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What connects Kris Kristofferson, Willem Dafoe, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman? They have all starred in Iran-Contra themed movies. In this episode we take another journey through the cinema of Iran-Contra, looking at films both old and new. Using real events as our guide we try to understand how film makers responded to one of the world’s largest black operations. We ask whether films like this make such operations harder for governments to carry out, and why Iran-Contra underwent a cultural rebirth in the 2010s.

When the CIA gets caught arming fascist terrorists – sorry, central American freedom fighters – and smuggling drugs into the US – sorry, accidentally colluding with drugs traffickers who also happen to be fascist terrorists/central American freedom fighters – how did the culture industries react?

Hopefully, many of you remember ClandesTime 181 – The Cinema of Iran-Contra, where we looked at a string of films about the Iran-Contra conspiracy. Since some of you may not, let’s start with a quick summary of what we looked at in that episode and what we learned.

In 1979 the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza family who had ruled Nicaragua since the 1930s. When Reagan got into the White House he brought with him the so-called Reagan doctrine, of supporting opponents to leftist, communist and Soviet-related governments rather than committing US troops. This is partly Vietnam Syndrome, the feeling post-Vietnam that the US public did not have the appetite for large-scale, conventional wars. Until the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the Reagan doctrine prevailed, of using military and CIA black ops to fund and equip the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua and other counter-revolutionaries and unconventional forces.

The US congress was initially in favour of the Contra operation but rapidly started limiting the funding being allocated for it before abolishing that funding entirely. This led to Marine Colonel Oliver North (along with Richard Secord and others) establishing ‘the Enterprise’, a multi-stringed covert effort to continue to raise money for the Contras. This included asking the Saudis to provide money, siphoning off funds raised from selling weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and colluding with drugs traffickers (such as the Contras themselves).

In episode 181 we looked at several movies – The Man With One Red Shoe, Extreme Prejudice, Above the Law, The Presidio, The Last of the Finest, Kill the Messenger and American Made, all of which depict some part of this fairly elaborate conspiracy, one of the largest black operations ever carried out. We also referenced two films about Iran-Contra that were killed by the government, one by the CIA and one by the DOD.

The pattern we established is that there was an attempt in some films in the 80s and early 90s to portray some of the realities of Iran-Contra and related Central American operations, but also an attempt to counter this in government-supported movies. If we compare Above the Law and The Presidio, the former is a moody, emotional exploration of things that really happened, albeit somewhat dramatised and fictionalised, whereas in The Presidio it’s all metaphorical – there are no drugs and weapons, the smuggling through the military base on the West Coast is of diamonds, not drugs. This is partly because of the US military influence on the script, which diluted various elements of the story before approving production support.

In episode 182 we also looked at Clear and Present Danger, which came out in 1994, and the lengthy script discussions with the military, State Department, FBI, CIA, DEA and others. In essence, the original script depicted a ‘superblack’ operation sanctioned by a racist President, run by a fascistic National Security Advisor and a cabal within the CIA. Following many rewrites the President was made not-racist, authorises the initial operation but doesn’t oversee it, and the CIA cabal is reduced to one Deputy Director for Operations, and there is no wider conflict between different branches of the Agency. Nonetheless, the basic premise remained the same – the US government is engaging in very black operations to take down the drug cartels and stem the flow of lovely, lovely drugs into the USA. That is to say, it is an inversion of Iran-Contra, whereby those same agencies were enabling and facilitating the flow of lovely, lovely drugs into the USA in order to fund very black operations.

Towards the end of episode 181 we hit on Kill the Messenger, the biopic of Gary Webb, one of the key journalists who exposed large parts of this story and the CIA’s role in creating the crack epidemic. He was initially praised, before the Agency destroyed his public reputation and encouraged their assets in newsrooms across the country to attack his work and ruin his life. The film came out in 2014 and despite a crappy marketing and distribution deal is recognised as one of the best movies of that decade. Again, the industry responded with another antidote film, American Made, a largely inaccurate biopic of Barry Seal, a pilot who shipped drugs and weapons around the Americas as part of these operations. It depicts the whole thing as being about crazy Barry and his wild antics, and distances the CIA from responsibility for the drugs side of the deal.

That’s where we got to in episodes 181 and 182, and since then more productions have come out, most obviously season one of The Recruit, the Netflix series about the CIA lawyer. It was produced by Doug Liman, who made American Made and was deeply involved in the original Jason Bourne trilogy. Doug Liman’s father, it bears repeating, was the lawyer who conducted most of the questioning at the Iran-Contra hearings. He was literally the guy asking Oliver North and others about all this and listening to them say they couldn’t remember anything. As such, it was very interesting to hear our young CIA lawyer in The Recruit talking about how Iran-Contra was deliberately overcomplicated so that no one could get their head around it all and so there was no accountability.

There have also been new documentaries such as The Last Narc in 2020, which deals with the Mexico – Kiki Camarena angle to all this, and The Invisible Pilot in 2022, an HBO documentary series about Gary Betzner that got very little attention. On top of this, a listener who proved extremely helpful on episode 181 has been pushing me to do a sequel episode looking at several other films we’ve been able to identify (mostly him identifying them, along with suggestions from other listeners, to be honest). These films also fit in this sub-genre, both from the 80s and 90s and more recently, as Iran-Contra has somehow become relevant again to the pop culture machine.

When I first started setting up Spy Culture in late 2012 one of the things I always had in mind was looking at the pop culture of black operations and trying to identify long-term dynamics in the industries. This is a topic we’ve returned to time and again on this podcast, and in my other work, whether it’s specific operations or the broader question of the relationship between covert ops and the government-Hollywood connection.

The first episode I did on the cinema of Iran-Contra is one of my all time favourites, partly because the films are so provocative and quite varied, but also because no one else is doing this, taking this approach to movies and TV, and yet quite a lot of people are interested in the results. Ultimately, state-sponsored films that deal with these topics are, themselves, black operations because most people aren’t aware of the government involvement, and those that are don’t often realise the influence these agencies have over the finished product. Hence, they are black propaganda in the dictionary sense of the word. Whereas films made without assistance from those agencies that cover the same areas are very different in scope and perspective, while superficially being quite similar (in that they are mostly action thrillers with a crime or conspiracy dimension).

In Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1988, Guy Debord reflected (in fairly obtuse language, I will admit) on his book published 20 years earlier. He wrote:

Most often these accelerated media particles pursue their own careers in the glow of statutorily guaranteed admiration. But it sometimes happens that the transition to the media provides the cover for several different enterprises, officially independent but in fact secretly linked by various ad hoc networks. With the result that occasionally the social division of labor, along with the readily foreseeable unity of its application, reappears in quite new forms: for example, one can now publish a novel in order to arrange an assassination. Such picturesque examples also go to show that one should never trust someone because of their job. Yet the highest ambition of the integrated spectacle is still to turn secret agents into revolutionaries, and revolutionaries into secret agents.

