In this guest article my friend and collaborator Matt Alford offers his thoughts on moviedom, deceit and the campaign to save the life of Julian Assange. He reflects on the developments in our field over the last decade, and how the importance of cinematic deceptions has only grown during that time, as the world becomes more terrifyingly corrupt.
‘This job is like being a minor eunuch in the court of Imperial China’
Phil Strub, Department of Defence Entertainment Liaison Officer, 2012
‘Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people. But they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad’
Frankie Boyle, 2014
In 2010, when Pluto Press published my debut book, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema & American Supremacy, there were two major areas I felt unable to address about the politics of the entertainment industry. A decade on, much has changed.
Firstly, since putting in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests since 2010, but especially since 2015 when I began to collaborate with journalist Tom Secker, I now know that the state has directly altered a lot of motion picture and television scripts. And I mean, a lot. Until the early 21st century, it seemed that the national security state – pretty much just Department of Defence (DOD), really – had, since the birth of Hollywood, affected a couple of hundred films. It took us until 2016 to demonstrate that Dr. Lawrence Suid, the only historian who had ever worked on the military-Hollywood production process, was low-balling the figures even for the pre-9/11 period. By 2022, and in collaboration with Professor Roger Stahl and Dr. Sebastian Kaempf, we could account for more than 2,500 films and TV (also ignored by Suid) titles. If we tot up individual episodes, it is thousands more. Add to that the role played by other strands of the national security state such as the White House, CIA, FBI, NASA, NYPD, and LAPD and we reach well over 10,000, the majority of these in the past quarter century.
My problem with Lawrence Suid wasn’t just that he was a state-sponsored shill (Roger and Tom recently discovered he was even twice contracted by the DOD public affairs unit on major assignments). Nor did I merely dislike the man because he refused a priori to question ‘the legitimacy of the military’s relationship with the film industry’, or even that he blithely characterised the DOD’s entertainment liaison chief Phil Strub as ‘simply a conduit between the film industry and the armed services’. No, what was especially objectionable about Suid was that he spent half his life refusing to share research material in a way that was unusual within academic circles – particularly since he kept that documentation under lock and key in a supposedly public library (Georgetown University) in Washington, DC since the 1990s. In an attempt to gain access to Suid’s files, I had tried: repeatedly asking nicely; asking a friend in America, Tanya, to ask nicely, and even asking nicely from a fake email account called Imodium Crackerbarrel (okay… but I keep my pseudonyms top secret). I told Tom Secker about Imodium and he revealed he’d tried and failed with exactly those same tactics (though I think his pseudonym was Bambi McHobbleton). The closest any of us came was our Texan colleague Tricia Jenkins – Suid offered her limited access to paperwork specifically on certain Vietnam war films – but when she went there the material was so sparse she had to abandon her project.
‘How annoying!’ you might think. And yes, it was a frustrating process, at times. Ultimately, though, this was a journalism success story. In 2015, Strub had palmed me off onto Suid by claiming that the DOD only retained a supposedly ‘incomplete’ database. This lead was sufficient to accelerate Tom’s FOIA requests and now one of the major documents we have is that database – they nicknamed it DARA – which lays out the overall reach of the DOD office in the entertainment industry. In 2018, the library itself (but not Suid) granted me access to his public collection, which comprised 13 boxes, mostly of old scripts and innocuous memos. After all that time, frankly I was happy to see anything. Then, after Suid’s death in 2019, Roger was at last able to see the much larger private collection – 19 boxes, relevant files on every film – which resulted in him heading up our documentary Theatres of War (2022). In the end, then, all these rejections and procedural problems helped us to understand and demonstrate that this story was bigger than just one of state manipulation of screenplays, but also of failure and censorship within journalism, the entertainment industry, and academia itself.
