The Department of Homeland Security is one of the biggest agencies of the US government, and has a highly active and influential Hollywood office, but almost no one knows about it. In this episode we take a deep dive into the murky world of Homeland Security entertainment propaganda, how it has been shaped by the DHS, and how this has helped bring about the cultural and political turn that brought Trump to power. We also take a detailed look at the DHS-supported movie Patriots Day, about the Boston Marathon bombing, and how it only muddies the waters about what really happened.
Let’s start at the beginning, because the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t get that much press and a lot of people are either unaware of its existence, or have little idea what it is and what it does. In the wake of 9/11 the Bush White House set up an Office of Homeland Security, tasked with developing a unified homeland security strategy. What they came up with was the creation of the DHS, which was formed in late 2002 and began operations in 2003. With nearly a quarter of a million staff it is the third largest cabinet level department, behind the DOD and Veterans Affairs, and its creation was the biggest reorganisation of the US government since the National Security Act of 1947 created the DOD and the CIA.
The DHS brought together 22 different agencies, sometimes incorporating them as part of the department, sometimes replacing them with new agencies. So the US Customs Service became Customs and Border Protection or CBP, and ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Federal Protective Service became the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which has since been replaced with the CyberSecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The Immigration and Naturalization Service went from the Department of Justice to the DHS, and its responsibilities are shared between ICE, CBP and Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Center for Domestic Preparedness and the Nuclear Incident Response Team became part of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which itself became part of DHS. Then they threw in the Secret Service and the Coast Guard, just for laughs, before sprinkling the Transportation Safety Administration (or TSA) on top.
You get the picture – they basically stuck together everything they could, because 9/11. There was even talk of adding the FBI and/or CIA, or at least elements of them, but my understanding is that the CIA told the Bush administration to go fuck themselves, and even the Bush mafia aren’t above the CIA in the hierarchy. The result was a massive department responsible for everything from preventing foreign species of plant from being imported into the US, to kicking out undocumented migrants to responding to tornados. Which is ridiculous, because we all know that tornadoes are caused by gay marriage, not illegal immigrants. And none of this has anything to do with 9/11, because all the hijackers had US visas, they were in the country legally. Sort of.
So, if you want to fly on a plane then the government requires you to submit to quasi-pornographic body scans and being gently molested by a minimum wage worker – that’s the DHS. If you want to smuggle methamphetamine across the border and you get arrested by some guys with moustaches and accents like they’re from a 1980s straight to video action movie – that’s the DHS. If a storm happens to wreck your town and you’ve managed to escape being shot by a sniper hired by Blackwater, and not been drowned when the Army blew up some infrastructure to ensure the wealthiest parts of the town weren’t flooded, and you can stay alive long enough for the FEMA cheque to arrive – that’s the DHS. If you’re trying to assassinate the president and some jerk in a Men in Black suit with a very obvious radio earpiece keeps getting in the way – that’s the DHS. If you’re a Muslim with Walter Mitty-esque dreams of blowing up a nuclear power station who gets arrested to boost presidential approval ratings, that’s the DHS.
In short, they have their grubby little fingers in a lot of pies. The Department is a lot like the character of Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, selfish, entitled, never satisfied and always wanting more. Its creation also stripped around 180,000 employees of some of their labour rights, so they could be fired for ‘security reasons’ or even just for insubordination without the usual protections from unions. The whole project is a bizarre, incompetent attempt to facilitate a more top-down, authoritarian government and while it certainly has achieved that to some extent, it has failed to integrate all these different departments. This has led to quite a few critics saying it should abolished, most recently Richard Clarke, the counter-terror tsar in the Clinton years and into the Bush administration.
Indeed, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, lasted less than two years, resigning in November 2004, shortly after Bush was re-elected. Several years later he published a book saying that in the summer and autumn of 2004 the Bush admin, especially John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld, had been pushing the DHS to raise the terrorist threat alert level, and this reminded him of his desire to get out of federal government work due to all the politics, so he quit.
I am sure you all remember the ludicrous colour-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, which ranged from ‘Severe’ through ‘High’, ‘Elevated’, ‘Guarded’ to ‘Low’. Curiously, the threat level was never reduced to ‘low’, and was almost always at either ‘High’ or ‘Severe’, even though there were no significant terrorist attacks on the US in the decade after 9/11. Almost as though the whole thing was just a PR mechanism for scaring the public and boosting their faith in the government.
I remember watching all this unfold, and every time they pushed it up to ‘severe’, claiming an attack was imminent, the attack never came. And when they arrested a supposed terror cell, thus preventing them from carrying out their alleged attack, the threat level never came down. So it had nothing to do with actual terrorists. It was the same here in the UK, where the Blair government repeated the same statistics for years, saying that MI5 were watching 2000 individuals, 200 networks and 30 plots. It didn’t matter how many people they arrested and charged with terrorism offences, the numbers remained the same. Though curiously, after I (and others) pointed out that the number of plots didn’t seem to go down when they supposedly interdicted terror plots, they stopped using these numbers.
