Tom Hanks is perhaps the last of the classic Hollywood leading men, and has starred in some of the most memorable and influential films of the last three decades. However, that makes him the perfect instrument for film makers and government agencies looking to present emotionally affective narratives about real life events, from missions to the moon to CIA covert operations. In this episode we take a dive into the secret world of Tom Hanks, looking at his long history of fronting state-sponsored movies, as well as the three times he’s played a CIA asset.
Tom Hanks is one of the most recognised and beloved men on the planet, a world famous actor and producer who has built a career out of playing noble men in situations of extreme stress, alongside a lot of leading roles in feelgood comedies. I am struggling to think of another actor who has played so many real-life historical figures, from Geoffrey Bowers in Philadelphia, a lawyer who was sacked for being HIV positive, to astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Captain Phillips in Captain Phillips, the pilot who landed a passenger plane on the Hudson river in Sully, and Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks.
And that’s without including the three times he’s played real-life CIA assets, which I’ll get to later. Or Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent in Catch Me If You Can, who is a composite of several real FBI agents.
It is curious that a man who is half Portugese and half English has played so many iconic American roles and real life American media figures or historical figures. But what I want us to explore today is how Hanks’ career has involved government agencies, almost from its inception, and three times he played CIA assets, but people you wouldn’t suspect were CIA assets unless you already knew who they were. I am talking about congressman Charlie Wilson, lawyer James Donovan, and Forrest Gump.
Just kidding, the third one is Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
But to put all that in context we should first take an overview of all the state-sponsored films that Tom Hanks has starred in, because there are quite a few.
His first contact with the world of government-sponsored culture was very early on in his career. After his film debut in Splash in 1984 he was cast as a musician in The Man with One Red Shoe, which is all about the CIA carrying out covert operations against the Tom Hanks character because they mistakenly believe he’s a whistleblower. It’s a bit like Enemy of the State, but with less technology and explosions and more middle of the road 1980s style comedy. It isn’t an especially good or well known film – I mentioned it in the Cinema of Iran-Contra episode, but it’s otherwise only notable for being one of the first films to make use of former CIA officers as technical advisors, the other being Spies Like US, a Dan Aykroyd comedy that came out the same year.
The CIA themselves were closed off to Hollywood at this time, because director Bill Casey was trying to put the genie back in the bottle after all the revelations of the 1970s. It wasn’t until Robert Gates took over as head of the CIA that they started making some forays back into the entertainment industry, for most of the 80s they weren’t up to much in Hollywood except killing that Marlon Brando film about Iran-Contra. Incidentally, Frank Snepp was involved in that project and he was the advisor on Spies Like Us.
A couple of years later Tom Hanks starred alongside Dan Aykroyd in the film Dragnet, based on the film and TV franchise of the mid-20th century, all about the LAPD. Just like the originals, the 1987 version was supported by the real-life LAPD. The main advisor on the film was Dan Cooke, who had joined the LAPD way back in the 1950s, and become a media relations officer in 1964. He was the department’s main spokesman, and their primary liaison to the entertainment industry, working closely with Jack Webb, the writer behind Dragnet and Adam-12, the long-running copaganda franchises. He reviewed scripts for film and TV and was the main guy in charge of granting or denying support to entertainment producers. One of the last films he worked on – and the only film on which he is credited on IMDB – was the Tom Hanks version of Dragnet.
Hanks then spent a few years mostly making comedies like Turner and Hooch and Sleepless in Seattle, but when he was cast in the title role in 1994’s Forrest Gump, his career took a turn towards what he is now famous for – playing historical figures. Not that Gump was a real person, but the story is a kind of a fictitious biopic, it feels like this could be a real person.
I have to admit, the first time I ever saw Forrest Gump I found it quite a sad movie, and the whole floating feather symbolic happy ending didn’t land at all for me. I’ve come to enjoy the film more over time, but it still troubles me, and it wasn’t until I read some of the novel it is based on, along with government files on the film, that it all made sense to me. The original story is quite different – Forrest doesn’t have learning difficulties, he leads an extraordinary life but the reasons for his decisions are clear, unlike in the film when he is the feather being blown along by the winds of fate. It’s also a much more anti-Vietnam war story than in the film, which is fairly ambivalent towards the war.
