In September 1941, then-North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye charged Hollywood with producing "at least twenty pictures in the last year designed to drug the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions, turn their hatred into a blaze, and fill them with fear that Hitler will come over here and capture them." But with the attack on Pearl Harbor just a few months later, Nye's pro-peace views quickly became overwhelmingly fringe as Hollywood succumbed to war fever. In less than a year, 12 percent of entertainment industry employees entered the armed forces, and by the war's end, one-quarter of Hollywood's male employees were in uniform.
These sorts of films continued to be produced by the Hollywood/Pentagon propaganda machine right up until the end of the Cold War. With the full cooperation of the Johnson administration - and coinciding with the US invasion of Vietnam - the 1968 John Wayne film, The Green Berets, depicted what film critic Roger Ebert referred to as a "Cowboys and Indians" portrayal of the war. In 1984, Red Dawn presented US moviegoers with images of blood-thirsty Russian soldiers parachuting down over an American school, firing openly on students, and hauling civilians into concentration camps. In 1985, Rocky IV pitted the champion American boxer Rocky Balboa against the ruthless Soviet behemoth Ivan Drago. The 1986 film Top Gun, according to the Navy, boosted pilot recruitment by 500 percent - and recruiters even made appearances in theaters where the movie was featured.
But that was then. What about now? Are Americans still victims of pro-war Hollywood propaganda?
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
(Because even garbage movies deserve a Spoiler Warning)
propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
1. Pearl Harbor (2001)
Released just a few months prior to the 9/11 attacks - but still coincidentally just in time for Memorial Day - Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor is a Pentagon propaganda classic. As USA Today reported in May 2001, "If Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle comes across as particularly heroic in the new war epic Pearl Harbor, the credit goes as much to the behind-the-scenes influence of the Pentagon as to the vision of Hollywood filmmakers. ... In exchange for providing Hollywood with military advice, personnel and awesome equipment for movies and TV shows, the Pentagon gets an advance look at scripts and has a chance to negotiate changes."
Jimmy Doolitle was originally set to be a "boorish, oafish type of fellow" but, in exchange for Pentagon cooperation with the film, was instead "rewritten and made a little bit more of the real hero he was."
The level of cooperation was also rather astounding. According to USA Today, Disney paid more than $1 million for military assistance, "including extensive shooting at Pearl Harbor, with adjacent Ford Island virtually transformed into a production back lot."
To make sure the military was portrayed favorably, Pentagon "project officers" were on the set during production "watching every salute and bugle call." Philip Strub, head of the Pentagon's film liaison office in Washington, even openly admitted at the time that the Pentagon is glad to help "because we see it as an opportunity to inform the American public about the military and help our recruiting and retention programs at the same time."
2. The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Two B-2 bombers, two F-16 fighter jets, a modified 747, three Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters, a UH-60 Army helicopter, four ground vehicles, more than 50 Marines and Army troops, and one massive aircraft carrier: a 97,000-ton, nuclear-powered floating city with more than 80 aircraft and a crew of 5,000. All of these fun taxpayer-funded toys were provided by the Pentagon to the producers of The Sum of All Fears. At what cost? The usual: granting the US government full rights to modify any aspect of the film that they don't like.
But unlike most Pentagon propaganda films, The Sum of All Fears included not just military cooperation, but CIA cooperation as well.
"We've been made to look worse and worse," a pseudonymous ex-CIA operative told the New York Times. "We finally felt that we owed it not only to the public but to our own work force to have some portrayal that makes us feel better about ourselves. When all you ever see are ugly stories and ugly representations, it takes a pretty dedicated and secure and confident individual to come in every day and fight the good fight when everyone is dumping all over you."
This could explain why Ben Affleck, who plays CIA agent Jack Ryan, consulted with agency officials at their Langley headquarters and even received a personal tour from then-CIA director George J. Tenet.
The CIA's Hollywood liaison also served as an adviser on the set in Montreal.
3. United 93 (2006)
Coincidences are a funny thing. You have a song in your head, you flip on the radio, and then that song is playing. You're thinking of someone, you look at your phone, and bam: they're calling you. You release a movie about the crash of Flight 93 around the same time that the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui - an alleged 20th 9/11 hijacker - is happening, a trial which relied heavily on audio recordings from the doomed airliner.