Those years were formative in my thinking about the intersection of foreign policy, security services, central government politics and media bullshit. I watched as we were told that we faced an ever-increasing threat, even though that threat never materialised and the government kept issuing doublespeak statements about how well they were dealing with the threat. Sometimes it was even in the same speech that they’d claim to be protecting us from the threat, but also claim that the threat was getting worse all the time. Well, it can’t be both. If it doesn’t make us safer, or reduce the threat, to arrest people and charge them with terror offences then what’s the point? Why bother spying on potential terrorists and trying to stop them, if no matter what we do the situation only gets worse?
It is out of that logic that the DHS was born, and has operated ever since. So it’s no surprise that they very quickly set up a Hollywood office to help promote themselves, since Hollywood are the masters of creative deception and political manipulation. In late 2004 the DHS hired former Dallas actress Bobbie Faye Ferguson, who was at the time running NASA’s Hollywood office, and she’s been in the job ever since. There was a brief moment in 2006 when a congresswoman tried to abolish the DHS’s Hollywood office, saying it was a waste of money, but her amendment to the appropriations bill didn’t pass get past the senate, and Ferguson kept her cushy job getting paid over $100,000 a year to read movie and TV scripts and vet and shape their content.
The DHS in Hollywood: How it all works
Now, for a while I thought the office had been shut down because Variety reported on the amendment that would have abolished it, but never reported that the amendment had been scrapped, and I couldn’t find any media reports about the DHS Hollywood office after that. But when I FOIAed Customs and Border Protection for a list of projects they’d supported, the list included numerous products that were more recent, and the DHS’s website still had a page about its Multimedia Liaison Office up and available to read. So I started FOIAing them, and in a process that honestly took several years, I managed to get nearly 500 pages of documents out of them. This is far from a complete record, of course, but it fills in a lot of the blanks about what sort of productions they work on, and how their whole process operates.
The DHS system for assisting in the production of books, films, documentaries and TV series is modelled on the DOD’s entertainment liaison office. The DHS directive on providing support says that producers will only receive assistance if the product’s content is deemed to be “in the best interest of DHS or the US Government” and demands that in fictional productions “the portrayal must depict a feasible, or otherwise appropriate, interpretation of DHS programs, operations, and policies.”
Naturally, it is the DHS themselves who determine what is “feasible” and “appropriate”, and their system for controlling their public image is even stricter than that of the DOD and other federal agencies.
Authors and film and TV producers seeking help from the DHS for their projects – whether factual or fictional – have to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to interview agents to gather background material to help develop their projects. Same with site visits and ridealongs, basically all access to DHS is protected by the NDA. This means that when they produce a manuscript, treatment or screenplay they have to remove anything that the DHS doesn’t like, with the NDA hanging over their heads if they do not comply.
If they want to film DHS staff or locations they must also sign a Multi-Media Agreement that locks them into the DHS-approved version of the script or story, and submit rough cuts of their work to the department’s media office, then make changes to meet with the demands of the DHS prior to release. This is identical to the DOD process – you have to submit the script or treatment, you have to make changes or you don’t get support, you have to send them a rough cut and make edits if they demand them.
The activities reports in the released documents contain numerous references to the department and their agencies sending notes and feedback to producers during both the pre-production and post-production phases. This provides the department with near-total control over how it is portrayed in entertainment media, resulting in a slew of positive PR for the department and their agencies.
The producers also have to submit any promotional materials that depict the DHS in any way to the department for review and approval. While the DOD has reviewed and had input on promotional materials on some products, it isn’t built into their Hollywood liaison set up in this way. Indeed, on some productions such as Disney’s The Finest Hours, which tells the story of a daring Coast Guard rescue in 1952, the DHS were heavily involved in the promotional roll-out of the movie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie was a total flop, it lost tens of millions of dollars because a badly-made film about a historical event almost no one knows or cares about isn’t a great idea. I do wonder, having watched as much of the film as I could stomach, why this movie was made. It’s basically just an advert for the Coast Guard, and I don’t believe the executives at Disney thought it had major commercial potential. In fact, they delayed its release twice before putting it out in January, which is notoriously the ‘dump the shit’ time of year for movie releases.
The released documents include sample copies – i.e. blank ones, not ones actually signed by producers and writers – of all the NDAs and other contracts so if you want to know more about exactly what these entail you can take a look. In essence it’s a slightly stiffer, more restrictive version of the DOD’s system, with added NDAs on top. The NDAs are crucial because the DHS refused to release any script notes or editing notes or feedback on scripts or treatments or rough cuts, and the NDAs mean that the people who wrote these books and screenplays probably can’t talk about it without fear of being sued. So while it’s possible to get some information about the exact input and influence other government agencies are having, the DHS basically refuse to talk about this and the NDAs stop the writers themselves from talking about it.
If this is starting to sound a bit like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, that’s because it is.
One thing that you are absolutely not allowed to depict is what they refer to as ‘DHS Inventions’. The contract defines these as, ‘any invention or discovery that is or may be patentable or otherwise protected under Title 35 of the United States Code or any novel variety of plant, which is or may be protectable under the Plant Variety Protection Act, or trade secret of DHS, its contractors, or others which DHS has obligations to hold in confidence.’
