The Manufacture of World Order

The Security Services and the Movie Industry

How to Cite

Stockwell, S. (2005). The Manufacture of World Order: The Security Services and the Movie Industry. M/C Journal, 7(6).
Vol. 7 No. 6 (2005): 'order'
Published 2005-01-01

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and most particularly since 9/11, the government of the United States has used its security services to enforce the order it desires for the world. The US government and its security services appreciate the importance of creating the ideological environment that allows them full-scope in their activities. To these ends they have turned to the movie industry which has not been slow in accommodating the purposes of the state.

In establishing the parameters of the War Against Terror after 9/11, one of the Bush Administration’s first stops was Hollywood. White House strategist Karl Rove called what is now described as the Beverley Hills Summit on 19 November 2001 where top movie industry players including chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti met to discuss ways in which the movie industry could assist in the War Against Terror. After a ritual assertion of Hollywood’s independence, the movie industry’s powerbrokers signed up to the White House’s agenda: “that Americans must be called to national service; that Americans should support the troops; that this is a global war that needs a global response; that this is a war against evil” (Cooper 13).

Good versus evil is, of course, a staple commodity for the movie industry but storylines never require the good guys to fight fair so with this statement the White House got what it really wanted: Hollywood’s promise to stay on the big picture in black and white while studiously avoiding the troubling detail in the exercise extra-judicial force and state-sanctioned murder. This is not to suggest that the movie industry is a monolithic ideological enterprise. Alternative voices like Mike Moore and Susan Sarandon still find space to speak.

But the established economics of the scenario trade are too strong for the movie industry to resist: producers gain access to expensive weaponry to assist production if their story-lines are approved by Pentagon officials (‘Pentagon provides for Hollywood’); the Pentagon finances movie and gaming studios to provide original story formulas to keep their war-gaming relevant to emerging conditions (Lippman); and the Central Intelligence Agency’s “entertainment liaison officer” assists producers in story development and production (Gamson). In this context, the moulding of story-lines to the satisfaction of the Pentagon and CIA is not even an issue, and protestations of Hollywood’s independence is meaningless, as the movie industry pursues patriotic audiences at home and seeks to garner hearts and minds abroad.

This is old history made new again. The Cold War in the 1950s saw movies addressing the disruption of world order not so much by Communists as by “others”: sci-fi aliens, schlock horror zombies, vampires and werewolves and mad scientists galore. By the 1960s the James Bond movie franchise, developed by MI5 operative Ian Fleming, saw Western secret agents ‘licensed to kill’ with the justification that such powers were required to deal with threats to world order, albeit by fanciful “others” such as the fanatical scientist Dr. No (1962). The Bond villains provide a catalogue of methods for the disruption of world order: commandeering atomic weapons and space flights, manipulating finance markets, mind control systems and so on.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Hollywood produced a wealth of material that excused the paranoid nationalism of the security services through the hegemonic masculinity of stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis (Beasley). Willis’s Die Hard franchise (1988/1990/1995) characterised US insouciance in the face of newly created terrorist threats. Willis personified the strategy of the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations: a willingness to up the ante, second guess the terrorists and cower them with the display of firepower advantage.

But the 1997 instalment of the James Bond franchise saw an important shift in expectations about the source of threats to world order. Tomorrow Never Dies features a media tycoon bent on world domination, manipulating the satellite feed, orchestrating conflicts and disasters in the name of ratings, market share and control. Having dealt with all kinds of Cold War plots, Bond is now confronted with the power of the media itself. As if to mark this shift, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) made a mockery of the creatively bankrupt conventions of the spy genre.

But it was the politically corrupt use to which the security services could be put that was troubling a string of big-budget filmmakers in the late 90s. In Enemy of the State (1998), an innocent lawyer finds himself targeted by the National Security Agency after receiving evidence of a political murder motivated by the push to extend the NSA’s powers. In Mercury Rising (1998), a renegade FBI agent protects an autistic boy who cracks a top-secret government code and becomes the target for assassins from an NSA-like organisation. Arlington Road (1999) features a college professor who learns too much about terrorist organisations and has his paranoia justified when he becomes the target of a complex operation to implicate him as a terrorist.