So, what has been the impact of state intervention on screen? In sum, it has been colossal. Bear in mind, even small script changes can significantly shift a story’s meaning or tone. In 1997, two torture training documents, each including chapters on ‘coercive techniques’, had been declassified in response to a FOIA request filed by The Baltimore Sun. Imagine how much darker Meet the Parents (2000) would have become if, as in the original script, Robert De Niro’s CIA operative had prominently possessed these real, specialist torture manuals penned by the Pentagon and CIA for the infamous School of the Americas.
Sometimes, though, entire projects are overturned politically. Tricia Jenkins’ and Tom Secker’s Superheroes, Movies and the State (2021) shows how the original script for Iron Man (2008) had Tony Stark battling against US arms manufacturers, including his own father, who he says was stealing his ideas and twisting them to make truly destructive weaponry. By the time the film went into production, though, the screenplay has Stark happily inherit his father’s business and become an emissary of the military industrial complex – ‘ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests around the globe’. Roger observed that the Stark Industries logo is reminiscent of Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, the leading US arms companies, and, indeed, the latter is advertised as ‘the real Stark Industries’ in a Marvel comic released alongside the first film.
Such fundamental political reversals on screen can apply to very real conflicts. During negotiations on the Bruce Willis film Tears of the Sun (2002) the DOD managed to ‘prevent the depiction of the US government as complicit in nasty conspiracies overseas.’ These ‘nasty conspiracies’ likely relate to information found in a documentary called Delta Force (1995), which focuses on the role of Shell Oil in Nigeria—the corporation behind half the wealth of that country’s dictatorship—in polluting the land of the country’s poorest citizens. When peaceful protests erupted in response, the Nigerian government responded violently and, the documents suggested, used heavy weaponry on some communities then blamed it on local ethnic in-fighting.
National Geographic’s The Long Road Home (2017) tells of a disastrous US mission during the Battle of Sadr City, Iraq, on what became known as ‘Black Sunday’. In the 2007 account on which the mini-series was based, US Command failed to anticipate the uprising and may have provoked it, but the show makes the man in charge of the Battalion, Gary Volesky, the unambiguous hero. The series puts him where he wasn’t – in a Humvee at the front of the rescue convoy, which had been, in reality, occupied by a soldier ditched from the story entirely. Volesky served as the Army’s Chief of Public Affairs during the show’s production – what a shock! The series also sees fit to denigrate Tomas Young who, after serving, had become a prominent anti-war activist. At one point, Young is questioned: ‘What do you know about it? War? You ever even been shot at? Well, then do me a favour and shut up’. Theatres of War features a lengthy analysis of the miniseries, which includes his interviews with two veterans who had been in the battle for real and were disgusted by such misrepresentations. As Roger observes, we see Young protesting but come away with the sense that he is just bitter about his injuries. We never get to hear any of his speeches. The Army even vetted each of the protest signs’ slogans in the series and, naturally, the show entirely ignores Young’s suicide.
I have always been reluctant to use the term ‘propaganda’ – it has connotations, nuances, and multiple definitional facets – but exactly what else can we call this crap?
We have also been able to compile a list of films that the state was able to ensure were not made, usually just by rejecting cooperation, including: Commando Girls (1984), Delta Force Commandos (1986 TV), Stealth (1989), and Desert Storm: The Movie (1991). Other cases include Fields of Fire (1993) – which, despite every key player in the military wanting to have it made, was blocked by the PR office itself because it depicted US war crimes in Vietnam. Beneath the Flesh (1993) was about a chemical company disturbing the tomb of an ancient American Indian vampire but we will never see the film because it ‘cast the US government, DOD, the Special Operations Forces in a bad light’. The CIA have adopted sneakier tactics to suppress scripts – in one case from the 1980s, it reportedly set up a front company to buy a script about the Iran-Contra scandal, outbidding Marlon Brando’s company, so that it could bury the story.