Some of the things they’re referring to are obvious – surveillance technologies and software they using for big data mining and analysis. The DOD and CIA have similar restrictions – you can only shoot the B-2 bomber from certain angles, the CIA don’t even allow you to bring mobile phones with you when you go to Langley. But what the hell is that bit about plants? Why, I wonder, would the DHS be developing new species of plants, or variants of species of plants? Which plants are we talking about? Could it possibly be the sorts of plants that a significant proportion of the population like to smoke, or otherwise ingest in order to produce certain effects? I’ll leave you to ponder that one.
I do quite enjoy some of the legalese in these contracts. In the ridealong section of the NDA, for example, it contains a hold harmless section, i.e. where you have to give up your right to sue the government if you are caused harm during the site visit or ridealong. It says, ‘RECIPIENT acknowledges that the following are possible dangers and risks associated with riding along in an activity with the PROVIDER, its agents, and its officials: [list dangers and risks such as bruising, contusions, broken bones, lacerations, nausea, hearing damage or loss, difficulty breathing, exacerbation of asthma or any related condition, damage to clothes or property, or death].’ That’s right, in order to go and wander around a DHS facility you have to sign a contract saying that you accept there’s a risk and you promise not to hold them responsible if you happen to die.
Much like the FBI and CIA, the DHS do background checks and security screenings on all the people they work with, even if those people are going nowhere near a DHS facility. I can understand why the CIA have to check you out if you’re going to be filming at CIA headquarters, though it seems a bit petty given that everyone always films the same sequence of the protagonist arriving, going up the stairs, through the doors, across the CIA seal in the lobby and then through the security barriers. But the DHS reports make quite a few mentions of these security checks even when the filming isn’t at a Coast Guard station or a Customs and Border Protection office in an airport or whatever. But then, the entire DHS was born out of a culture of doublethink and overkill in the wake of 9/11.
What got supported, and what got rejected?
As I say, the available information from media articles, IMDB and the various documents I’ve got through a bunch of FOIA requests are not a complete record, but we can say that the DHS have been pretty busy, working on books, documentaries, reality shows and fictional TV and films. The most common genre is, unsurprisingly, reality TV, ranging from Top Chef to Airport 24/7, and including lots of shows called things like Drug Wars, Inside Customs and Border Protection, Search and Protect and Border Security: America’s Front Line. I’ve taken a few quick looks at some of these and they’re exactly how you’d imagine – lots of talking heads going on about how important their job is, how they’re keeping America safe, how the outside world is full of threats trying to get into America, how the border is the front line in the war on drugs and the war on terror and the war on Mexicans.
Curiously, the overwhelming majority of these shows focus on the southern border, not the northern border and the war on Canadians, but I imagine you can all figure out the reasons why that is. Frankly, these shows are so common these days, and they’re all so similar, that I struggle to distinguish between them. Though I will say, this is the type of show that the British government were actually paying to have produced in the early and mid-2000s, they actually helped get this sub-genre of security state reality TV off the ground.
A few other things that come up time and again are documentaries and docu-dramas on the Silk Road, El Chapo, MS-13 and Operation Shakespeare cases. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Silk Road was an online darknet marketplace which was mostly used for buying and selling drugs anonymously, and in a way that you largely avoided government surveillance. It was like ebay for the dark web, and was taken down by the FBI and Homeland Security in 2013. El Chapo is, of course, the somewhat CIA-connected very Mexican authorities-connected drug kingpin whose cartel grew out of the same cartel that killed Kiki Camarena in the 1980s, which I discussed on a recent subscribercast. El Chapo is the one who keeps mysteriously escaping from prison via elaborate tunnel networks, and was re-captured by the CIA with the help of Hollywood actor Sean Penn. Penn got in touch with El Chapo’s people saying he wanted to interview him because they were making a film about him, and the whole thing was used as bait so the CIA could get their hands on him again. The CIA also made a board game about the manhunt for El Chapo, but that’s another story. MS-13 are that massively exaggerated international crime gang from El Salvador that grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s but have become a go-to soundbite for any politician looking to crack down on crime and immigration and criminal immigrants and immigrant criminals.
It’s predictable that these hot-button, widely reported stories would draw the attention of culture producers, especially since they lend themselves to clear heroes and villains, have dramatic resolutions when the villains are caught, and so on. And it’s unsurprising that the DHS would support this never-ending line of productions that portray them as the thin line between America’s so-called civilisation and all these dastardly outside threats. It isn’t just positive PR for them, it encourages the whole worldview that allows something like the DHS to exist in the first place.
Operation Shakespeare is a bit different, because it isn’t well known. In essence this was a mid-late 2000s sting operation against arms dealers who were trying to buy US military technology, and the whole thing was run by ICE’s HSI – Homeland Security Investigations. They set up front companies catering to ‘acquisition agents’ working on behalf of foreign governments – Iran, Russia, China, North Korea and so on – and they trapped an Iranian dealer trying to acquire a whole bunch of stuff for the Iranian government after meeting him in Tblisi, Georgia.
To give you a bit more on this quite interesting operation here’s a clip from C-Span’s Book TV with John Shiffman, a journalist who wrote a book about all this, and David Hall, a former naval intelligence officer who was the US Attorney who prosecuted the case.