Then there’s the whole story of the producers approaching the US Army for help, but being turned down because its view of Vietnam was, in their view, nihilistic, and they didn’t like the sex and profanity and other aspects of the script. The Marine Corps got involved, saying they could work on the film if the main character was changed from a soldier to a Marine, but the producers insisted they wanted him in the Army. The whole relationship broke down and the movie was made without DOD support, but one aspect of the movie was still rewritten in line with the military’s feedback.
Forrest and Bubba were originally supposed to be part of a whole unit of men with learning difficulties or sub-standard intelligence, but this was changed at the DOD’s request. This was a reference to the highly controversial program known as McNamara’s 100,000, which saw the US Armed Forces recruit thousands of men who wouldn’t otherwise have met the medical and intellectual standards required, and ship them out to Vietnam. Men from this program died in higher numbers but the program carried on for five years, even being promoted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the idea being that they were helping people of low intelligence find jobs.
In the decades that followed the program became more widely known and was heavily criticised, and a 1989 DOD study found that men who had been put through this program were more likely to be unemployed, poor and have low educational achievements compared to their peers who hadn’t been part of Project 100,000. They were also more likely to be divorced. In the film all hints towards the project were removed, and Forrest ends up rich, gets married and lives a very comfortable life, except for when his wife dies.
The following year, Hanks starred in Apollo 13, a film that had support from both the DOD and NASA. Indeed, it was this film that inspired NASA to set up its own formal entertainment liaison office, because they provided a lot of help on Apollo 13 but through a bunch of different offices without any central coordination. Meanwhile the DOD, who only appear right at the end when the Navy rescues the three astronauts, didn’t have many objections to the script except for the swearing, so the film contains almost no swearing whatsoever. Which is pretty unrealistic for a story about three astronauts who nearly die trying to get to the moon.
In 1998 we got Shaving Private Ryan, which offers a very realistic portrait of some of the D-Day landings, before descending into a relatively farcical story about a group of soldiers going off to rescue their friend, which never happened and shouldn’t have happened. The notion that saving just one person’s life was a priority in a war that killed over 70 million people is absurd, but this is propaganda. Even though the DOD had no WW2 era equipment to lend the producers they still helped out, and made changes to the script as per usual.
In 2002 Hanks played the FBI composite character in Catch Me If You Can, a film supported by the real FBI. In 2004 he was the lead character in The Terminal, which was supported and rewritten by Customs and Border Protection. I am still getting my ideas together about that film, because it’s another one that seems to be a schmaltzy comedy but which is disturbing as soon as you stop to think about it.
In 2007 he played the title role in Charlie Wilson’s War, a film supported and rewritten by the CIA. He was a producer and narrator on 2010’s The Pacific, a TV series about Marines battling in the Pacific theatre in WW2, which was supported by the real life Marine Corps. Curiously, the series depicts a Marine digging into the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier to steal his gold fillings – which is something that really happened, but which the DOD removed from the film Windtalkers, which tells much the same story as The Pacific.
In 2013 he played Captain Phillips in the Navy-supported Captain Phillips. In 2015 he played James Donovan in the Air Force-supported Bridge of Spies, in 2016 he played Sully in Sully, which was supported by the Air Force, and this year he starred in Greyhound, a WW2 naval movie that was supported by the Navy.
I am pretty sure that’s all of them, though I’m not sure about Band of Brothers and some of the other films and TV shows that Tom Hanks has starred in or produced (because he’s also a producer on a lot of projects). In any case this run-down will give you the right impression – Hanks has worked with pretty much every major US government agency that’s active in Hollywood, from the DOD to the DHS, from NASA to the intelligence agencies to the LAPD. His natural likeability has been instrumentalised by the Hollywood machine to make enormous amounts of money out of mostly mid-budget features, and his charismatic portraits of important American historical figures lends Hollywood a greater weight and cultural resonance. But his popularity has also been weaponised by various arms of the US government for propaganda purposes, in a process that’s been going on for something like 35 years.