We’re not going to break down this paragraph but I do want to highlight one question – he says you can publish a novel in order to cause an assassination. Whether he’s talking about coded messages by secret agencies and organisations or books that provoked murders, such as Catcher in the Rye, or is talking about both at once, I am not entirely sure. But it makes me ask, if you can normalise black operations through cinema (as with the state-sponsored variety) can you denormalise those same operations through a different kind of cinema?

I believe the answer is yes, and hence counterculture films such as those that take a more honest look at Iran-Contra, are important not just as movies, but as challenges to the power of the government-assisted narratives. And if those narratives are part of the overall power dynamic which enables these black operations to take place, which they are, then films challenging or running counter to that are subverting that power dynamic and thus disabling these black operations, or at least making them somewhat harder to get away with.

And so we’re going to look at another batch of films that in some way depict Iran-Contra and related operations and consider them in light of what Debord wrote, and in the context of the wider timeline of a renaissance in this theme in recent years.

Flashpoint (1984)

As with the first episode our selection for today is divided into two halves – films made during the 1980s and early 1990s, while the conspiracy was taking place and then the scandal unfolded – and films made in the 2010s when this subject became popular again. We are also going to cheat and look at one TV mini-series that is somewhat related.

Taking these movies in chronological order also means taking the best one first, contrary to the usual way we do things on this podcast. But, needs must so I’m breaking my usual habit. Flashpoint (from 1984) stars Kris Kristofferson as a Customs and Border Protection officer who finds a body in the desert alongside a suitcase of cash. He sets out to find the culprits.

I will say, it is nice to watch a film where the male lead is so slender, compared not just to a lot of 1980s action movies but also the modern tendency to cast guys shaped like Vin Diesel. As a barrel-chested rugby player type this has nothing to do with wanting representation for myself, simply to note that if they cast this character today – an ex Green Beret now working for CBP – he’d look very different to Kristofferson.

As he and his partner delve into the dead body and the money, they find out that the cash is from 1962 and 1963, over 20 years prior. Kris goes to the library to flick through some newspaper archives, see if he can find a bank robbery from around that time that would explain the source of the money. He finds nothing, but does read a number of stories about the JFK assassination in November 1963.

So, this is a film about links between the Kennedy assassination and Iran-Contra. How very Peter Dale Scott. While this is never mentioned in Flashpoint, it reminds me of Operation 40, the CIA black operation using Cuban exiles trained to stage a coup following the Bay of Pigs invasion. The idea was that they would assassinate senior government and military officials in the wake of the invasion, and seize control of the Cuban government. This never happened, because the invasion failed, so the group became part of Mongoose, running sabotage and other raids into Cuba. The group continued informally for years and were disbanded in 1970 when a plane they were using crashed in California and was apparently found to have heroin and cocaine on board.

Peter Dale Scott and others have observed how many of the people who worked on Operation 40 in the early 60s turn up in subsequent major events, whether it be Frank Sturgis and Watergate or Howard Hunt and both Watergate and potentially the JFK assassination, or Barry Seal, the CIA pilot who smuggled weapons and drugs as part of Iran-Contra. Some even say that Porter Goss, who became CIA director after 9/11 (and was meeting with ISI General Mahmoud Ahmed on the morning of the attacks) goes all the way back to Operation 40, and it seems George HW Bush was also linked in.

This is the ‘deep politics’ network that became simplified into the ‘deep state’ concept, a term I find quite irritating, but it seems the makers of Flashpoint had some idea about all of this. Or possibly made up something that later turned out to be (almost) right on the money.

I’m getting ahead of myself. When Kris and his partner get back to the office they find that the surveillance operation they’d been preparing, using GPS sensors planted out in the desert, has been taken over by federal agents. They are led by the ‘fixer’ Carson, played by Kurtwood Smith a.k.a. Clarence Boddicker from Robocop, a.k.a. the greatest movie villain of all time.

The feds and the locals prepare their drugs bust – a plane is landing out in the desert and dropping off what they believe are drugs shipments, and they plan to bust the plane, the vehicle making the pick up and the lovely drugs. When they get into position, Carson has a talk with Bobby Logan (Kris Kristofferson) which heavily implies Carson is an intelligence operative at a high level, and that he’s in the business of keeping the military-industrial complex and security state alive and well.

When the plane and the vehicle turn up, Carson fires into the air, blowing their cover and allowing the smugglers to escape. He then tries to kill Logan’s partner, before taking over control of the CBP station where they work. There are a bunch of twists and turns while I won’t spoil because they are quite compelling, before a showdown out in the desert where Logan kills Carson and his co-conspirators. There is a reveal at the very end of the movie about the JFK assassination which I also won’t spoil, but it ties everything off (perhaps a tad conveniently for such a mysterious movie up until that point).

Whatever the imperfections of Flashpoint, and it certainly received some criticism, I feel it captures the tone of what it feels like to investigate an ongoing black operation, and had me wanting to know what was coming next without being tempted to second-guess the movie. Somehow, this quite limited setting and story ties together specifics events and larger ideas without ever being preachy or obvious about it.

The Mighty Quinn (1989)

Two of the films I want to talk about, The Mighty Quinn and Company Business, were not that easy to find. While they are available for one-off purchase from streaming services I couldn’t find either on my usual free movie sites. They are both on Tubi, which is only available in America and which uses an unusual streaming protocol which is harder to crack.

So, I had to switch my VPN over to pretend I was in New York, re-access the films on Tubi and then work through my collection of video player hacking software to download copies of them. I’m not complaining – I still got the movies for free, I just wanted you all to know how this isn’t as easy as it looks sometimes and that copyright theft is not as straightforward as it once was. Back in the glory days you could find DVD rips of almost any film imaginable on Stage6 and then Stagevu, and they used the DivX player that had a download function built in. Today you have to install an assortment of cracked software tools to get the job done.

And don’t start any crap with me about my disrespect for copyright – given that the government that is most obsessed with enforcing copyright is also the exact same government that pulled all this Iran-Contra fuckery in the first place, I consider all of that a moot point.

In The Mighty Quinn, Denzel Washington is a police chief named Xavier Quinn, in an unidentified US territory in the Caribbean, i.e. the smuggling and offshore banking centre for the Americas. I say ‘unidentified’, but Denzel talks with a dodgy Jamaican accent and the film was shot in Jamaica. Anyhow, a rich hotelier is found murdered and the main suspect is Denzel’s friend, but he doesn’t believe it so he sets out to find the culprits.

This is a very pleasant film, not too serious, early Denzel offering some hints of the skillset that made him an A-lister, and the gorgeous Caribbean light in the sky. Denzel is somewhat of a black James Bond, years before anyone knew who Idris Elba was. The tone of the film is fairly light, the storytelling quite straightforward and mainstream, but the setting and the characters are quite unusual for a Hollywood movie. Caribbeans are typically secondary or tertiary characters, while the white guys in the light-coloured suits are the heroes, but in The Mighty Quinn this is fully inverted. There are also lots of beautiful women in brightly coloured dresses, and reggae and calypso and other music plays a prominent role.