This is a pretty good story, to be fair, which combines black market technology trafficking with espionage and ultimately a court case. I can see why a company was interested in producing a documentary for CNN about Operation Shakespeare. And DHS complied fully – they provided access to agents who had worked on the case, and ICE’s office of public affairs provided documents and even surveillance video from the operation.
A couple of things I want to highlight about this – each DHS component has its own public affairs office, and the most active in Hollywood are ICE, CBP and the Coast Guard, but they all have to run everything by the DHS Multimedia Liaison Office for approval, much like with the DOD and the various military branches. Also, they provided the producers with surveillance video and documents? Isn’t that stuff classified? Especially given that the target pleaded guilty so none of this had been shown in open court.
So why were they so keen to help with this one? The answer may be in an article on ICE’s website, which states that the producers were given 8 hours of surveillance tape, i.e. the entire meeting between the undercover agents and the target. It also mentions that HSI’s Assistant Director of International Operations Patrick Lechleitner appeared in the final cut, which we do know was changed from the rough cut in response to notes from the DHS. Did they tell the producers to foreground this senior official? Whatever this guy’s ambitions after he leaves the department – big dick law firm, think tank, politics – that can only be helped by appearing in an episode of Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies. Especially in connection with a case that’s so geopolitically useful, about those sneaky Iranians trying to level the playing field of military technology against a much wealthier and more aggressive adversary.
I think it was the combination of this documentary being an opportunity for some senior officials to show off and to start building a public profile, and the story being exactly the sort of portrait of themselves and the world that the DHS want – that’s what made them so eager to help.
Though the Obama administration had a pretty tough immigration policy – they deported more undocumented migrants than any other administration – this has been exacerbated under Trump, or at least the cultural change that Trump rode into office has led to some pretty brutal practices at ICE facilities. This has included hosing people down with industrial-strength chemicals, which has a 50 Shades of Zyklon B ring to it. So it’s no surprise that the three DHS components most intimately involved with immigration policy enforcement – ICE, CBP and the Coast Guard – are the busiest when it comes to PR efforts through Hollywood.
And there’s a distinct pattern – they happily support shows that either portray the borders as a warzone that requires a militaristic, hardline response, or that make it seem like US immigration policy isn’t so harsh after all. Hence, they’ll support anything with ‘wars’ in the title, but also films like The Terminal, where Tom Hanks plays an immigrant from a fictional country who ends up stuck in an airport terminal for 7 months. Basically, his government is overthrown while he is in the air so when he arrives in the US Customs and Border Protection refuse to recognise his passport, so they can’t let him into the country, but he also isn’t there illegally, as he had a visa, so they can’t arrest and deport him. Even though the head CBP guy, played by Stanley Tucci, is a total dick who plots various schemes to try to trap the Tom Hanks character into doing something wrong so he can have him arrested and get rid of him, this is all played off as comedy, and at the end he lets Tom Hanks go.
This aspect of The Terminal was heavily rewritten by CBP. I found a little-read interview with Anne Sittmann, head of the Television and Motion Pictures Division at CBP. She called popular culture, ‘arguably the most subtle and rewarding means of branding and communication’ and mentioned The Terminal as an example:
‘First and foremost, when Hollywood comes calling they can make a movie with your help or without it, and by cooperating one can influence what people see and how they react to it. For example, when The Terminal was initially pitched, the port director was written as evil and on the take. Spielberg eventually softened the character and made CBP employees among the heroes of the movie.’
Incidentally, the airport terminal set for the film was built in two hangars at the US Air Force’s Plant 42, home to the Lockheed Skunk Works. So while this is an unusual form of military support, we can add The Terminal to the ever-increasing list of DOD-supported movies.
Getting back to the DHS, they also supported The Rainbow Bridge Motel, a film in which one of the main characters isn’t allowed back into the US so he and his fiancee meet at the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, on the border between the US and Canada, so they can get married. You’ll notice – when it’s the southern border it’s all drugs and border wars and MS-13, but when it’s an airport or the northern border it’s a romantic comedy and everything’s fine.
However, when the Bertelsmann Foundation wanted ICE’s help making a more even-handed documentary focusing on “the benefits of legal immigration and challenges caused by illegal immigration” ICE rejected the project “due to political climate against ICE ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] in Florida.” Producers willing to promote and whitewash the federal government’s immigration policies, and the rhetoric coming out of the White House, find these agencies are willing to help, but those wanting to put a human face on immigration, or discuss opposition to these policies, find themselves out in the cold.
They turned down the BBC’s Simon Reeve, who I have mentioned before, who wanted to look at ICE activities in California’s farming areas, with the reason for the rejection given as a lack of resources and the BBC having already done a project on US immigration policy. They turned down a company making a documentary for PBS Frontline when the DHS insisted they sign a contract, but the producers refused, arguing they were a news organisation and hence the same rules didn’t apply. There was a standoff, so the DHS told them to fuck off. The same happened to other producers who refused to sign a contract just so they could conduct a few interviews or do some background research.
Other projects were turned down because they wouldn’t air in the US, and for some reason ICE in particular only want to support products seen by US audiences. This may, in part, be an issue of foreign producers being more likely to take a critical view of what ICE does, and the contracts being harder to enforce across international boundaries. It also seems to be a consequence of them receiving lots of requests, from all over the world, and them only having a certain amount of resources, so they focus on the ones that will reach their target audience.