Charlie Wilson’s War
I have spoken before about Charlie Wilson’s War – the book, the film and the real war. The film is unusual, in that it is fundamentally about a massive covert operation, the sort of thing that Hollywood typically avoids because it is too controversial. But while the book tells the story of the CIA recruiting a congressman in order to secure funding for the largest CIA paramilitary operation of all time, and how the CIA’s support to the mujahideen led to 9/11 and the global war on terror, the film is quite different. It is more of a buddy movie where Charlie Wilson – played by Tom Hanks – pals around with CIA officer Gust Avrokotos, and which avoids any idea of blowback or CIA recklessness or negligence. As Milt Bearden, the former CIA officer who took part in Operation Cyclone and consulted on the movie, put it, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War will put aside the notion that because we did that, we had 9/11’.
Indeed, the choice to make the film a comedy about the hard-drinking, womanising playboy Charlie Wilson, rather than a thriller about the CIA’s role in the Soviet-Afghan war, takes all the heat out of it. Certainly, the story is somewhat amusing and Wilson was a bon vivant character, but it is also a story about how some really terrible people came together, including the CIA, Swiss banks that were maintaining secret accounts on their behalf, Israeli and Egyptian arms dealers and government officials who helped procure weapons, the Saudi Royal family who were helping fund all of this, and the Pakistani ISI who were integrally involved in managing the supply to the mujahideen. And MI6 and some of the worst Islamic fundamentalists the world has ever seen.
It isn’t an inherently funny story, unless you cut out 90% of reality and exaggerate the personalities of Charlie, Gust and Mike Vickers. And turn Joanne Herring from an ultra right-wing evangelical into an it-girl who is friends with Zia-ul-Haq. The whole film is a rebranding effort that downplays the conspiratorial side of the CIA recruiting Charlie Wilson, dilutes the cynical motives of the various people involved so at worst they look like opportunists, ignores the ideological fundamentalism on all sides and censored any notion of a connection to the growth of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks.
Earlier drafts of the script end in much the same way as the book does, on the morning of 9/11, with Charlie Wilson in his office feeling the ground shake when a plane hits the Pentagon, and then watching the building burn. They also make dialogue references to Al Qaeda and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a vicious extremist who liked to deal drugs and weapons, skin his opponents alive, and spent much of the CIA’s money on fighting with other mujahideen factions for control of territory within Afghanistan itself. Early on in the drone program, the CIA tried to assassinate Hekmatyar, even though 17 years earlier he had led a delegation of mujahideen leaders to the UN, to try to get them to take action against the Soviets for their occupation of Afghanistan, as recorded in CIA documents.
The earlier scripts also talk about CIA advisors going into Afghanistan itself to help train the mujahideen, teach them how to use the weapons the CIA had bought for them, how to use the advanced communications equipment, along with different tactics including terrorist techniques to use against the godless Commies. All of these things actually happened – the CIA likes to make out that they just handed over the money to the ISI and let them run the war, but the book is absolutely clear that this is not an accurate narrative. The CIA were using spy satellites to get constant updates on battlefield conditions, they had people in the field doing all sorts of things – Charlie Wilson even visited one of the training camps, which was destroyed a decade later in missile strikes ordered by Clinton in response to the East Africa embassy bombings. Indeed, the CIA maintained a sort of museum of weapons used in the war, and gave Charlie Wilson the launcher for the first stinger missile used by a mujahideen fighter to take down a Soviet helicopter.
Of course, after Milt Bearden and the CIA’s Chase Brandon were done with the script, all of these elements either disappeared entirely or were noticeably watered down. While the book explicitly describes Gust recruiting Charlie Wilson and eventually refers to him as the Agency’s ‘Station Chief on the Hill’, the film avoids any notion of Wilson or the CIA doing anything illegal. The CIA aren’t allowed to lobby congress for more money for covert operations, so recruiting a congressman as an asset to function as their breadwinner for billions of dollars so they could arm a bunch of religious fundamentalists to the teeth wasn’t especially normal behaviour. Normally they’d just get sextapes of a couple of committee members and blackmail them, but the Afghan operation required a more permanent solution, hence recruiting Wilson.
But the film makes out like Wilson was never recruited, as such, he just helped out because he was a motivated congressman who happened to make friends with a CIA officer. The scene where Gust and Charlie first meet is farcical, as their conversation keeps being interrupted by Charlie’s assistants with news about an ethics investigation into Wilson’s drug taking and cavorting with women.
