got Operation Avalanche, a mockumentary set in 1969 about a team of CIA agents who infiltrate NASA in order to try to find Soviet spies. The twist is that they end up helping NASA to fake the moon landings when it emerges that the landing craft is too heavy to land on the lunar surface.
Just briefly, I found the film itself to be quite disappointing. The narrative is poorly-structured and by the end I felt the whole thing had collapsed under the weight of its own cleverness, that it was trying too hard to be a clever film and not hard enough to be an entertaining film. Certainly an interesting experiment, but not a particularly successful one.
What is particularly interesting is that the film-maker Matt Johnson was able to film at NASA installations, by telling them he was making a documentary about Apollo 11. He even persuaded some of his interview subjects – NASA employees – to wear 60s clothes and heavy glasses to help make it look like the interview footage had been shot in the 1960s. NASA were not happy.
They were so unhappy that they basically refused my FOIA request for records pertaining to the film. I even tried following up with a separate request using the name Matt Johnson – the name of the film-maker and his character in the film – but to no avail.
This isn’t the only time that someone has been able to sneak one past the entertainment liaison offices. As I’ve previously mentioned on this podcast the makers of the original King Kong managed to persuade a base commander to let them film planes taking off and flying in mid-air, for the final sequence of the movie. Likewise on Seven Days in May they filmed on board an aircraft carrier after chancing it and just asking the captain for permission, without going through the military liaison offices.
A listener also told me about another similar example, when Larry Cohen was making the 1970s biography The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover. Here’s a clip from the documentary King Cohen where he explains how he fooled the FBI into allowing him to film at their training academy in Quantico.
While this sort of guerilla film-making was quite common at the time, Cohen took it one step further and used the fact two of his stars had been invited to the White House to fool the FBI into allowing him to film at Quantico. Had they read the script they almost certainly would have turned him down – after all, his film is quite critical of Hoover’s FBI and contrasts starkly with FBI-supported productions. While the modern FBI is too well organised to let something like that happen these days, the Operation Avalanche example proves that it is still possible.
The Department of Homeland Security
One of the more recent entries into the world of government entertainment liaison offices is the Department of Homeland Security. To run their office they hired Bobbie Faye Ferguson – the former Dallas actress who had been working for NASA’s Hollywood office for several years.
In May 2005 the House of Representatives were discussing the 2006 DHS budget, and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave – who could be a film star with a name like that – had some objections. She said that Ferguson’s $136,000 salary should be going to front line employees or to buy equipment, not to pay someone to consult on Hollywood movies. She tabled an amendment which was passed almost unanimously, that would effectively remove Ferguson’s salary and thus shut down the DHS’s liaison office. Musgrave promised to go after the other entertainment liaison offices as she saw them as a waste of money.
However, it seems the Senate overruled this amendment because Ferguson is still the Director of the Office of Multimedia at DHS. Her LinkedIn page says she’s been there for 15 years, and is still consulting on films, TV shows and documentaries.
I also obtained a couple of hundred pages of documents from the DHS from 2015 to 2018, showing that they too are fairly active in the entertainment industry. This includes films ranging from Spectre to Office Christmas Party, loads of documentaries and reality TV shows about the operations of the various branches of the DHS (ICE, FEMA, Border Protection and so on), even music videos.
The DHS does also include the Coast Guard among its components and they are mentioned in some of the documents, but I am also expecting a major release from the Coast Guard’s liaison office in the coming weeks. There was even a DHS-supported episode of Modern Family where the documents mention CSIS, which as far as I know can only refer to Canadian intelligence – there is no DHS component with that acronym.
Then, there’s this:
This is one of my favourite Hollywood stories, when Joseph Medawar pretended he was making a show called DHS, backed by the real DHS and President George Bush. He announced this in all the trades, drawing a lot of attention to himself, so when he used investors’ money to fuel his lavish LA lifestyle it unsurprisingly drew the attention of the IRS and the FBI. He was sentenced to a year and one day in prison, ordered to pay over $2.5 million in restitution and was given 3,000 hours of community service.
The CIA’s attempt to make The C.I.A.
In the mid 1990s the CIA revived an idea that had been around since at least the 1970s – to make their own version of The F.B.I. The enormous success of the Bureau-sponsored TV series had led several producers, former intelligence agents and others to try to make a CIA equivalent, though for various reasons it never got off the ground. In the 1990s James Woolsey brought the idea back to life and the Agency entered into a partnership with a TV company to produce The Classified Files of the CIA.
Initially it was designed to be an informative serial, where each week one operation file would be turned into a kind of documentary episode. This evolved into a docudrama, with scenes from CIA operations being recreated by actors.
While the project was initially approached with positivity from all sides, once 20th Century Fox agreed to pay for a two-hour pilot episode and everything got a bit more formal, cracks started to emerge. For example, the CIA wanted to vet and review every script, and said they would withhold permission to use the CIA name and seal from any episode they didn’t like. This was a problem for producers, who wanted visual consistency from each episode to the next, not a hodgepodge of episodes where some were CIA-approved and others weren’t.
Another problem was the mixing of information from the CIA with fictional ideas generated by the writing team, which the Agency didn’t like because it afforded them less influence. One document comments that the initial agreement granted the CIA far more control than was the industry norm, and that the more recent discussion reduced them to a source of story material and technical advice.
However, a few months later it seems most of these problems had been resolved to the CIA’s satisfaction, and they made preparations to set up a script review team that could keep to a five-day turnaround.
Nonetheless, the show was never aired. It appears that the two-hour pilot was produced, but it was never broadcast on TV. From the available documents it seems that the CIA just wanted too much control over the finished product and that negotiations fell apart when neither side were willing to concede to the other.
Of course, it wasn’t long after this that the CIA set up their entertainment liaison office and started working with film and TV producers on a regular basis, so it seems they did learn from the experience, and adapt. Rather than explicitly tying producers to contracts allowing the CIA total script approval, they learned that a more subtle means of script manipulation was possible. Chase Brandon was known both within the CIA and in the industry for being able to wield influence on scripts even when the Agency were offering little in return, such was the mystique he cultivated.
So what can we take away from these disparate examples of what happens when entertainment liaison offices go bad?
First, that the system is not perfect. Mistakes get made, the rules are deliberately a little fuzzy to allow for flexibility in the government’s approach, and this can be exploited.
Second, that the government is so desperate to use entertainment to make itself look good that they can become over-eager and you can slip something past them.
Third, that there are some film-makers and other producers who will stand up to the tyranny of the entertainment liaison offices, whether it be refusing to make script changes or quietly including scenes in your film that they find problematic. Creative freedom barely exists in the industry, but sometimes you get a prankster like Matt Johnson or a hardass like Clint Eastwood who find a way to circumvent the government’s power.
And fourth, that there are some people in the government who don’t approve of taxpayer money being spent on glamourising the government through Hollywood. I have spoken before of how we need a Church Committee for the entertainment liaison offices and I stand by that. Sadly Marilyn Musgrave is no longer in congress but there are probably others we could approach and encourage to formally investigate this issue. Naturally, if any of you know of such a person then let me know and I’ll give it a try. Nothing was ever achieved without somebody trying.