But beyond such a coincidence, United 93 is also problematic because:
- The film was extraordinarily speculative. The passengers on Flight 93 obviously didn't have much of an opportunity to give their version of events, and United 93's director was apparently in such a rush to get his movie out that he didn't bother waiting for the transcript of the cockpit voice recording to be released before sealing this propagandistic package with a pretty red, white, and blue ribbon and allowing it to screen in theaters around the country.
- When the director did bother with those silly things called "facts", he referred to the deeply-flawed findings of the 9/11 Commission Report.
- The pre-release cut of the film had a final title card which read: "America's war on terror had begun". This was removed, however, after some reviewers complained that it seemed a little too much like - gasp! - propaganda. So in the final version, the card instead reads: "Dedicated to the memory of all of those who lost their lives on September 11th 2001."
- As Alex von Tunzelmann of the Guardian points out:
"Subtly, United 93 introduces a nationalistic, pro-war-on-terror tone - notably in its treatment of German passenger Christian Adams, the one non-American hostage. In the film, Adams is the only person shown suggesting cooperation with the hijackers: 'I think we shouldn't provoke them. Just do what they want.' Adams's wife, it was reported, had declined to contribute to the film's production. The actor who played Adams claimed that he was a thoughtful man who 'never made any rash decisions'. It's a big jump to go from that to depicting him as an appeaser. In reality, no one knows who led or participated in the storming of the cockpit, though one man, Todd Beamer, was overheard by a telephone operator saying, 'Let's roll!' The film makes him something like an action hero. Maybe he was, but then again maybe Christian Adams was, too."
4. The Hurt Locker (2008)
Before coming out with the pro-torture flick, Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow released The Hurt Locker, which follows a thrill-seeking bomb defuser who travels to Iraq at the height of the US invasion.
Unsurprisingly, the film takes place entirely from the perspective of the United States. There's no mention of infrastructure-crippling US sanctions against Iraq responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people. There's no background given as to why US soldiers are in Iraq defusing bombs in the first place. Absent this context, Iraqis in the film take the role of inherently monstrous evildoers who enjoy killing Americans for the sport of it.
In the world of Hollywood propaganda films, when foreign forces attack the United States, they are depicted as savage barbarians who parachute down over schools and open fire on students - as witnessed in Red Dawn. When the US invades other countries, the invading forces are just good ol' boys merely following orders and doing their duty by conducting gruntwork for fine men like George W. Bush and the oil barons who put him into office.
Investigative journalist John Pilger offered a scathing critique of The Hurt Locker, calling it a "vicarious thrill through yet another standard-issue psychopath, high on violence in somebody else's country where the deaths of a million people are consigned to cinematic oblivion."
And while - perhaps remarkably - the Pentagon pulled cooperation on the film because they believed it presented an unflattering view of US soldiers, that didn't stop then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates from referring to it as "authentic", "very compelling", and even recommending it to his staff.
5. Iron Man (2008)
What the hell is Iron Man doing on this list? It's just a fun and entertaining flick based on a comic book series about the adventures of a powersuit-wearing billionaire named Tony Stark, right?
Well, it's not widely advertised that Tony Stark first made his debut back in 1963 as an anti-Communist force fighting alongside American soldiers as they began streaming into Vietnam. In the comics, Stark is captured by Communists, tortured, and forced to build them a war machine for repelling the invaders. In the 2008 film, one need only replace Vietnam with Afghanistan and Communists with Terrorists.
Other updates from the Cold War-era to the War on Terror-era include the fact that it's now "terrorists" capturing and brutalizing people - even though in reality, such a role is actually far more attributable to the United States - as the 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report regarding CIA torture clearly demonstrates.
And, as journalist Nick Turse points out:
"[W]hile, in the film, the nefarious Obadiah Stane, Stark's right hand man, is a double-dealing arms dealer who is selling high-tech weapons systems to the terrorists in Afghanistan (and trying to kill Stark as well), two decades ago the US government played just that role. For years, it sent advanced weapons systems - including Stinger missiles, one of the most high-tech weapons of that moment - to jihadis in Afghanistan so they could make war on one infidel superpower (the Soviet Union), before setting their sights on another (the United States)."
But even if we look beyond the storyline, there are other very compelling reasons as to why Iron Man works to boost support for US imperialism. Just ask the various high-ranking military members who eagerly jumped at the opportunity to participate on the film:
"The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars," said Christian Hodge, the Defense Department's project officer for Iron Man.
"I want people to walk away from this movie with a really good impression of the Air Force, like they got about the Navy seeing Top Gun," admitted Master Sergeant Larry Belen, who auditioned for a spot in the movie.