Indeed, the whole scene is basically Gust briefing Charlie, rather than a premeditated, planned effort by Gust to recruit Charlie as an asset, as is described in the book. The film goes out of its way to avoid any notion of the CIA breaking the law through their relationship with Wilson, as well as being grossly misleading about how closely managed the Afghanistan operation really was.
This even extended to the DVD bonus features, which includes a 12 minute mini-documentary titled Who Was Charlie Wilson?, and includes interviews with the film’s director, former CIA consultant Milt Bearden, other advisors on the film, and Wilson himself.
I want us to note how they make Charlie seem like he was just motivated on behalf of the Afghan people, rather than a man recruited by the CIA to do a job. Indeed, apart from one brief mention of Gust the CIA are absent from this documentary re-telling of the Wilson story, which is bizarre and inaccurate. Without the CIA he couldn’t have done much, he would have remained an ineffective congressman who wasn’t taken very seriously by anyone. The only reason anyone remembers Wilson is because of his relationship with the CIA, and because of the movie, so even this documentary is a piece of PR that misdirects its audience.
Indeed, Wilson wasn’t just on the appropriations committee helping with the funding for the operation, he was also on the intelligence committee responsible for keeping the CIA on a leash. When a bill was proposed requiring greater oversight for the Agency, including that all presidential findings authorising covert action be turned over to the committee immediately, Charlie voted against it, and later used his influence to kill the bill entirely. So he was more than just a breadwinner – he was actively protecting the Agency, helping to keep their work in the shadows.
A look at the CIA’s Charlie Wilson file in the form of documents from the CREST database show that Wilson met regularly with both the director and the deputy director of the CIA and received private briefings not available to other members of the House committees. When Bill Casey died of a brain tumour, his replacement William Webster soon had a luncheon with Charlie, to maintain and continue the relationship. Wilson was very important to the CIA, that much is clear despite the many redactions in the documents.
As I say, earlier drafts of the script suggest that Aaron Sorkin had read George Crile’s book in detail and wanted to tell a somewhat critical, or at least reflective story, but I feel something much more powerful could have been done with this film. It could have been made as a thriller-comedy, not unlike Dr Strangelove, which is both absurd and has a sense of looming tragedy. But instead we got the whitebread, cut the crusts off version which relies almost entirely on the performances of Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman to charm the audience. Even if we disregard the CIA’s involvement in the movie, this was a missed opportunity to tell a powerful and provocative story.
Since we’re taking these three films in the reverse order of the historical events that they portray, the next one I want to talk about is The Post, the 2017 movie about the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post.
I have a lot of problems with this movie, not least Meryl Streep’s performance as the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham. The film goes to great lengths to portray her as somehow suffering the brunt of sexism, when in reality the only reason she became the publisher of the newspaper is because she inherited it. She’d never had a job before, she wasn’t a women who had worked her way up through the ranks of the newspaper business and made it to the top through talent and determination, it all just landed in her lap. So I’m not surprised that the men on the board didn’t take her seriously – they had no reason to. If she’d been a man, they still wouldn’t have had any reason to. I’m all in favour of feminist film-making, but this isn’t a feminist story, it’s a story of an upper class woman who was simply handed the keys to the castle. I’m not sure why anyone should sympathise with that.
Then there’s the story the film tells, which almost entirely ignores the fact that it was the New York Times who first published the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post then jumped on the bandwagon because they didn’t want to be left out. The film also minimises the role of Daniel Ellsberg, and almost entirely leaves out the role of others who participated in the leak. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Pentagon Papers were a DOD study of the Vietnam war, and contained numerous instances where the military and the White House were simply deceiving the public and trying to avoid a humiliating defeat, rather than actually accomplish anything. Sections of the report were leaked by a group of people including Ellsberg, initially to the New York Times and then to other papers including the Washington Post. I have my doubts about Ellsberg and exactly why he went from a covert operative and RAND corporation analyst to an anti-war activist, so if you want to explore all that you can check out my episode on the Pentagon Papers.