The second thing I hardly discussed in the first edition of this book was the actual effect of entertainment culture on political culture. There is a large specialist literature on media effects – spanning a century – with no real consensus on the extent to which screens influence individuals, let alone political decisions. However, let me now break cover and come out as a pretty firm advocate of the strong effects thesis. Or, more specifically, let’s say if it weren’t for chunks of politically motivated entertainment products, our world would be assuredly different. One well known example is Birth of a Nation (1915) – President Woodrow Wilson reputedly called the film ‘history written by lightning’ and historians agree it played a massive role in recruiting millions of people to form the ‘second Klan’. Just for fun, though, let’s take a quick look at some more heartening examples. After US President Ronald Reagan watched The Day After (1983) more than a month before its screening he wrote in his diary that the film was ‘very effective and left me greatly depressed’. Although this may have fed into Reagan’s determination to stick with his so-called ‘deterrent’, it at least helped make nuclear war both an issue and an unacceptable outcome – in 1987, Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed legislation to reduce their arsenals. Occasionally, even grassroots films like the documentary Deadly Deception (1991) have been sufficient to trigger direct reforms – in this case, it prompted the notoriously ruthless CEO Jack Welch to close General Electric’s armaments division, according to a book about GE At Any Cost.
However, typically our entertainment media feeds into nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism – always with the assumption of US benevolence on the world stage. Tom Cruise called his Top Gun (1986) a ‘fairy tale’ of military life and said that it would have been ‘irresponsible’ to make a sequel, even joking that he was ‘totally responsible for World War Three’. Whether we take Cruise seriously or not – and I must confess, I really never do – the DOD certainly meant business when it asserted that the film ‘completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam War’. The Top Gun brand itself quickly hit its own PR problems, though. A ‘Top Gun mentality’ had contributed to military personnel running amok at the Navy’s traditionally sober Tailhook convention in 1991, leading to 87 assaults and a damning internal investigation. As a result, plans for a sequel were scrapped. Thirty years on, such concerns were forgotten as Top Gun: Maverick (2022) ‘weaved in key talking points’ from the Pentagon, according to Tom’s incomplete but nonetheless revealing FOIA request. The enemy country that Cruise needs to bomb in the film is undoubtedly Iran (just days away from nuclear capability – something that has literally been true since 1992, if we are to believe scumbags like Israel’s longest-serving prime minister) and the fact that it remains technically unnamed, as were the villainous Chinese and North Koreans in the original, indicates how consequential the filmmakers themselves felt such explicit labels would have been.
With Hollywood so infused with militarism, is it any wonder that, in a 2015 poll, 30% of Republicans said they want to bomb Agrabah, the fictional city in Aladdin (1992)? Is it any wonder that right now our politicians, as though clutching rosary beads, prefigure ‘Russia’s war in Ukraine’ with the word ‘illegal’ with zero sense of irony and ‘unprovoked’ with zero sense of history? When was the last thing you saw in which Russia wasn’t crawling with vodka-chugging thugs or tyrants? Because it certainly wasn’t Red Dawn (1984); Rocky IV (1985); Rambo II & III (1985, 1987); Goldeneye (1995); Air Force One (1997); Salt (2010); Red Sparrow (2018); Hunter Killer (2018); Jack Ryan (2018-); The Courier (2020); 24 (2001-2017); Homeland (2011-20); The Old Man (2022-); Stranger Things (2016-)… need I continue?
Things may seem a little gloomy. But modern figures do sometimes emerge and some have been right on the cusp of ushering in a safer world, most obviously US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Each was neutered by top level political machinations and, especially in Corbyn’s case, mediated campaigns. The world’s most successful journalist and publisher, also a voice for peace – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – was similarly neutered but with the entertainment machine playing a more prominent role. Assange’s most significant publications included video footage of the US murdering innocent civilians from atop a helicopter gunship in Iraq and emails that showed the Democrat Party had conspired to select Hilary Clinton as its 2016 Presidential candidate despite knowing that Sanders was more likely to beat Donald Trump. By 2012, Swedish authorities wanted Assange for questioning over two sexual encounters (the accusations, which manifested in a preliminary investigation but never as charges, were eventually abandoned) and, fearing extradition by the US if he travelled back to Stockholm, the besieged publisher took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After seven years inside, derided as a paranoid coward who had abused his cat and wiped shit on the walls, Assange was finally arrested in 2019 under espionage legislation and thrown into Belmarsh prison to await trials in the UK and US seemingly in perpetuity – exactly as he predicted. As I write this, I am on a train from London, where we joined hands all the way around Parliament and called for his release.