"The script will surely have the flyboy brass back at the Pentagon trading high fives," boasted Chuck Vinch of the Air Force Times, "especially the scene in which Iron Man dogfights in the high clouds with two F-22 Raptors."
No wonder film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film that Tony Stark is "the embodiment of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961 - a financial superhero for whom war is good business, and whose business interests guarantee there will always be a market for war."
Did I mention parts of the movie were filmed at Edwards Air Force base? Perhaps, as Nick Turse speculates, in exchange for US Air Force collaboration, there was an additional small return favor: "Iron Man's confidant, sidekick, and military liaison, Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes - another hero of the film - is now an Air Force man, not the Marine he was in the comic."
6. Skyfall (2012)
Admittedly, as a lifelong Bond series fan, it wasn't until I read Dave Schneider's piece, "On Her Majesty's Imperialist Service: Skyfall and the politics of 007 in 2012", that the grossly propagandistic nature of Skyfall really dawned on me.
"True to form, Skyfall reflects the changing political climate. As the US government imprisons whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and targets Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for releasing secret communiques by the State Department, the main nemesis in the newest Bond flick is 'cyber-terrorism'.
Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva, the film's main villain. With his blonde hair and his penchant for leaking NATO secrets, he is clearly meant to draw comparisons with Assange. The analogy goes even further, with director Sam Mendes and the media making a big fuss over Silva's sexuality despite it being only a minor part of the plot.
Unlike Assange, however, Silva doesn't leak information because of his opposition to US and British imperialism. He is motivated purely by revenge, holding MI6 responsible for his imprisonment and torture. Otherwise, though, he accepts the basic role of Britain as an imperialist power meddling in the affairs of oppressed countries.
This skewed distortion of reality is what makes films like Skyfall so dangerous. In reality, Assange is only villainized by the US and UK media because he publicly released important details about the crimes these governments commit in Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe and countless other nations. By simplifying the motivations of people like Assange and stripping them of the greater political context, Hollywood - which is just as much a part of the Western media as CNN or Fox News - blurs the lines between real heroes (Assange) and villains (agents like James Bond).
Indeed, the character Silva's greatest offense against MI6 was leaking the identities of five NATO operatives embedded in so-called terrorist groups around the world. Activists facing repression in the US and elsewhere understand how the label 'terrorist' is applied to any group, even non-violent charity organizations like the Holy Land Foundation, that disagree with the government's policy of war and occupation."
But the real paradigm shifter for me on Skyfall - and the Bond series as a whole - was this part:
"The real life James Bonds infiltrate groups like Nelson Mandela's African National Congress - at one time designated as a 'terrorist organization' by the US government for opposing apartheid - or movements like Occupy Wall Street in the US. They deceive activists and organizers for the purposes of repressing dissent domestically and internationally. And yet in Skyfall, we are meant to feel sorry for these agents when a so-called cyber-terrorist exposes their deceit to the world."
Once this red pill is swallowed, it's hard to see Bond the same way again. Though on occasion the super-spy goes rogue, at the end of the day, he's nothing more than another hired hand for the state obediently following orders without question.
7. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Just because CIA torture wasn't used for finding Osama Bin Laden doesn't mean we can't make a movie claiming otherwise - and then on top of that, open said movie with this snazzy little message: "Based on first-hand accounts of actual events".
But if providing factual information about "actual events" to the American movie-going public wasn't the goal of filmmakers, what was? The CIA - which eagerly assisted with production - offers an answer: "To ensure an appropriate portrayal of the Agency's mission as well as the dedication of the men and women of the CIA who played a key part in the success of that mission."
Okay, so we're not aiming for "actual events" - but instead, an "appropriate portrayal" of the CIA's mission. What, however, does that entail exactly?
According to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, Mark Boal, the screenwriter for Zero Dark Thirty, conducted five conference calls to the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA) in late 2011. During these calls, Boal went line-by-line down the script and allowed the CIA to edit out what they didn't like, prompting one CIA official to brag about how he's "absolutely comfortable" with the agency's depiction in the film.
Boal also visited the CIA's headquarters, which the agency wanted to keep "a bit quiet because of the sensitivities surrounding who gets to participate in this type of thing."
Such a cozy relationship between filmmakers and the CIA was permitted with "full knowledge and full approval/support" of then-CIA director Leon Panetta.