Nonetheless, Ellsberg did leak the papers, and others did too, but The Post is almost entirely a story about people inside the Washington Post, not about the papers, or Vietnam, or lying politicians, or whistleblowers. The point of the film appears to be to heroise the US news media, and the Washington Post especially. Much like Shock and Awe, the Rob Reiner movie about the media response to the White House conspiracy theories around Iraq’s WMD and Saddam’s non-existent ties to Al Qaeda, which does the same thing. Instead of being a hard-hitting film about lying bastard politicians and the astonishing cynicism of government officials, it’s a story about how great journalists are.
Spielberg basically admitted as much, that he made the film because he felt it was timely due to the parallels between Trump and Nixon and their attacks on the news media. It was only a matter of about 9 months between when he first read the script and when the film premiered.
In fact, when you explore the production history of The Post you find that it was written by a young screenwriter who had never written a feature film before, and that really shows because the screenplay is poorly structured, the characters are weakly drawn, and the story overlooks almost all the real history in favour of championing a few people at one newspaper. The whole thing was rushed out to try to capitalise on Washington Post-reading liberals and their hatred for Trump.
But the reality is that American news media is fucking terrible. American journalists are, by and large, fucking awful at their jobs. American newspaper editors are cowardly, rich assholes, not noble public servants who make brave decisions for the public good. And while The Post did well both critically and commercially, it was almost instantly forgotten because it’s such a forgettable movie whose sole purpose is to make American liberals who consume American liberal news media feel good about themselves.
Just for a quick comparison, I recently watched the Showtime TV series The Loudest Voice, all about the founder of Fox News Roger Ailes. It was excellent, precisely because it sought to reach beyond merely playing to pre-existing feelings and prejudices and had a lot more to say than just ‘conservative president bad, liberal media good’. It took a very critical approach towards Fox, and in the later episodes towards Trump as well, but it did so with intelligence and subtlety. Whereas The Post comes off as what it is – a rushed, shallow, sophomoric retelling of events designed to flatter the preconceptions of shallow people who couldn’t get over losing the election of 2016 and wanted to be coddled and told they were right all along.
So what does all this have to do with Tom Hanks and the CIA? In The Post Hanks played Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief at the Washington Post, and Bradlee was a CIA asset. He was also Steven Spielberg’s neighbour for years.
Naturally, the CIA aren’t mentioned in The Post, despite their crucial role in the Vietnam war, and the only nods the film makes towards the cosy relationship between the government and the press are historical, such as when Katherine Graham accuses Bradley of being a stooge for the Kennedys.
Later in the story, Bradlee goes off on a rant about how the press can’t be close to politicians any more because Nixon is just too evil. As though it’s all fine for newspaper editors to be friends with leaders like Obama or JFK, and ignore their crimes and corruption, but when it’s someone like Nixon or Trump that’s when they have a democratic duty. Pure bias, pure selective thinking, pure bullshit. If anything, the opposite is true – it’s when a candidate from your part of the political spectrum gets into office that the role of news media should be to hold them to their word, insist they do the things they said they’d do in order to get elected, and not do the opposite now they’re in office.
But of course, that would involve a news media that genuinely believed in democracy, not in their mob winning out over the other mob, and would involve journalists and editors who actually cared about their work.
This is one of the many reasons I don’t talk about politics much – I have almost entirely lost interest in politicians, and I don’t believe they have the power that the media makes out they have. It is the permanent centres of power that trouble me, and motivate me to do something, not the circus of candidates and parties.
Getting back to Ben Bradlee – when I say he was a CIA asset, this isn’t even controversial. According to his obituary in The Guardian:
He taught courses on truth at Harvard and Georgetown universities, and in his autobiography, A Good Life (1995), described himself as “instinctively pro-sunshine, against closed doors, pro-let-it-all-hang-out, and anti-smoke-filled rooms. I believe that truth sets man free.”
It was a curious stance for someone who spent many years undercover as a counter-espionage informant, a government propagandist, and unofficial asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. It started publicly enough with his Pacific war posting as a navy destroyer intelligence officer. Thereafter it became much more more clandestine.
Even the quote from Bradlee autobiography – ‘I believe that truth sets man free’ is an allusion to the CIA. When the CIA’s new headquarters were opened, director Allen Dulles gave a speech at the dedication including a biblical quote, ‘And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. Dulles then insisted this be inscribed in stone in the lobby of the new building.