So while this is another ‘guy investigating a murder stumbles onto larger conspiracy involving political power players and rich bastards’ story, it feels quite different and distinct. Plus it’s all about a CIA operation to smuggle money through Jamaica that has been stolen from the US Treasury (out of circulation $10,000 bills). The money is destined for anti-Communist revolutionaries in Latin America that the President wants to help but Congress won’t give him the money. So, it’s pretty obvious which particular scandal they’re referring to.

Like many of these movies, it is quite short at a little over 90 minutes and tells a nice, contained story set in a world you will quite happily inhabit for the whole of the run time. It is certainly one of the breezier, easier watches, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is based on a detective novel from 1971 which obviously doesn’t reference Iran-Contra, so it seems they wrote that in as the heart of the conspiracy when the film version was finally made nearly two decades later. This is another indication of one of the central premises of this episode – that film makers were trying to discuss Iran-Contra, trying to explore it, and in many places studios were letting them.

American Rampage (1989)

Another 1989 movie, very much of the B variety, is American Rampage. It’s the only one of these to have a female lead, Kary Jane in her only movie appearance as Samantha ‘Sam’ Rourke, an ex-San Francisco detective who teams up with an LAPD homicide detective to take down a heroin cartel operating in Los Angeles. Quick aside: this film also contains a character named Robert Axelrod, like the character in Billions.

We won’t spend too long on American Rampage – it has a cheesy, overbearing 80s synth soundtrack, looks like a TV movie, lots of narrow shots, very few wide angles, much more action than dialogue but the action is not very original. How and why this movie got released on blu-ray, I cannot be sure but at least I can now watch it in full HD. Not that it makes it any better.

The heroin distribution ring is being run by a guy called Matt Palmer, and we’re told just 6 minutes in that he’s ex-CIA. For no obvious reason we get an opening action sequence, then a lengthy slideshow presentation introducing all our characters and who they are and what they’re doing. I guess it saves time, leaves more space for cars and guns and fisticuffs, but it does mean that the Iran-Contra connection is less a twist or a discovery by our protagonists, as in the other films, and is simply stated as part of the premise.

Then again, this is a film where all of the characters are wafer thin stereotypes who state their motives and secret plans and intentions openly, so the audience is in no doubt who is who and what is what. Unfortunately, there’s not much behind this blatant exposition, so 11 minutes in they blow up the drug dealer come police informant that we’ve only just met. If you’re familiar with the expression ‘there’s nothing as overrated as a bad fuck and nothing as underrated as a good shit’, then this is a good shit of a movie. And it’s probably underrated, with only a 4.3 rating on IMDB when it’s at least a 4.5, if only for all the amusing continuity errors and guys in brightly coloured vests. Along with The Mighty Quinn, I would politely suggest American Rampage is the best-dressed of all of these.

We might want to knock off a point or two for the lack of ADR, additional dialogue recording. It seems to me that they used the audio from the scenes they shot and added an over-noisy sound bed to cover up the background and microphone hiss, rather than just recording the approximately 100 lines of dialogue in a day or two in a sound booth to get nice, clean audio. Perhaps they ran out of money, having spent it all on a gratuitous 50-second shot of a topless woman oiling herself up by the swimming pool. And several other topless women by the pool in subsequent shots.

Honestly, the best thing about American Rampage is that it’s short, 80 minutes end to end. I did quite enjoy how the boss of the two detectives keeps telling them to slow it down and calm it down, often after they’ve just shot up another location full of random goons, but they constantly ignore him. It’s very much a film where the boss keeps telling people ‘and that’s an order’, and that’s the signal for them to ignore orders and do whatever they like.

There is quite a long getting to know you scene in someone’s backyard, when they’re having a barbecue. I don’t know why this is in here since it fails to establish any backstory for our detectives, so they cut back to the topless lady by the pool. Then, we immediately get a bad guy scene they talk about Sam’s background, how her father worked for the military and found out that these CIA guys were ‘shipping more than papers through the diplomatic pouches’. So she’s following in his footsteps, but in much more murderous fashion. Then it cuts to a strip club.

After her first partner, who looks a little like Ray Perez from the Rampart scandal, is killed by a shotgun-wielding, heroin-weighing wrong-un, Sam is partnered up with a newer, whiter cop who used to be in the Army, and she immediately lets loose a little of her past.

Sam outlines how her father would talk about the CIA and the mob, before both of her parents were killed in a car bomb, ‘about six years ago, tomorrow’. This car bomb was allegedly the work of the Palestinians (which Palestinians?) but she doesn’t believe that. However, this car bombing question is never resolved, which begs the question of why they included it. I would chalk it down to simple bad writing but why mention the Palestinians? That seems like a deliberate choice, but why it was made I cannot say.

I’ll stop doing a blow by blow of American Rampage because I’m sure you get the impression – it has almost no tone because the scenes don’t flow together, the characters all say their lines without the slightest sincerity and the script rebounds between very on the nose and utterly generic conversation. The director, who I am not going to name because he doesn’t deserve the credit, has made over 180 of these things, mostly TV movies about vampires and monsters, including one called Cougar Cult about a group of witches who like to feast on young man meat. So, American Rampage is something of an exception in that it is somewhat based in the real world, and references real events. Though we should probably assume the other entries in his body of work have a similarly large number of naked women who do nothing except be naked, and use various lotions.

Company Business (1991)

Around a year after American Rampage and The Mighty Quinn we got Company Business. Kurtwood Smith is back, and despite being killed at the end of Flashpoint is somehow alive and well and still working for the CIA. I’m not kidding, his performance in this film is strikingly similar and he plays a senior guy in Agency operations.

Gene Hackman plays an ex-CIA operative who is called back in by Kurtwood for one last mission – to take a captured KGB mole to Berlin for a spy swap, to get back a U-2 pilot imprisoned in the Soviet Union since the 1960s. This is set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall but shortly before the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991. The Soviets also want $2 million in cash, which is being supplied by a Columbian drug cartel. Hackman gets the Russian and the money, goes to Berlin, the spy swap goes wrong and the rest of the movie is about them fleeing from the KGB and CIA. While it doesn’t start with a dead body, there is a suitcase full of cash and attempt to set out and find the culprits.

What does this have to do with Iran-Contra? The main storyline has no real connection, but the backgrounds of both Gene Hackman’s character and one of the CIA officers repeatedly reference Nicaragua and supplying the Contras. When our pair of spies on the run go to see an old Saudi arms dealer contact in Berlin, Hackman mentions he bought Stinger missiles off him for the Contras.

Likewise, the arms dealer himself proposes using the $2 million to buy weapons to send to the Contras, before remembering they have by now disbanded, and then coming up with a bunch of other hair-brained schemes, lamenting how his business has failed since the Cold War ended. When the CIA officers chasing our pair of runaways turn up at the Saudi’s house a short while later, one of them says he hasn’t seen the arms dealer since Nicaragua. And at one point Hackman says he can’t just hand himself in and go back to the United States, because he’ll end up like Oliver North but ‘without a chest full of medals’.