Boal even sent a message to the official he worked with from the CIA's OPA thanking him for "pulling for him", adding that it made "all the difference". The CIA official responded enthusiastically: "I can't tell you how excited we all are (at DOD and CIA) about the project ... PS: I want you to know how good I've been not mentioning the premiere tickets. :)".
8. Argo (2012)
Argo opens with this:
"In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and US petroleum holdings, returning Iran's oil to its people."
From there, it's all downhill. As Slate's Kevin Lee writes:
"This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive - because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde 'white Americans in peril' storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies - still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
Argo makes the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most cataclysmic episodes in US foreign affairs in the last 50 years, a mere backdrop to a silver-lining subplot - one that even Robert Anders, one of the Argo hostages, admitted was a 'footnote'. The film thus distorts and belittles an event that transformed US history."
How convenient that Argo not only trivializes the US-backed coup in Iran - which was an integral motivating force behind the subsequent hostage crisis - but more, that Argo also glorifies the CIA - explaining why the agency apparently loved the film so much: "All involved in the operation were innovative, brave, & creative," the CIA said on its Twitter account back in late 2014. "Thank you @BenAffleck for making a film that reflects this."
While the CIA operation portrayed in Argo may have been innovative, brave, and creative, in reality, it was hardly such. Aside from a brief holdup over a mechanical issue with the plane, the CIA's mission to extract Americans hidden in Iran went "as smooth as silk" according to Tony Mendez, the real life CIA agent who is depicted by Ben Affleck.
There are plenty of other historical errors and omissions in Argo - too many, in fact. I had originally planned to write about them here but soon realized that in doing so, I would likely end up constructing a new essay entirely. So if you're interested, be sure to check out this extensive critique by Nima Shirazi.
9. Captain Philips (2013)
What motivates Somali "pirates" to hijack western cargo ships and hold them for ransom? Is it money? Power? Or are they perhaps just envious of our freedoms? Captain Philips offers few answers - only giving brief mention to western ships that have been over-fishing off the coast of Somalia for years - a practice that has caused widespread food shortages throughout the already-impoverished African country.
It's estimated that $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters every year - and yet this is hardly the worst of what fuels piracy.
Writes Johann Hari of The Independent:
"In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.
Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: 'Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it.' Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to 'dispose' of cheaply."
If the goal of Captain Philips is to present an accurate and balanced view of Somali piracy, they would have surely started the film off by providing this important context. Yet apparently, western ships depriving Somalis of a precious food supply while polluting the very waters which provide it is barely worth mentioning.
Part of the reason for the exclusion of such facts could be related to the Pentagon's cooperation on the film. The US Navy not only provided technical assistance, but three vessels as well: the USS Truxton, USS Wasp, and USS Halyburton. As we've already established, such cooperation comes with a heavy price: historical accuracy gets flushed down the toilet in exchange for a glowing perception of the US military: "By supporting the production, the Navy was able to ensure authentic portrayal of fleet operations and the successful recovery of Captain Phillips," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Lauryn Dempsey told Bloomberg.
But really, should we have expected anything less than yet another propaganda piece from the same director that brought us United 93?
10. The Interview (2014)
This film's controversial nature begins with its twisted plot: Two journalists - working with North Korea's intelligence agency - travel to Washington DC, meet with President Barack Obama, and then - after humiliating him on international television - murder him with a missile.
Whoops! Got that backwards:
Two US journalists - working with the CIA - travel to North Korea, meet with Kim Jong-un, and then - after humiliating him on international television - murder him with a missile.
There. Now we can all feel better. Talking about the murder of an American president is simply unacceptable - but North Korean officials are 100% fair game.
And why shouldn't they be? North Korea - after all - has the highest defense budget and the most military bases worldwide. It routinely invades and occupies other countries. It even has a heavy nuclear arsenal - one that it hasn't been shy about using.
Whoops! That's the US, not North Korea. But let's not get bogged down by silly details. I mean, it's just a movie, right? So why take it so seriously?
Because freedom of speech - that's why. According to the same news networks that helped sell the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere - North Korea "hacked" Sony studios to prevent the release of The Interview. Disregarded in this narrative is the immense skepticism by the cyber intelligence community over whether North Korea was actually responsible - or if it would even make sense to risk nuclear annihilation over a B-grade comedy.
And comedy it was. After sacrificing 112 minutes of my precious time to watch this movie, the most laughable part came at the end when, after killing Kim Jong-un, we see North Korean news channels happily announcing that "democratic elections" are going to be held in the country - an announcement made all the more hilarious by the symbolic firework display shooting off in the background.