As to Bradlee – he spent WW2 as a communications officer in naval intelligence, getting his first major reporting gig in 1951 as a press attaché to the US embassy in Paris. The following year he joined the US Information and Education Exchange (later the USIA, US Information Agency), a propaganda unit within the embassy that worked closely with the CIA. According to a Justice Department memo that surfaced during the trial of the Rosenbergs, two Americans convicted of spying for the Soviets in the early 50s, ‘Bradlee promulgated CIA-directed European propaganda urging the controversial execution of the convicted American spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’.
In 1957, having officially left government service and while working for Newsweek, Bradlee interviewed members of the FLN. These were Algerian insurgents who were rebelling against the French government (a government with whom the US and CIA did not see eye to eye). According to Deborah Davis, who later wrote a biography of Washington Post proprietor Katherine Graham, the interviews had all the ‘earmarks of an intelligence operation’. As a consequence of the interviews Bradlee was forced to leave France.
The CIA’s CREST database includes media coverage of Bradlee’s expulsion, as well as articles he wrote on the Rosenbergs. It also includes a number of internal documents on Bradlee, and letters between him and several directors of the CIA, though it appears he got along better with Stansfield Turner than he did with Bill Casey.
Perhaps the most revealing document is a 1961 information memo to the director from his assistant Stanley J Grogan. It notes that Ben Bradlee had been appointed as Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, though it includes no further information on Bradlee, showing how he was already well known to the Agency’s upper ranks. It then details developments on a Newsweek story that was in the works, and goes into such detail that the information could only have been furnished by someone within the office who was working on or editing the story. The implication is that Bradlee told the CIA about how the story was developing, which was a profile of the CIA director and an appraisal of the Agency. Thus, it seems Bradlee’s unofficial asset status extended to warning the CIA of a potentially critical story ahead of time. I’ve been unable to find this story in the CREST database, so I’m not sure if it was ever published.
Another connection between Bradlee and the CIA from the 60s – again, after he had officially left government work – concerns the case of Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was married to CIA operative Cord Meyer. After their divorce in 1958, Mary started up an affair with JFK, which apparently continued into his time as president. On October 12th 1964 – about a year after JFK was killed – Mary was shot dead on a canal towpath near Washington DC. The man arrested and prosecuted for her murder – a black guy called Ray Crump who was found in the area 40 minutes later – was acquitted.
What’s especially interesting about this case is that like Marilyn Monroe, Mary kept a diary detailing her affair with JFK, among other things. In Bradlee’s 1995 autobiography he recounts how on the night of Mary’s murder, a friend of Mary’s called his house looking for James Jesus Angleton – the CIA’s head of counterintelligence. Bradlee and Angleton were friends, and Angleton was there that night, so the friend told Bradlee, Angleton and Bradlee’s wife Tony – who was Mary’s sister – about the diary. The following day the Bradlees went round to Mary’s art studio with the intention of breaking in and stealing the diary, and when they arrived they found Angleton picking the lock. They found and read the diary, and decided to withhold it from public view after confirming that it did detail the affair between Mary and JFK.
Not only did Bradlee never publish anything about this at the time – least of all Angleton breaking and entering the home of a recently murdered woman in order to steal her diary – this also contradicts what he said in court, under oath, at Ray Crump’s trial. So much for ‘the truth shall set you free’.
Obviously, The Post doesn’t cover this period of Bradlee’s life so I have no problem with them not covering any of these events, though someone really should make a long form TV drama about all of these people. My problem with the film, and with Tom Hanks’ performance, is that it sets Bradlee up as the most committed truthteller in truthtown, Truthsville, Washington DC. Thus, it also sets up the Washington Post – which has become the CIA’s favourite newspaper – as some sort of responsible, antagonistic paper who don’t care who they piss off as long as they get to the truth.
Despite Bradlee repeatedly confessing to his CIA connections in his own autobiography, the writers and producers of this movie cast him in a singularly heroic light which is utterly one-dimensional. Again, I’m not saying they should have made the film about evil Ben Bradlee, the editor-spy. But a degree of complexity, and at least some knowledge of who he really was, wouldn’t go amiss. One of the reasons people think the Washington Post is a credible newspaper and that they should take stories based on anonymous tips from CIA officials seriously, is because there has never been a major film or TV series about the CIA’s infiltration of the news media. Even though their own documents from the early 90s say they had people in every major newsroom in the country.