Now, the Saudi character is a Reel Bad Arab which might help explain a little something I noticed. The CIA seal (the real one) appears multiple times on the wall in the background of Kurtwood’s office at Langley. There’s no Langley shot or other confirmation of the Agency’s involvement, but it seems unlikely they’d have used it without the CIA’s permission. Ditto, the RAF’s German forces are credited at the end of Company Business, i.e. the British military, though the CIA are not credited.

What I’m driving at is that the core plot of the movie is a post-Cold War spy tale where the CIA don’t really do much wrong, the KGB are portrayed as evil, the only real link to the Agency’s murderous past is a dodgy Arab and ultimately our hero, Gene Hackman, is working for the CIA. All the Iran-Contra stuff is kept in the past, as background for the characters, memories of what they used to do, and we’re reminded that the Contras have now disbanded.

If anything, the message is that while all of this did happen, it was part of the Cold War and the Cold War is now over so we don’t have to worry about that any more. In reality, at the time this film was made the CIA were still supplying the mujahideen in Afghanistan. So, did they support Company Business? We know that the British military provided some help, and we know the CIA seal is fairly obvious if you keep your eyes open for this sort of thing – and it doesn’t have to be. It’s clear Kurtwood is working for the Agency, whether the seal is there or not. There’s also a curled-up CIA flag in the office too, another prop we’ve seen in several known CIA-supported productions.

If so, is this the first attempt at an antidote to the subversive Iran-Contra movies of the late 80s? Blame all the nasty stuff on the shifty Arab, remind people the KGB are still out there, but the Cold War is over so we’re no longer doing the dastardly shit like before, even if they are?

McBain (1991)

Not long after Company Business the film McBain was released, which stars Christopher Walken as the eponymous McBain, with Michael Ironside and Maria Conchita Alonso in major supporting roles. The latter two also appeared in Extreme Prejudice, which we looked at in episode 181.

McBain is essentially a poor man’s Clear and Present Danger, in that it didn’t get CIA and FBI and DOD support, but it did get help from the NYPD, the New York State Police and the New York Mayor’s and Governor’s Offices, as well as the Philippine military (the Army, Navy and constabulary are all credited). On a $16 million budget it took about half a million at the box office.

It’s also a Morrison’s Clear and Present Danger in terms of themes and perspective, because it’s all about an evil Columbian dictator who some guy called Santos (how original) is trying to overthrow. This fails, Santos is killed, so his sister goes to New York to find McBain, some ex-military guy who Santos helped during the Vietnam War. McBain puts together a team of other guys, they kill a bunch of drug dealers to raise money and then overthrow el Presidente in a violent coup.

We’re not going to discuss this one at any length because it’s a weak, annoying film which is pure white rescuer propaganda. Those useless Columbians can’t sort out their own country so they need us to go in there and fix the mess they’ve made, because we’re bigger, tougher, superior in every way. It’s pretty much a CIA fetish porno that hardly mentions the CIA.

It also reiterates the official Iran-Contra story, or at least the first official story, before it totally fell apart. Namely, that there are rebels fighting against Latin American dictatorship and while the CIA may have promised them things or helped them in some way, the President didn’t know anything about it and certainly wasn’t involved.

This revelation, coupled with McBain taking out drug dealers in order to help overthrow the evil dictatorship, is a crude but somewhat effective inversion of the real scandal. Just as Company Business acted as something of an antidote to the slower, more investigative thrillers from the 1980s, McBain acted as an antidote to the more action-centred films exploring Iran-Contra. The other weird thing is that this was predicted by the Simpsons, who invented the character of McBain (played by Reinier Wolfcastle) before this movie came out.

Deep Cover (1992)

The most stylistically innovative of the movies we’re looking at today is Deep Cover, starring Larry Fishburne as an undercover cop on a mission to infiltrate an international drug cartel shipping cocaine into Los Angeles (and the rest of the West coast). It was co-written by Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin, the latter of which you may remember created The Offer, the series about the making of The Godfather. He also wrote the novel for The Player, which he adapted into a screenplay he produced, about an ambitious studio executive who murders a screenwriter he believes is stalking him.

It took me a little while to settle into Deep Cover, because the style and tone is slightly off-kilter. It has a hip hop soundtrack, largely composed of songs put out by Death Row Records, but the visuals are taken from a 1950s detective noir – lots of shadowy German expressionist lighting, softly faded red fluorescent signs in the background. It also includes a heavy voice over that charts Larry’s descent into the criminal underbelly and his own personal descent into amorality: also very classic detective noir. Set against that is the very contemporary soundtrack and characterisation that’s more akin to a 1980s graphic novel than a conventional crime movie.

Once these elements sink in and you accept this somewhat surreal world with overly-sharpened characters, it’s a very intense watch. Larry going undercover is being run by the DEA, and he’s told to aim for the number 2 and 3 in the organisation because the top man, Hector Guzman, is a major Latin American politician, and hence too big to take down. Instead he’s targeting Felix Barbossa, the underboss, and Anton Gallegos, the politician’s nephew. He’s also looking into David Jason, a lawyer come drug trafficker played by Jeff Goldblum.

As Larry rises up the ranks of the organisation he gets busted, but David comes to his rescue in court and gets the case thrown out. The two join forces, and David reveals his plan to develop a synthetic cocaine that will be legal and highly profitable. Larry starts dealing more drugs to raise the money to develop the new product, which furthers his ability to penetrate the cartel hierarchy.

The first major problem is that Barbossa is crazy, a coked-up drug lord who beats people to death and forces people to participate in sadistic games where he injures them. This is resolved when Larry figures out that Barbossa is a police informant, and that’s how his own DEA handler always knows what’s going on and who did what, including Larry murdering a rival dealer. As Larry, Barbossa, David and their beautiful money-laundering sidekick flee a police bust in a limousine, Jeff Goldblum shoots Barbossa in both hands then forces him to jump out of the moving car, even shooting him in the ass to make sure. Barbossa is then, rather comically, run over by a speeding police car.

This draws Barbossa’s boss, Gallegos, out of the shadows and Larry goes to his handler to tell him they can bust their main target, but is told to back off and that he’s violated direct orders. Larry figures out that this is all about the politics of drugs, and that our politician is now friendly with the State Department and so it’s hands off his organisation.

This isn’t blow for blow what happened with Iran-Contra but Larry’s line about this guy being the ‘new Noriega’, who fights communism on behalf of the US in exchange for them letting him make many millions shipping drugs into the American market is right on the money. The bigger picture around the Contra operation includes Panama and the civil war in El Salvador, and in all three countries the geopolitics were all about drugs. Whether they produced the drugs in central America or imported them from down South, the ability to move them into the world’s biggest single nation economy was extremely lucrative.