As we all know, when the CIA removes or assassinates the leader of a foreign country, "democracy" is what follows. Clearly this happened after the 1953 US-backed coup in Iran, which resulted in the installment of a brutal dictator. Obviously such was the case after the US noosed Saddam Hussein - evident by the widespread stability oh-so-apparent in a country now suffering from a sharp spike in terrorism and corruption. And of course we saw similar results after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was droned down and beaten to death by US-backed "rebels"; just look at how well-off Libya is now.
The Interview is the sort of wet dream neocons like Bill Kristol have on a nightly basis. Far removed from reality, such propaganda owes its primary success to the fact that it veils itself not only as harmless comedy, but also as a way for propagandized Americans to "stick it" to a country perceived to be far greater a threat than it actually is.
No wonder the US State Department approved the film before its release.
And how timely that The Interview coincides with the Obama administration's military "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region, where upwards of 70,000 US troops are being sent as the US strengthens its encirclement of China by tightening military relations with nearby countries such as Japan, Guam, Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Writes Gavin Mueller of Al-Jazeera:
"Hackers, purportedly acting on behalf of the North Korean government, leaked a huge amount of sensitive data from the film's maker, Sony Pictures. It's the kind of story Western media loves: North Korea once again assumes its typecast role as an eccentric tin-pot dictatorship, replete with outsize demands and broken English, a combination of Cold War relic and oriental despot.
American's image of North Korea is largely constructed from these sensationalized stories, many of which are outright falsehoods. Remember the unicorn lair? Kim's executed girlfriend? Or when national security journalists promoted a sloppy parody video as real North Korean propaganda? These stories are repeatedly debunked, but the corrections fail to go viral, as the original claims do, such as the one that Kim fed his uncle to dogs. The overall effect remains: North Korea is as ridiculous as it is dangerous, run by violent, irrational madmen.
Editors at even the most respected US publications are prepared to run any poorly sourced or poorly translated story about the country, and audiences are prepared to believe them. You don't have to be an Internet Maoist to sense that Western media is rife with what's essentially anti-North Korea propaganda."
11. American Sniper (2014)
Following in the footsteps of The Hurtlocker, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is the story of real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle who - motivated by the 9/11 attacks - eagerly ships off to Iraq.
Did Iraq have anything to do with 9/11? Of course not. But who cares?
Kyle served multiple tours in the oil-rich nation firing bullets into the heads of Iraqis whose most unforgivable crimes were defending themselves from a totally justified invasion - Iraqis whom Kyle refers to as "savages" in his book. "I only wish I had killed more," he writes.
Clearly this is someone who should be heralded as an American hero - as deluded imperialists such as the New York Post's Andrea Peyser have written: "The gunslinger put his own life on the line to protect the rights of all Americans, and that includes ungrateful Tinseltown meatheads who wield their constitutionally protected right to free speech to bring dishonor upon a bona fide hero."
That's right. If not for men like Chris Kyle willing to serve trustworthy American politicians and their desire to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world, the mighty Iraqi empire would have certainly stormed Washington - and we'd all be speaking Evildoer right now.
Ironically, The Interview's star, Seth Rogen, was one of the first people to publicly comment on how American Sniper reminded him of a propaganda film. These assertions were quickly retracted, however, once dogmatic Pentagon defenders swarmed his Twitter feed to denounce his lack of patriotism - which is all too comical considering these same people often like to talk about how our troops defend our rights - including freedom of speech.
Fortunately, not even all members of the US military are so willing to defend America's foreign policy. As Sam Knight points out via Alternet, "Aaron Hughes, an organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War, told NPR in 2012 that many ex-servicemembers who fought alongside Kyle in Iraq decided to publicly discard their medals because they were 'told we can build democracies and fight for freedom, but occupations are never about freedom and democracy.' One of his fellow Iraq veterans and IVAW organizers, Camilo Mejia, said troops 'swore to protect the Constitution and to fight for freedom and democracy, but that's not what we're doing in Iraq.'"
Nonetheless, while the jury is out on whether the Pentagon assisted with American Sniper, one thing is certain: As our Peace Prize-receiving President steadily restarts the US military campaign in Iraq, the timing of American Sniper's release couldn't be more convenient in terms of delivering a heavy dose of quality propaganda to a war-weary public.
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US foreign policy is laying the groundwork for WWIII, and only Americans can stop the process - The odds are stacked against Americans seeking to free their country from asylum escapees, but the fight is worth it
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