Operation Mockingbird: The B-Movie. Who wouldn’t want to see that? Obviously you’d have to abbreviate it to just ‘Mockingbird’ because single-word titles are easier to fit on the poster, but still.
Bridge of Spies
The final film I want to discuss in detail is Bridge of Spies, another historical drama, also directed by Steven Spielberg, also starring Tom Hanks as a CIA asset. It’s a film that divides opinion – some people really enjoyed it, some people found it boring as hell. Honestly, my response was that it has some very intriguing and compelling parts, and some boring as hell parts. Certainly, Spielberg lost his touch years ago, and none of his more recent films have had the magic of Jaws or Jurassic Park or the Indiana Jones trilogy. That fourth Indiana Jones movie that no one asked for and no one enjoyed was particularly bad.
Bridge of Spies tells the story of James Donovan, a lawyer hired to defend Rudolf Abel, a man accused of being a spy for the Soviets. Abel was subject to a show trial – the judge was openly going for a guilty verdict, ignored the fact the FBI searched Abel’s apartment and found all the evidence without a search warrant – the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Now, Abel was guilty, there’s little doubt about that, but he still should have been accorded all the rights and protections of due process.
However, unlike the Rosenbergs, Abel wasn’t executed, in part because Donovan lobbied hard against the death penalty, saying that he should be kept alive so that he could be used as collateral should an American spy be caught by the Soviets. Which is exactly what happened. In May 1960 Francis Gary Powers – a former Air Force pilot working for the CIA – was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, taking photographs. He was captured, given a show trial, and convicted of espionage.
So the CIA asked James Donovan to negotiate an exchange – Powers for Abel, and the rest of the film is devoted to that process. I quite enjoyed Mark Rylance’s performance as Abel, who seems unworried by everything he’s going through, and has quite a whimsical approach to all these Cold War shenanigans. I also liked the recreation of early 1960s Berlin, which is where the negotiations over the spy exchange took place. Putting this fairly well to-do American lawyer in Cold War Berlin has a nice fish out of water quality to it, and while the film does drag and meander its way through the second half, there were aspects that kept me watching.
Nonetheless, the film is pure propaganda. They constantly reiterate how the Soviets won’t acknowledge Abel as a spy, and the closing caption notes that they never acknowledged him as a spy. But when it comes to Gary Powers, they keep calling him a pilot, or simply ‘our guy’ or ‘one of ours’. Powers was just as much of a spy as Abel was, but both sides avoid this simple truth. If you read summaries and reviews of Bridge of Spies they follow suit – they refer to the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Gary Powers. But the U-2 is a spy aircraft, that is its sole purpose, and a very important one at that time, because this was before the CIA’s spy satellite program got going.
So, both men were spies but the film only highlights how those evil Russians won’t admit their spy is a spy, while referring to the American spy as a mere pilot. As though he was just going for a joyride over those Soviet military installations, with no hostile intent whatsoever.
Perhaps more importantly, the film also keeps repeating that Donovan is not working for the US government, and especially not the CIA. Even though it was Allen Dulles who asked him to go to Berlin to negotiate for the release of a CIA spy. Exactly who this doublespeak is supposed to fool, I’m not sure, but this wasn’t Donovan’s first or last work for US intelligence.
During WW2 Donovan worked for the OSS, and even became their general counsel. He was the chief lawyer for the predecessor to the CIA. He also worked as a diplomatic negotiator for them, and by most accounts he was a talented diplomat, and it is clearly this experience that led the CIA to recruit him to negotiate the Powers-Abel exchange. They didn’t just pick him because he was Abel’s lawyer, that was irrelevant to his ability to complete the task. It was his history as a negotiator and lawyer for the OSS that led the CIA to choose him, but the film skips over that entirely.
After the Abel-Powers mission the CIA kept him on their books, and Donovan carried out negotiations with the Cuban Castro government for the release of over a thousand members of the CIA-created brigade 2506, who had invaded at the Bay of Pigs. Eventually Donovan also negotiated the release of thousands of Cuban prisoners, in exchange for tens of millions of dollars in food and medicines.