Hence, the CIA and DEA and in some cases local police forces and other agencies consciously allowing this to happen, and in some cases outright facilitating it. This would not have happened repeatedly, whether we’re talking El Salvador, Panama or Nicaragua, if the geopolitics (and macroeconomics) of the drug trade weren’t being used as a tool of power by the US government.

On top of this, the various deals between branches of the US government – the Pentagon, CIA, State Department, DEA and so on – and Noriega’s government allowed for intelligence gathering. Cuba did a lot of its financial business through Panama, and the CIA used the country as a listening post to spy on Nicaragua, El Salvador and the rest.

I also like how in this scene Larry is ashamed, even shocked, that he’s being used as a tool in this game, selling those drugs to ‘niggers and spics’ on behalf of this covert government action. While quite a lot of people die in this film, the only death that weighs heavily on the audience is that of a drug addicted neighbour of Larry’s, a woman with a young child. Ditto, the heaviest dialogue in the film is when Larry’s handler describes the suffering of crack babies, children born with drug addiction and disabilities. He’s doing this to motivate and manipulate Larry, but still, he’s right.

Thus, while Deep Cover isn’t as directly about Iran-Contra as some of the other examples, it cuts deep and aims at high institutions. Also, it articulates the consequences for ordinary people in American cities more explicitly, which helps keep this fairly chaotic story founded in the real world and real people.

White Sands (1992)

Also from 1992 we got White Sands, which has the best cast of any film in this particular sub-genre. Willem Dafoe plays a bored small town sheriff’s deputy who finds a body in the desert alongside a suitcase full of cash. You’ve guessed it – he sets out to find the culprits. He assumes the dead guy’s identity, in the hope of making his way into the man’s world and thus figuring out what happened to him, and stumbles into an FBI operation being run by Samuel L Jackson, an arms dealer played by Mickey Rourke and an underworld deal-broker played by Mary Elizabeth Manstrantonio. While she isn’t quite as good as Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mary Elizabeth Manstrantonio has to be the second best Mary Elizabeth in Hollywood.

White Sands didn’t do especially well with reviewers (as a lot of these movies didn’t) and I do accept that the characters all have a motivation problem, in that it isn’t clear why they’re doing what they’re doing. The plot is slightly overstuffed for a 90 minute movie and the characters are underwritten, rescued and elevated by such an excellent cast putting in the yards. Despite all this, I loved it because it starts fairly slow and gets faster as the story unfolds and everyone’s plans unravel, to a point where no one is in control. Exemplifying this, Samuel L Jackson’s character starts out as cool and controlled but as his off the books FBI investigation comes apart at the seams, so does he, getting more deranged as the film builds to its conclusion.

The plot is a little tricky to summarise because there’s too much of it, but basically Dafoe assumes Bob Spencer’s identity and takes the suitcase with half a million in cash with him. This is actually FBI money, which Jackson borrowed as part of his investigation, and Dafoe and Rourke use it to buy weapons – guns, explosives, even shoulder-mounted point-and-shoot Stinger missiles. The guys selling the weapons rip off Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe, demanding more money, so they got to Mary Elizabeth to see if she can cover the shortfall. There’s also an FBI internal affairs investigation going on simultaneously looking into all of this, adding to the jeopardy.

It turns out that the weapons are for ‘freedom fighters’ and that Mickey Rourke is working for the C-fuckin-IA and needs the deal to go through to ensure the survival of the military-industrial complex.

Mickey executes the FBI internal affairs guys, but they still need to get the money together to make the deal. Dafoe kidnaps Sam Jackson and handcuffs him to a pipe in an abandoned building, before telling him that Lennox, Mickey Rourke’s character, is working for the CIA. Naturally, Jackson decides enough is enough, he’s had it with this motherfucking undercover cop bumbling around inside his motherfucking off the books FBI investigation into an arms deal that’s turned out to be a motherfucking CIA black operation. And we get one of the earliest ‘Samuel L Jackson completely loses his shit’ scenes.

White Sands was made with a little government support – Chief John Danko of the New Mexico State Police, the New Mexico Film Commission, the Mayor of Santa Fe and others are all credited, but no federal agencies. The FBI, CIA, military, CBP and the rest had nothing to do with White Sands, hence the freedom to have Mickey Rourke play one of the most realistic CIA operatives committed to celluloid.

Despite its problems, White Sands is one of the more entertaining of the Iran-Contra movies we’re looking at today, largely driven by an excellent cast and a script that pushes all the right buttons, if not in the right sequence. In particular, Mickey Rourke as the most CIA guy who ever CIA-ed is more than worth your time. I laughed more during White Sands than I have during any other film in this collection.

Tough and Deadly (1995)

There is one possible exception, Tough and Deadly, a direct-to-video action comedy from 1995 that appears to have been accidentally supported by the CIA. Again, this sub-genre of films turns up some true oddities. This movie is ridiculous, not very well made, but does feature some amusing action such as when martial artist Billy Blanks does a spinning wheel kick and sends a giant barrel flying into a bad guy. And a moment where he shoots through a wall (with no view of the other side) to cap another bad guy.

Tough and Deadly is by far the dumbest of our selection today but don’t let that put you off, it is freely available on youtube where it has over 8 million views. The quality isn’t amazing but the original film’s quality isn’t amazing so does it truly matter?

Where things get really funny is that Tough and Deadly seems to have filmed at CIA headquarters, and approached the Marine Corps for help as well. The file on the movie from David Robb’s archive includes an entry in a log from the LA Public Affairs Office from March 1994. It says:

TOUGH & DEADLY: Casting agent in LA asked for 8 Marines in dress blues to play as security force at CIA headquarters… reviewed script and declined offer to assist with Marine extras… had scene that portrayed illegal shipment of drugs through an Army base.

Also in the file is a copy of the script and a bunch of handwritten notes, presumably of phonecalls they had. They note how the request was for eight Marines with a specific ethnic mix – four white, two black, two Latin. They were needed at CIA headquarters the week after next, and Rowdy Roddy Piper was starring in the movie.

Naturally, when I came across this file I had to download and watch Tough and Deadly, and sure enough there’s an extended aerial of Langley (approaching it from the end of the Old Headquarters Building, not swinging around the front as per usual), and a number of CIA seals that are not quite right, but are very close. So I cannot be 100% sure that the CIA fully supported Tough and Deadly, but they supported it to some extent, that much is obvious from the file and the film itself.

The result is a movie that could never be considered genuinely good, but at 1 hour 20 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome and there are some very funny moments, though some of them are probably not intentional. Roddy plays a private investigator, who stumbles across former CIA assassin Billy Blanks, who has amnesia after a recent attempt on his life. Somehow, they take on a criminal organisation including people from the CIA and high-ups in Washington DC who are smuggling drugs into the country.

They do this while lots of people try to kill them, or at least get into fights with them, providing the excuse for a string of punch ups and stuff getting blown up and a henchman being kicked into a big pile of cocaine. It isn’t subtle.

Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990)

Before we fast forward to some more recent productions I do want to drop in on a TV mini-series from 1990 – Drug Wars: The Camarena Story. While the originally-aired version is four hours long I was only able to find the DVD release, which is very abbreviated, a little over two hours. Nonetheless, it is a very factual story starring Steven Bauer, Miguel Ferrer, Eddie Velez and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom would go on to star in Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh movie about the Mexican-US drug trade and drug war. Also, Miguel plays Bob Morton in Robocop, who is killed by Clarence Boddicker. And there’s a character called Carson, like the one in Flashpoint. And Miguel also has a small role in Flashpoint.

This mini-series is based on the book Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win by investigative journalist Elaine Shannon, which first came out in 1988 and was re-issued when the TV series came out, which is the edition I have. I’m not reading the same 600 page book twice to tell you if there are meaningful differences between the two, so you’ll have to do that on your own time.

The core story is that Kiki was a DEA agent, an intel guy, who discovered massive marijuana plantations in Mexico being controlled by the Guadalajara cartel. Just as an aside, one of the trio of men who formed that cartel, Rafael Quintero, is an obvious inspiration for Armadillo Quintero in The Shield. One raid in 1982 took out a 200-acre marijuana farm, destroying maybe four tons of weed in the process. Another major raid in 1984 saw 450 Mexican soldiers take down a 2,500 acre marijuana farm in Chihuahua, which had an annual production in the billions of dollars.

In early 1985 Kiki was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The DEA and others launched a big investigation which concluded that the three cartel leaders had ordered the hit, and further investigations found widespread corruption between Mexican government officials and the Guadalajara cartel. In particular the DFS, the Mexican Directorate of Federal Security, were at times indistinguishable from the narcotics concerns they were supposed to be policing.

What does any of this have to do with our central theme? Well, various journalists including Manuel Buendia (who was murdered in 1984, several months before Camarena) reported that the CIA were also inside this relationship between the cartel and the Mexican government. After all, the DFS was founded shortly after WW2 with the help of the CIA, the CIA trained most of their officers, they worked closely with them throughout their existence. While the corruption probes following Kiki’s death saw the DFS shut down, up until that point they were very friendly with the Agency.

The theory is that the CIA knew about the DFS and other Mexican government officials working with the cartels, and were either turning a blind eye to their activities or were actively encouraging them, so as to raise money for the Contras and their anti-Sandinista fight in Nicaragua. However, these two theories are quite different. In her book, Shannon talks about the Contras and the CIA-DFS relationship but portrays it very much as the Agency knowing what was going on but not caring. The way she tells it, this is because they saw their anti-communist mission as more important than the DEA’s anti-drug mission and thus saw the corruption in Mexico as a cost of doing business that they could accept because they had more important things to worry about. The thrust of the book is that the war on drugs can’t be won, but it’s largely the fault of the Mexicans and other brown Americans, rather than the fault of the CIA, DEA, FBI or anyone in the US government.

At the time the book was heralded as a groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism, and the TV adaptation also got a lot of positive attention. But when the Amazon documentary The Last Narc came out in 2020, which implicated both DEA and CIA officials in the abduction and assassination of Camarena, Shannon badmouthed it, labelling it a ‘deep state conspiracy theory’ and prattling on about QAnon. One of the DEA agents implicated by the documentary actually sued Amazon, but his lawsuit was dismissed.

As I’ve said before, if anything I found the documentary a little weak, and given the delay in its release it struck me that perhaps the CIA got involved and removed the most incriminating material prior to release. Certainly, they have denied the claims that they have anything to do with Camarena’s death, but then they also denied having anything to do with drug trafficking.

And yet, we know that they did have this relationship with the Contras and other central American drugs traffickers, whereby they helped them get drugs into the American market to raise covert, off the books funds for the Contra operation (and other black ops being run simultaneously). So, how is it a deep state conspiracy theory to suggest they were doing the same with the Guadalajara cartel? If they were involved in the murders of many, many thousands of people in Nicaragua and El Salvador, what’s one more murder of a DEA agent in Mexico? Why is that so implausible?

From what I know, it wasn’t just Kiki’s success in burning down gigantic marijuana farms that got him killed, it was because he was getting too close to this DFS-cartel relationship. This is also the most likely reason why Manuel Buendia was murdered a few months prior. Some of those who kidnapped Kiki, and who are therefore complicit in his murder, were working for the DFS.

The mini-series, or at least the DVD version I saw, moves along briskly enough but I didn’t find myself caring about any of these people, so it becomes a procedural mostly focusing on the investigation after Kiki is murdered. The antagonists are mostly the Mexican government and well-connected Mexicans suspected of involvement. The DFS are fictionalised as the CFS, while the DEA are the heroes.

This should come as no surprise if you flick through the credits and see the producers giving a special thanks to the DEA for their assistance in making Drug Wars: The Camarena Story. Much as they cooperated on the book that the mini-series in based on, and so we have to question both through this prism. The book tells us that the DEA are failing but it isn’t their fault, and certainly not the CIA’s fault, but because of the relationship between the Mexican cartels and the Mexican government. And, to some extent, because the State Department are unwilling to kick up a fuss about this because Mexico is one of only two direct neighbours of the USA. And, as raised in the press conference scene by a female journalist who is a stand in for the author of the original book, there was a fear that Mexico might turn and become supportive of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

However, there is no exploration of the US government or its agents using the geopolitics of drugs to their own advantage, it is all told from the perspective of the war on drugs, where the drugs are the fundamental problem, not governments. So, much like the book, it’s a tale of the war on drugs failing, but not because the policy itself is wrong. This mini-series functions as a deflection both for the DEA, deflecting blame for the failure of the policy, but also for the CIA and the DFS, whose involvement in Camarena’s death is absent. The CIA because they are only mentioned once, and the DFS because their name was changed to the CFS.

We have to assume, therefore, that this change was deliberate, and likely something either the Mexican government or the State Department asked for, so as not to inflame the tenuous relationship when Drugs Wars: The Camarena Story was being filmed. That was in 1989, just five years after Kiki’s death and the investigation that followed. US-Mexico relations were not in a good place and so I believe this change was made to avoid making the situation worse.

The Infiltrator (2016)

In the 2010s Iran-Contra underwent something of a cultural rebirth, almost as though it was part of our collective youth that we all suddenly started remembering again. A suppressed memory that bubbled to the surface.

Kill the Messenger was the first notable film, and a couple of years later we also got The Infiltrator, which is primarily about Pablo Escobar rather than directly about Iran-Contra per se. It was directed by Brad Furman, who also made the film City of Lies, based on the book of the same name, which we will be discussing in a separate episode.

The Infiltrator is, like American Made and Kill the Messenger, based on a real life story, this time of a US Customs Special Agent who went undercover as a money-laundering corrupt businessman in order to bust drug cartels. Despite a big name cast including Diane Kruger and Bryan Cranston, it lost tens of millions of dollars and got good, but certainly not glowingly positive reviews.

It seems it got quite a lot of support from the local government in Tampa, Florida, where much of The Infiltrator was filmed. The mayor, the police department, Visit Tampa (the local tourism/branding office) and Film Tampa are all credited. So is Bob Mazur, whose book and real life story the film is based on, but no federal agencies are mentioned.