At first, ciphers for the increasingly notorious Assange had appeared everywhere in British popular culture. An episode of the BBC’s By Any Means (2013) heroized security services using ‘any means’ (ie. illegal methods) to grab a ruthless property developer who has holed himself up in an Embassy. More explicitly, the BBC made Julian and the Assanging Technicolour Download (2013), a cringeworthy Christmas Day musical comedy that presented the Wikileaks founder as an onanistic, self-pitying, self-important computer nerd. ‘With great power came great irresponsibility,’ the show sneered at Julian, who they say ended up ‘less popular than the Taliban’, while Ecuador is represented by a rule-bending stereotype. BBC Four even screened a three-part sitcom called Asylum (2015) – the tone of which can be well-inferred by its writer’s Twitter post: ‘If the… [police] want to regain my trust they should drag Assange out the embassy + shoot him in the back of the head in the middle of Trafalgar Square.’ Unlike Sanders and Corbyn, though, Assange also received the Hollywood treatment, being the subject of a major Benedict Cumberbatch movie The Fifth Estate (2013) – which brought similar smears to a global audience, alongside a commercially successful documentary We Steal Secrets that same year.
Still, as is often the case, the state’s biggest weapon against Julian Assange has been silence. After the demonisation was complete, little else needed to be said. Press references to Julian slowly declined from 2010 then plummeted just after his arrest. Very little information emerges from Britain’s most high security prison- even in court, he was housed in a glass box, eerily akin to his fictional prison buddy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the Bond movie No Time to Die (2021). I have been with some of Julian’s friends and family for screenings of an independent documentary film about his legal battle, Ithaka (2021), in venues around Britain – it has had a sum total of eight reviews, my alma mater backed out of hosting it because a solitary academic objected, and it was left to little old me to create the film’s Wikipedia page. An earlier documentary on Wikileaks, Hacking Justice (2017), had hit a similar wall. Ask young people now about the world’s most significant publisher and political prisoner and half the time they haven’t even heard of him – though this might now be changing due to the Herculean efforts of his family, notably his wife and former lawyer Stella Moris. Where oh where are all those right-wing opponents of ‘cancel culture’ when it originates in the security state? Instructive distinctions can be drawn in relation to this case between those who sincerely believe free speech matters (Piers Morgan, Jordan Peterson), those who are gleefully hostile (Douglas Murray, Ben Shaprio), and those who aren’t interested because Julian’s case doesn’t offer a launching pad for berating women and minorities.
In 1912, as the Titanic sank, the ocean liner’s band showcased the dignity of humanity by playing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ – the same hymn CNN later teed up to play in the event of Armageddon. Now, as the whole world veers again towards the hardest ice, our entertainers are on the decks playing Wheel of Fortune to the beat of a timpani drum. We need a thousand lifeboats – please. What can you do? Where are you in life? Maybe you can work with us. Or host a screening of documentaries like ours. Resist war propaganda. Do you really need to spend good money to see the execrable Purple Hearts (2022) or the millionth Fast and the Furious? Celebrate and spread brilliantly made critical stuff like: Vice (2016); Backstabbing for Beginners (2018); Dark Water (2019); The Report (2019); Official Secrets (2019); The Day Shall Come (2019); The Banker (2020), The Mauritanian (2021), and Oslo (2021). More broadly, and more importantly: join a trade union, ICAN, and CND – and come out with us on the streets. In years to come, when the tattered posters ask: ‘What did YOU do in the Great War?’, at least you can say you resisted it.
London – Autumn, 2022
Co-producer Theatres of War (2022)