The film mentions the Cuban operation, and uses it to further heroise Donovan, but what it leaves out is that on both the Berlin and Cuban missions Donovan was working alongside a CIA lawyer, Milan Miskovsky, and that Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for his service.
If you’re thinking that it’s highly unusual for the CIA to award medals to civilians, that’s because it is. Donovan is the only non-CIA officer to have received this medal, or at least the only one to have been publicly acknowledged. And note, this isn’t the same medal that was given to Charlie Wilson at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, that was the Intelligence Medal of Merit, which was also given to John Chambers, the special effects artist who worked on the Argo operation.
Now, to my knowledge there was no government support on The Post, but Bridge of Spies got help from the DOD, specifically the US Air Force. I’m not sure if the CIA had any input on the film, or whether this airbrushing of history and the pretence that Donovan wasn’t a CIA asset came from the writers and director. Nonetheless, Donovan was an asset, that much is clear from the real, publicly-acknowledged history of these events.
Also, we should note that Gregory Peck tried to make a movie about Donovan in the mid-60s, but it never got made due to the political climate, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and amid high tensions with the Soviet Union.
This is important, I think, because this is another example of a story where the two sides in the Cold War managed to come together and negotiate a peaceful settlement through diplomacy, through just talking and trying to come to an agreement. A film about this could have served as a beacon for a different, less fearful approach to the Cold War, which in turn could have helped end the Cold War much earlier.
I say ‘another example’ because this reminded me of a film about the Military Liaison Missions, essentially a military intelligence exchange between the major NATO nations and the Soviet Union. They allowed for a small number of military intelligence personnel to be allowed into the other side’s territory, for monitoring purposes and to improve relations between the two sides. The producers approached the DOD, but were rejected because the DOD were unwilling to work on any project where these missions were a central part of the story, and the film was never made. So that’s two films offering a less fearful and mutually hostile vision of the Cold War that we never got to see.
Why Does all This Matter?
Tom Hanks is perhaps the perfect star to choose for these rebranding efforts, whether it’s to hide the CIA’s complicity in the growth of Al Qaeda, and therefore their responsibility for the WTC bombing and other attacks, or to reboot the American news media as a fine, democratically responsible institution, or simply to make Russians look bad and Americans look like even-tempered diplomats and the adults in the room.
Why? Because everyone loves Tom Hanks. I mean, obviously not everyone, because he is still subject to the odd crackpot rumour about being arrested for molesting children, and he did publicly announce his desire for his blood to help develop vaccines against the novel coronavirus, which I found a bit weird. Not the desire to help, that’s all fine, but him talking about it publicly rubbed me the wrong way.
So if you do want to have instant rapport with your audience, in order to easily sell them on false narratives about real life events, if you do want to put a charming face on your bastardisations of history, Tom Hanks is clearly your man. For over three decades he’s been the go-to guy when film-makers want to tell stories about American men remaining noble at times of extreme pressure. He is the ideal frontman for propaganda, whether that propaganda is coming from the DOD, CIA, FBI, or just from Hollywood itself, as in the case of The Post.
The reason why these three films matter in particular is that each one goes miles out of its way, and miles away from the true story, to avoid any notion of these men being assets of the CIA, and hence they downplay the central role of the CIA in the recent history of America, and the world.
Most people have astonishing ignorance about the history of their own countries, let alone that of other countries. As a result, they don’t really understand how their countries operate, how things really work. This is why you can get puff pieces by so-called journalists based on interviews with former CIA directors saying the CIA has given up on interfering in elections, so it’s only those nasty Ruskies who do things like that. The reality is that you can read documents published by Wikileaks and other outfits about the CIA interfering in French elections as recently as five years ago, let alone events like the coup in Ukraine.
So it’s a vicious cycle – public ignorance means that journalists can get away with writing this bullshit, which in turns means that the CIA can pretend it doesn’t do things that it actually does, granting them more power to operate in the shadows and thus foster more ignorance and stupid attitudes and beliefs. Hollywood telling stories about CIA assets without ever telling the audience that their protagonist is a CIA asset, contributes to this ignorance and allows organisations like the CIA to continue growing their power without people realising it, which in turns helps the CIA grow their power.
And that is the secret world of Tom Hanks.