Patriot’s Day (and Deepwater Horizon)
The DHS have also supported some major movies, including Deepwater Horizon, directed by Peter Berg and starring former underwear model and hip hop legend Marky Mark Wahlberg, and Patriots Day, directed by Peter Berg and starring former underwear model and hip hop legend Marky Mark Wahlberg. Both films based on real events, and made in a virtually identical way, though my response to the two films was very different, even though I watched them back to back.
I have to admit, I found Deepwater Horizon pretty funny. It’s a good disaster movie, and I like disaster movies. Every time some random thing exploded or some person got thrown into a wall by a massive shockwave that would have killed them, I laughed. It’s so unrealistic in places, just like Lone Survivor, another government supported film directed by Peter Berg and starring former underwear model and hip hop legend Marky Mark Wahlberg. It’s also a very masculine film – literally, there are two women in this movie. One is Marky Mark’s wife, who is only in the movie so she can worry about him, and so we get to see her ass in the opening scene, when for no apparent reason she wakes up in the morning and she’s wearing very high cut underwear, the sort that ride right up your ass so you’d never wear them to sleep in. The other woman works on the oil rig, and has to be saved by Marky Mark.
Indeed, a more appropriate title for the film would have been Toxic Masculinity. As much as I am irritated by how that phrase has become so overused it’s now meaningless, it is a good title for a film, and for this film in particular. Admittedly, it didn’t star Steven Seagal and Stone Cold Steve Austin, which is the ideal cast for a film called Toxic Masculinity, but still. Basically, it depicts the entire cause of the oil rig blowing up in the Gulf of Mexico and causing the world’s largest oil spill being an argument between some guys from BP and the engineers on board.
Indeed, the fact that this caused the world’s largest oil spill, ever, isn’t mentioned in the film. It’s just a tale of explosions, the heroism of a white, straight American male in his 30s or 40s, with some supporting heroism from the US government. It sorta blames BP, which was the spin put on the story by the news media at the time. The fact that Halliburton provided the crucial equipment, which failed, and which they almost certainly knew was going to fail, was totally ignored. The fact that the oversight for oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico was woefully under-funded and under-staffed, was totally ignored. Indeed, the Minerals Management Service was split up into three separate agencies in response to their epic inability to provide the regulatory oversight in the Deepwater Horizon case. And of course BP were also massively to blame, because they were digging at tens of thousands of feet below sea level, using an ancient rig that was falling apart and needed a near-total overhaul.
However, the film tells us that it was a case of ‘everything that could go wrong, did go wrong’. In one sense that’s true, this was an epic fuck up by lots of people, including some massive corporations and the US federal government. But that’s not what the film means, because the vast majority of relevant information is left out of the story, in favour of lots of dialogue that’s difficult to hear because of the high level of background noise.
‘But it’s so realistic, it’s like actually being on an oil rig’ say the manchildren, still salivating because they got a two-second glimpse of a woman’s posterior at the start of the movie. It’s not, being on an oil rig is a lot fucking louder than that, and in the film it makes it difficult to understand all these actors speaking with fake southern accents. Nonetheless, all the explosions and the seemingly indestructible men are quite amusing. If the events depicted in the film had actually happened then a lot more than 11 people would have died, and most of the crew would not have survived, which is what really happened.
It’s a similar story with Patriots Day, the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, which had all sorts of government assistance. The DHS worked on it, according to their own documents, but aren’t credited at the end of the movie. The FBI worked on it, according to their own documents, but aren’t credited at the end of the movie. The DOD are credited, but I can find no reference to the film in their documents. There was also a bunch of local Boston agencies who helped out – police, fire department, other city offices.
And it really shows, because it’s primarily a story about the government’s apparently successful manhunt for the perpetrators. It has a very flat tone, trying to evoke a sense of being ‘just the facts’, like United 93, Zero Dark Thirty, Captain Phillips and several other state-sponsored real life event movies. All of which are extremely dubious as to whether the stories they are telling are actually true. I think they were going for this same tone in Deepwater Horizon, but for me it failed miserably and became ridiculous schlock and a profound cover-up.
Whereas Patriots Day was at least fairly consistent throughout, purely from a craft point of view it balances its procedural thriller element with its human drama element quite well. I didn’t find it especially boring to watch, but I didn’t find it especially engaging either.
When it comes to the factual side of the film, I have some enormous reservations and criticisms. These sorts of films function as an offering to the public in lieu of evidence from the government. Instead of rigorous, public investigation of controversial events with massive consequences, we get state-sponsored movies with all the bells and whistles of authenticity but a very loose approach to facts, or even basic logic.
And I say this as someone who believes that the Tsarnaev brothers, or people who look a hell of a lot like them, actually did the bombings at the marathon, because you can see them on the CCTV. This was eventually released after the trial, which meant there was over two years of people claiming they didn’t do it, that the still images we’d been shown were fake, that the bombing was a false flag, that everything was fake and there wasn’t actually a bombing at all, and so on. I don’t recall a single one of the people who made these claims actually watching the CCTV when it was released and admitting they might have rushed to judgement. The exact same thing happened with the 7/7 London bombings.