What is odd about this is that The Infiltrator depicts Barry Seal, the pilot who was flying guns into Nicaragua and elsewhere and flying drugs back into the US. Why, in 2016 and 2017, 30 years after his death, did we get two movies about this character? The only previous film I can find about Barry is Doublecrossed, a TV movie from 1991. While that’s totally in keeping with our overall pattern, I’ve not been able to find a copy. It stars Dennis Hopper and Robert Caradine, so I would like to see it.

What makes Seal especially interesting to me is that his history with covert operations goes back to the 60s – he knew David Ferrie, from the JFK investigations, and even flew guns for him. Ferrie was working for the CIA, running guns mostly, and this is most likely how Barry got into that world too. Ferrie knew Lee Harvey Oswald and many of the others in that same circle, was part of the second attempt at raising an army of Cuban exiles to take back Cuba from the Castros.

According to Daniel Hopsicker, based on a photo from Barry’s wife, Seal was part of Operation 40 and is right there in the photo next to Porter Goss. Another guy in the photo is Cuban ‘counter-revolutionary’ Felix Rodriguez, a CIA operative who was involved in the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Che Guevara, the Phoenix Program and then Iran-Contra. Indeed, when the plane went down in Nicaragua carrying weapons destined for the Contras (this being the subject of the movie the CIA killed in the years after the crash) it was Rodriguez who was calling up Bush’s advisers and telling them it was ‘one of Ollie North’s planes’.

Thus, at the same time as one member of Operation 40 was reporting the loss of an illegal arms shipment to the Vice President, another was running drugs for Pablo Escobar. And this was decades after the group formally shut down. The problem is in trying to ascertain exactly how much the CIA knew and approved of what Barry was doing. They absolutely knew about some of it, probably knew about most if not all of it, and have demonstrably lied about what their covert pilots were up to throughout the 1980s. Clair George, the head of CIA clandestine operations, said that the survivor on the plane that was shot down in Nicaragua, Eugene Hasenfus, had nothing to do with the CIA and no contact with Reagan administration officials. He was later convicted of lying to Congress and then pardoned by Bush, who had in the meantime become President.

The Infiltrator doesn’t get into all this (if only) because Walter White is on the other side of the fence, he’s trying to stop the drugs, not sell the drugs. But old habits die hard so he starts laundering money for major drugs traffickers and uses that as a means of penetrating the organisations. It’s not the most original film, a lot of scenes will remind you of other 1980s drugs stories, but the investigation does happen upon the CIA’s involvement in all this, and on Barry Seal.

Southern Air Transport, the CIA front company, was being used to ship a lot of the drugs into the US that were making the money that Mazur was laundering. Barry Seal was a pilot for SAT, and as the investigators dig in, they discover this, and Mazur goes to see Seal at the racetrack, trying to get him to sign up to his money management deal.

Indeed, it was an SAT plane that Eugene was flying when he was shot down over Nicaragua, even though the company had technically been sold in the early 70s, over a decade before the events in The Infiltrator. In 1979, the same year the Sandinistas came to power, the small airline was bought by James Bastian, a former lawyer for the Agency. Evidently, it remained a CIA front of some kind well into the 80s.

The Infiltrator moves on from these shenanigans after Barry is gunned down by the Medellin cartel (likely with the OK from people within the US government) and focuses on Don Pablo and BCCI, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. While it lacks fluidity and style and doesn’t feel very original, the story it tells is an important one.

The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)

The other more recent film that is worth examining is The Last Thing He Wanted, a Netflix film based on a novel by Joan Didion from the 1990s. The film follows the book fairly closely to begin with – a journalist named Ellie McMahon is investigating goings-on in Central America but due to pressure from the government she is reassigned to Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. Meanwhile, her father has dementia but for some reason is involved in shipping arms to Nicaragua through Puerto Rico. She agrees to take his place in the arms deal because he becomes too ill to do it himself. There’s also some State Department spy called Treat Morrison, played in the film by Ben Affleck.

In all honesty, this film is quite well directed but there are a lot of script problems. While the original book, from what I’ve read of it, is a moderately lurid fictionalised expose about Iran-Contra, the film version is a tedious girlboss overcorrection of history. It’s not really about Iran-Contra, it’s about Ann Hathaway and her endless stream of overly pointed dialogue.

For example, the book has a false flag assassination plot being run by US Special Forces to implicate the Sandinistas in the killing of a US ambassador. This goes missing from the film. The book is told from the perspective of an unknown, unnamed narrator and is partly written like a screenplay. The film is told almost entirely from Ann Hathaway’s perspective.

In the book when she arrives in the Antilles on a bogus passport and tries to get a new one this sets off a government investigation, which brings Treat Morrison to the island and gets him embroiled in all this and eventually killed. In the film she can’t get a new passport because it’s the Fourth of July and the embassy on the island is closed for the holiday. The book version is very critical of the US government – in most instances they are the bad guys – but in the film this has been sanitised.

The end of the book sees her on an island in the lesser Antilles, getting mixed up in the assassination plot which results in Treat Morrison, the State Department guy, being killed while Ellie is then shot by the local police, suspected of the killing of Morrison. In the wake of her death it is reported that she was supplying arms to the Sandinistas, when in reality she was supplying them to the Contras.

The film version also sees her end up in Antigua, somehow, somewhy she is killed by Morrison, but it’s all OK because her friend back at the paper, a brown skinned woman like all US newspapers employed lots of in the 1980s, puts together her story and exposes Iran-Contra. The happy ending is something that never actually happened, doesn’t happen in the book and once more reinforces this narrative that news media exposure somehow stops evil people doing evil things.

In reality, most of the journalists who exposed Iran-Contra and its consequences were men, and as we’ve noted Elaine Shannon denies the Iran-Contra connection to Kiki Camarena’s death. She’s actually helped cover it up. To rewrite history and once again make out that one lone middle class woman with her brown sidekick were somehow alone against the system, exposing truth and putting right what once went wrong is horseshit. Iran-Contra isn’t about gender, there’s no reason to subsume it under the feminist banner. This is much more of a modern, boring feminist film than it is an Iran-Contra thriller.

And of course, it has a black female director who did a good job, and worked with Spike Lee on Inside Man, which we looked at on a recent subscribercast, but who was blatantly chosen for this project so the producers and Netflix could pat themselves on the back. However, The Last Thing He Wanted got miserable reviews – just 5% on RottenTomatoes. So have they really furthered the career prospects for black female directors, or have they exploited one in a tokenistic fashion to make a shit film that treats Iran-Contra, an international drugs and weapons trafficking conspiracy, as little more than a platform for celebrating rich white women played by Ann Hathaway?