Nonetheless, the CCTV isn’t conclusive proof, you can’t absolutely, positively ID the two men as the Tsarnaev brothers, and we were simply presented with their guilt as though it was indisputable, without the evidence. And given that the most incriminating evidence was the CCTV showing two men dropping backpacks at the exact sites of the explosions before walking away, then the explosions happen shortly afterwards, they must have had this evidence pretty early on. But curiously, the film never shows this, it shows the FBI and HSI and everyone else working on the investigation identifying the two via a really weird scene.
Let me explain – Marky Mark played a composite character, a guy working for the Boston police department. His composite status allows him to be at all the major events that happen throughout the story. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon plays the lead FBI agent. After the bombing, the FBI gather all the CCTV from the businesses in the street where the explosions happened, around the finishing line for the race. They then set up in a large disused industrial facility where they reconstruct a life-size map of the street on the floor. After identifying a possible suspect while flicking through some random CCTV footage they then call in Marky Mark to walk through the reconstruction to tell them which businesses had cameras facing the street, then checked the CCTV footage from each business to try to find other images of that suspect.
There are more than a few problems with this story. First, they should have already had the CCTV of the explosion site itself. If you’re investigating a bombing you’d go into the nearest buildings first and check their CCTV first, because they’re the most likely to have good quality footage of the people around the bomb site. If they’d done this they would have got the videos that were shown on the news a couple of years later, where you clearly see two men walking up with backpacks, putting them down in the crowd, and walking away, then the bombs explode a little while later. You wouldn’t have had to stumble across this other footage of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and then do this ludicrous reconstruction.
So that makes no sense at all.
The notion that Marky Mark, a regular beat cop in Boston, would memorise where all the CCTV cameras were and where they pointed, is absolutely ludicrous. It’s Jason Bourne stuff, and totally unbelievable.
Furthermore, are we to believe that the FBI went through every business on that street, gathered up all the CCTV footage, labelled the files accordingly, so they knew which footage came from which building, but didn’t draw a map of the street themselves, so they could easily reconstruct the CCTV walkthrough later? Why did they need Marky Mark at all? Did they not know where, geographically on the street, each clip came from?
This is literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a true life crime story. The notion that the FBI were so incompetent, but still managed to identify the right suspects through this absolutely fantastical process, almost made the entire story collapse. But I haven’t seen any reviewer or commenter point this out, it seems for the most part people felt this film was realistic. Just goes to show that no matter how stupid the FBI are, the average moviegoer is even stupider.
The rest of the film isn’t much more convincing, if you bother to use your brain when watching it. 20 minutes after he apparently planted one of the bombs, the younger Tsarnaev went out to buy milk. And not just that, he got the wrong milk, took it home, was told off by his brother’s wife, and went back to swap it for the right milk. Possible, but very weird, and not something that needed to be included in the film because it doesn’t help sell the story at all.
Where it all really starts to break down, both in terms of the official story and the version told in the movie, is in what happened three days after the bombing. After a series of false identifications of the bombers by everyone from Reddit to Perez Hilton to major newspapers, the FBI finally decided to release the images they had of the two suspects, in the hope someone would identify them and call it in. At that point they did not know who these two men were, so the photos didn’t come with names or background details or anything of the sort.
As the official story goes, this led the two Tsarnaev brothers to drive to the MIT campus, shoot a university police officer in an attempt to steal his gun, even though they already had guns and other weapons including homemade bombs. They then carjacked a young man, drove around for up to an hour and a half not really doing anything, then the young man escaped and called the police, leading to the jacked car being identified and leading to a lengthy shootout which resulted in Tamerlan, the older Tsarnaev brother, being killed. But somehow the younger brother escaped, so the authorities locked down a large part of the city, issued shelter in place orders, and went house to house searching for him. They found him in a boat in some guy’s backyard, surrounded him with armoured vehicles and other surplus military equipment that’s been handed over to urban police departments in the US, before firing at the boat and seriously injuring Dzhokhar, and then arresting him.
There are some inherent problems with this story. If they were so well armed that they could sustain a lengthy firefight with half a dozen police officers, including throwing homemade bombs that caused injuries that led to the death of one of those cops a year later, why would they try to steal one handgun from a university cop? The shooting of Sean Collier has never made sense to me. They shot him, so they could steal his gun. Why not just use the gun they already must have had, in order to shoot him? And if that was the reason, why didn’t they take the gun? They shot him multiple times, he was either dead or dying, what stopped them from getting the gun?
The official story then has them driving across town and hijacking the car of a young Chinese man who had studied at the university, graduated, and was now working on a tech startup. In the film he’s played by Jimmy O’Yang, who also plays Jian Yang in Silicon Valley. A young Chinese man who is working on a tech startup. Talk about typecasting.
For a couple of years after the bombing this guy was interviewed by quite a few outlets, under the pseudonym ‘Danny’, always with his face and voice disguised. He has now been publicly identified, but for quite some time very few people knew who he was. More importantly, his story changed each time he told it, but the key detail that Tamerlan Tsarnaev apparently confessed to both the bombing and the shooting of Sean Collier, is the same in each version. It was this story that really helped sell the notion that it was the Tsarnaevs who were the bombing culprits – without the Danny carjacking and confession story the public had just seen some CCTV screenshots and been told these men were the prime suspects.
Russ Baker and the team at WhoWhatWhy did some digging and pieced together a bunch of different statements and interviews, and demonstrated that every element of Danny’s story was quite radically different depending on which interview or statement you look at. How long was he in the car with the Tsarnaevs? Were they both in the car or did one follow in the Tsarnaevs’ Honda Civic? Did he give them his ATM code and they took money out using his card, or did he take it out himself? How did he escape from the car? There’s no consistency across the different accounts given by ‘Danny’ and by local officials.
On top of these major inconsistencies, the story still doesn’t make much sense. After apparently botching an attempt to shoot a police officer and steal his gun, they drive around for a short while, carjack someone, tell him they shot the police officer even though this is only minutes later and they’d have no reason to believe Danny had any knowledge of the shooting, and confess to the marathon bombings too? Why? They had a gun to the guy’s face, they didn’t need to confess to anything just to intimidate him.
Also, if they switched cars because they though the authorities would be onto their Honda Civic, why would they drive around, one of them in the carjacked Mercedes SUV, the other in the Honda right behind?
The film only adds to this confusion. Pretty much all accounts say that Sean Collier, the university cop, was killed at 10:48 that night. But Patriots Day shows the Tsarnaevs killing Collier, then a while later carjacking ‘Danny’ at 10:46. So presumably they are time travelling Chechen jihadis. While Dzhokhar moves the bombs and weapons from the Honda to the Mercedes, Tamerlan not only confesses to Danny that he shot Collier, he asks Danny if he knows about the shooting and Danny says yes. He then confesses to the bombing, before all three of them set off in the Mercedes, leaving the Honda behind. They drive around aimlessly for a while, before apparently deciding to drive to New York to stage another attack. Dzhokhar uses the GPS to plot a route to New York, and then they stop at a gas station. Dzhokhar goes in to pay, and for some reason Tamerlan starts playing with the GPS again, even though it’s already got the route planned out. This enables Danny to escape.
Amusingly, Tamerlan also goes off on a rant while the three of them are in the car, about how 9/11 was staged by the US government, the hijackers were all actors, everything the government says is a lie. I’ve never come across any version of this in Danny’s interviews, so it seems this is something written in either by the film-makers, or by one of the government offices they worked with on the film. Again, a similar thing happened with 7/7, where they tried to associate the alleged bombers with both 9/11 conspiracy theories and with opposition to the Iraq war, as though having those beliefs means you’re a terrorist, or likely to become a terrorist. Reality strongly suggests this isn’t the case, because there are a lot more 9/11 conspiracy theorists and anti-war activists out there than there are extremists and terrorists.
In the film, after Danny escapes the Tsarnaevs drive back to where they parked the Honda, transfer the bombs and weapons back to the Honda, then drive around in a convoy, apparently looking for somewhere to ditch the Mercedes. But if they were worried about the police looking for the Mercedes because Danny had reported it stolen, and weren’t worried about the police looking for the Honda, why did they steal the Mercedes in the first place? In any case they are spotted by the police, leading to the shootout and Tamerlan’s death. It is only after he is fingerprinted at the hospital that the FBI finally identify him.
So this whole police shooting – carjacking part of the story is only made more confusing and confused by the movie, which gets basic facts wrong and makes no sense at all. I’ll say again, I believe the Tsarnaevs did the marathon bombing, but I’m not at all convinced that they shot Sean Collier and carjacked this Danny character. Indeed, the real Danny makes a brief appearance in the film, completely reversing his earlier policy of not wanting to be identified and recognised.
There are other deeply problematic aspects to the movie. They depict Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine Russell (a white women born in Texas), as being fully involved in and knowledgeable of the bombing plot. There’s even a scene where she is interrogated, without being Mirandized, by the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a joint effort by the FBI, CIA, DOD and others where they can interview someone if they are deemed to have information likely to pose an imminent risk.
As Uproxx observed about this scene:
It wasn’t so much the depiction that I questioned, it was the movie’s endorsement, which is certainly up for interpretation. For me, it’s telling that the part of the Russell interview that most feels like artistic license, when Russell asks about her rights and the interrogator says, “Honey, you ain’t got shit,” which is in most of the trailers and marketing, is structured like an applause line. Like we’re supposed to be going, “Woohoo! F*ck her rights, USA! USA!” (A second later, the interrogator, who had told Russell she was born in a refugee camp, took off the hijab she’d been wearing, which I wasn’t sure how to interpret. Was the interrogator lying? Was she even a Muslim?)
To be clear, Katherine Russell has never been charged with any crime, so the movie going out of its way to portray her as a willing and knowing accomplice could be defamation, but very little has been heard of Russell in recent years so I doubt she’s going to sue anyone over this. The undercurrent of ‘fuck yeah, fascism’s great when we want vengeance’ runs throughout the whole film and any question of government overreach or overreaction by locking down dozens of blocks of a city to look for one unarmed 19 year old is studiously ignored.