I am not saying The Last Thing He Wanted is an antidote film or an inversion of Iran-Contra, ultimately the things it depicts and references are mostly real or at least realistic. But it is an attempt to exploit the scandal, rather than the conspiracy, to make a film that will appeal to American feminists – i.e. mostly rich white liberal women. It’s about Iran-Contra, so anti-Reagan, the main character is a woman who never existed so they can make her into journalist superwoman, the CIA are barely mentioned so you don’t have to actually have any morals or knowledge about the real world in order to enjoy it.

And this is what happens when you make a film that is led by an identity politics agenda rather than a genuine desire to make a good film set in the real world – it ends up confused, overstuffed while also dull, you exploit a black female director’s gender and skin colour so rich white liberal shareholders can celebrate themselves and pretty much no one enjoys the movie.

Why Don’t They Make Iran-Contra Films Like Flashpoint Today?

If we take what we looked at in episodes 181 and 182 and everything we’ve examined today, a distinct pattern emerges. The timeline we’ve pieced together so far begins in 1984, with Flashpoint. This was followed by The Man with One Red Shoe, Extreme Prejudice, Above the Law, American Rampage and The Mighty Quinn, all of which incorporate elements of the real Iran-Contra story into their plots. There is also Haskell Wexler’s film Latino from 1985, which is set inside the Contras but I haven’t been able to find a copy of that yet. While in some films these ideas and themes are much more explicit than in others, it is clear the industry reacted (and in some cases pre-empted) revelations about real events. Likewise we get the first Lethal Weapon film in 1987, where ex-CIA officers are smuggling drugs.

In the middle of this we get The Presidio, which is about Iran-Contra but for the most part it is heavily disguised, likely to help the script get through the military’s vetting and review process. We also know the CIA killed an Iran-Contra themed film that was in development in 1986-87, about Eugene Hasenfus.

By 1990 Iran-Contra had become a recurring theme, with both Die Hard 2 and The Last of the Finest coming out. Around the same time Company Business, supported by the British military and possibly the CIA too, and Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, supported by the DEA, were released. The Iran-Contra theme had progressed from lower budget thrillers to bigger budget action comedies, and then we saw the first attempt at an antidote, a counter from the establishment to these counter-culture films about black operations. We also got McBain the following year, where we see him killing drug dealers in order to help take down a Columbian dictator, the first inversion of Iran-Contra.

But people kept making films about these topics, with Crackdown in 1991 (which was never released on DVD so I haven’t seen it) and both Deep Cover and White Sands coming out in 1992, along with Bob Roberts, reminding people once more of the Iran-Contra operations and scandal. It was around this time that Countermeasures was also killed off, rejected by the Navy because they felt there was no reason ‘to embarrass the White House or remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair’.

The movie industry and the black ops establishment needed something bigger to try to counter and quash this cultural trend, and so they came up with Clear and Present Danger, a film on which all the government agencies implicated in the scandal cooperated to produce an inversion of the scandal for mass public consumption.

Aside from the direct-to-video Tough and Deadly, and Managua from 1997 (which I also haven’t been able to find), that was the end of the trend, and I have been unable to find anything after Managua. Most drug stories in the late 90s and into the 2000s focus on Mexico, though obviously The Shield stands out as a major TV exception to this. But the knowledge of what had happened persisted, for example in the artworks of Mark Lombardi, another person who met a mysterious death in 2000. A documentary about him came out in 2011 to 2012, which may be where the trend started to be reborn. Kill the Messenger and American Made exchanged blows not unlike what we saw in the 1980s and 90s. The Infiltrator and The Last Thing He Wanted came into view, but so did Snowfall and The Recruit, two TV series which downplay or diffuse or simply confuse the Iran-Contra issue.

There is a distinct to and fro in the culture industries when it comes to this subject, with some people still trying to make honest explorations of real events while others, often supported by the government, are trying to smudge the lens with Vaseline to make everything look vaguer, and prettier.

Of all these films my personal favourite is Flashpoint, the moodiest is Deep Cover and the most out and out entertaining is White Sands. The dumbest is Tough and Deadly. This really is a sub-genre that offers up a range of fairly similar films, in that they’ve all got some kind of investigative thriller element at the core, but which go off in very different directions, with different vibes. Some more action-centred, some more comedy-focused, some quite stark and rural, others rich and urban, some take place in one overall location, others move around a lot.

I do want to dwell for a moment on why this is, and why they don’t really make movies like Flashpoint or Deep Cover any more. There’s the occasional exception but for the most part this type of film is gone, replaced by bigger, flashier, dumber films starring Stason Jatham or The Rock.

Why are these films so varied? It’s partly because the inspirational material is broad, encompassing three continents, several governments, over a dozen different government agencies, various non-state actors from militants to terrorists to religious figures to drugs traffickers and arms dealers. So there are a lot of different little pieces of this you can use as the basis for your script, because there’s no way to tell the whole story in one film so you have to choose pieces rather than the full picture in motion.

Why don’t they make them any more? With the odd exception, and let’s not forget that Kill the Messenger was largely financed by Jeremy Renner as a passion project because he couldn’t get outside funding, there are a few reasons. For one, all of these films are primarily about 80s and 90s style heroes – white guys in their 40s. This has become somewhat less fashionable, though Gerry Butler still manages to find work. Instead, marketing and PR people prefer a diverse group of heroes, or a strict hypermasculine stereotype who speaks in a really gruff voice and is juiced up the gills on steroids. I don’t have any problem with a much more diverse range of protagonists, I’m simply noting how marketing departments these days prefer someone who doesn’t look like Willem Dafoe or Kris Kristofferson.

Also, most of these movies didn’t make any money. Clear and Present Danger, the big budget franchise Iran-Contra antidote movie, took over $215 million. That’s more than (quick calculation) three times what Flashpoint, Above the Law, Deep Cover, White Sands, Kill the Messenger, The Last of the Finest, The Mighty Quinn and Tough and Deadly took, combined. This is partly because the industry has no idea how to distribute, market and sell films like these.

Then there’s the nature of the content itself – it requires that you pay attention, engage with the story and have some idea about the real world and how power and money truly operate. That’s not very ‘second screen friendly’, and so is likely to be rejected by any major streaming service, which is where smaller to mid-budget films often go to try to sell their project. Literally, producers get notes from streaming executives and script reviewers asking them to make it easier to watch their tripe while also scrolling around on TikTok. Keep stating the premise, keep reminding people of the stakes, lather, rinse, repeat, always repeat.

And yet, documentaries on this topic are still being produced and put out by the content cartel, partly because they’re much cheaper but also because there is enduring interest in Iran-Contra and where it leads. There are a couple of announced, in-development projects including a TV series where Colin Farrell is slated to play Oliver North, and the film No Rest for the Brave, which pretty much sounds like Countermeasures (it’s about using the USS Kitty Hawk to ship weapons to Iran). And both the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films touch on some of this material, and they were commercial successes at the time. So perhaps there is a market for a modern equivalent of Deep Cover or White Sands, something that is both a nostalgia piece reminding people of the clever action comedies and crime thrillers of old, but also a serious story about a serious topic.

But it probably won’t be on Netflix.