The film does briefly mention that Tamerlan was watchlisted by the FBI, which is true, they were warned about him by Russian intelligence in 2011. But this is instantly dismissed by the Boston chief of police, played by John Goodman, who proclaims that no one was looking for some loser coward who blew up the marathon because he lost a boxing match, so it doesn’t matter. Because fuck yeah, he was a loser coward and we’re Rambo, so fuck intelligence failures, just listen to John Goodman!
And of course, the film makes no mention of the possibility raised by several reporters and by Dzhokhar’s defence lawyers, that Tamerlan was an FBI informant. Or of reports that their uncle Ruslan had CIA connections. Or that Tamerlan’s associate, Ibrahim Todashev, was arrested by the FBI, and he said Tamerlan was involved in a triple murder a couple of years before the bombing, before Todashev was then shot dead while in FBI custody.
As I’m sure you can tell, I was not impressed by this movie. All these government agencies and departments worked on Patriots Day, and all of them claim that they want realistic depictions of real life events, yet here is an example of a film that does the absolute opposite – it doesn’t just get basic facts wrong, for long sections it makes no sense at all.
It also made no money – grossing just $52 million on a $45 million budget. Once you subtract marketing and distribution costs, and the portion of the ticket price that goes to the exhibitors, this film lost tens of millions of dollars.
But was it ever supposed to be a commercial product, or was its primary aim propagandistic? I’ll give you the facts and let you decide. The only government agency credited on the film is the DOD, and I can’t figure out what they did on the movie because they had nothing to do with the Boston bombing investigation. The other government agencies that were involved in the investigation did work on the film, but aren’t credited.
On top of that the DHS website pages about their work with Hollywood mention their significant cases page, and how these are the sorts of stories they want to see on screen and like to help with. And of course one of those significant cases is the Boston marathon bombing.
Why the DHS in Hollywood Matters
The cultural and political turn in the US in recent years bothers me, not so much because of the racist language and the online mutual abuse circus, though those things do bother me, but because of what it is enabling the state to do. Trump has a reputation for not being particularly interested in foreign policy and it is true that his administration hasn’t started any new wars. But we’ve still seen a considerable expansion of the security state and the war on terror, in several different ways, during this government. The war on terror has become more domestically-focused, with both of the major parties and their attendant media accusing violent criminals on the other side of the barrier of being terrorists. Immigration as a national security issue is firmly back on the agenda, and is increasingly being conflated with terrorism, organised crime and the war on drugs. And we have the formal creation of Space Force, which was on the military’s agenda long before Trump started talking about it.
Put simply, it is not Trump that is the core issue, or even Trumpism. They are both manifestations and examples of a cultural and political turn that has been coming for a long time, and has been promoted and encouraged through no end of state-sponsored culture. In some respects, this turn has been created by the state for its own ends, and even if Trump is defeated in the election all the institutions and mechanisms of power that pumped up the wave that Trump rode into office like a Nazi surfer boy will remain.
The DHS is one of those mechanisms of power, and the decision to securitise crime and drugs and immigration came long before anyone (apart from the Simpsons) foresaw a Trump presidency. For over 15 years they’ve been crafting major Hollywood products to encourage the public to accept this enhancement and expansion of the security state, and their influence on these products can be considerable.
As I say, they refused to release any script notes or editing notes, but there are a bunch of entries in their reports about a forthcoming TV show that they had a heavy hand in shaping to their liking. Initially the show isn’t named but some of the more recent reports confirm it is Coyote – a Breaking Bad replacement being produced by a lot of the same people who made that show, and put out by AMC, the same channel than ran Breaking Bad. It stars Michael Chiklis, who played Vic Mackey on The Shield, and the summary of the first episode says, ‘On his last day of work as a border agent, Ben Clemens discovers a secret tunnel used to smuggle goods into the United States from Mexico.’ According to the documents the character was originally written as a DEA agent, like Hank from Breaking Bad (which was supported by the DEA), but was rewritten at the request of the DHS to make him an HSI agent working for ICE. That’s a pretty major change, and one made early on in the development of the show, which illustrates the power these offices have to shape cultural content sometimes years ahead of us actually receiving and consuming it. Coyote still hasn’t come out, and I’m not sure when we can actually expect its release but naturally, I will be watching.
I am not attributing this whole cultural turn just to the Homeland Security Hollywood office, or even to the government-entertainment complex in general, but they have definitely supported products with the same underlying worldview. And they’ve done so with hardly anyone realising it – if you search for articles on the DHS in Hollywood you’ll mostly find my recent piece for Shadowproof, which was picked up by Blacklistednews and some other sites, along with an academic article looking at the more general post-9/11 cultural landscape. And the interview I did recently on the Scott Horton show, after he read my Shadowproof article. That’s it. That’s pretty much the sum total of critical coverage of what the DHS has been doing.
The major media have done a moderately good job of reporting on how the Department has been spying on rioters and protesters in Portland, even tapping their phones (likely without any warrants), and how they’ve spied on and harassed journalists covering the events in Portland, especially if their coverage is sympathetic. There have been stories about DHS agents bundling people into vans and arresting them, and even that acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf may be in that position illegally. But these articles never mention mass culture or the bigger picture of how the Department consistently gets away with their crimes or the never-ending march of the security state.
So I felt it was high time that I addressed that, and I hope I have done so.