The attacks on September 11 and subsequent Beverley Hills Summit had a major impact on movie product. Many film studios edited films (Spiderman) or postponed their release (Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage) where they were seen as too close to actual events but insufficiently patriotic (Townsend). The Bond franchise returned to its staple of fantastical villains. In Die Another Day (2002), the bad guy is a billionaire with a laser cannon. The critical perspective on the security services disappeared overnight.

But the most interesting development has been how fantasy has become the key theme in a number of franchises dealing with world order that have had great box-office success since 9/11, particularly Lord of the Rings (2001/2/3) and Harry Potter (2001/2/4). While deeply entrenched in the fantasy genre, each of these franchises also addresses security issues: geo-political control in the Rings franchise; the subterfuges of the Ministry for Muggles in the _Potter _franchise. Looking at world order through the supernatural lens has particular appeal to audiences confronted with everyday threats. These fantasies follow George Bush’s rhetoric of the “axis of evil” in normalising the struggle for world order in term of black and white with the expectation that childish innocence and naïve ingenuity will prevail.

Only now with three years hindsight since September 11 can we begin to see certain amount of self-reflection by disenchanted security staff return to the cinema. In Man on Fire (2004) the burned-out ex-CIA assassin has given up on life but regains some hope while guarding a child only to have everything disintegrate when the child is killed and he sets out on remorseless revenge. Spartan (2004) features a special forces officer who fails to find a girl and resorts to remorseless revenge as he becomes lost in a maze of security bureaucracies and chance events. Security service personnel once again have their doubts but only find redemption in violence and revenge without remorse.

From consideration of films before and after September 11, it becomes apparent that the movie industry has delivered on their promises to the Bush administration. The first response has been the shift to fantasy that, in historical terms, will be seen as akin to the shift to musicals in the Depression. The flight to fantasy makes the point that complex situations can be reduced to simple moral decisions under the rubric of good versus evil, which is precisely what the US administration requested. The second, more recent response has been to accept disenchantment with the personal costs of the War on Terror but still validate remorseless revenge. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise (2003/4) seeks to do both. Thus the will to world order being fought out in the streets of Iraq is sublimated into fantasy or excused as a natural response to a world of violence.

It is interesting to note that television has provided more opportunities for the productive consideration of world order and the security services than the movies since September 11. While programs that have had input from the CIA’s “entertainment liaison officer” such as teen-oriented, Buffy-inspired Alias and quasi-authentic The Agency provide a no-nonsense justification for the War on Terror (Gamson), others such as 24, West Wing _and _Threat Matrix have confronted the moral problems of torture and murder in the War on Terrorism. 24 uses reality TV conventions of real-time plot, split screen exposition, unexpected interventions and a close focus on personal emotions to explore the interactions between a US President and an officer in the Counter Terrorism Unit. The CTU officer does not hesitate to summarily behead a criminal or kill a colleague for operational purposes and the president takes only a little longer to begin torturing recalcitrant members of his own staff. Similarly, the president in West Wing orders the extra-judicial death of a troublesome player and the team in Threat Matrix are ready to exceeded their powers.

But in these programs the characters struggle with the moral consequences of their violent acts, particularly as family members are drawn into the plot. A running theme of Threat Matrix is the debate within the group of their choices between gung-ho militarism and peaceful diplomacy: the consequences of a simplistic, hawkish approach are explored when an Arab-American college professor is wrongfully accused of supporting terrorists and driven towards the terrorists because of his very ordeal of wrongful accusation. The world is not black and white. Almost half the US electorate voted for John Kerry. Television still must cater for liberal, and wealthy, demographics who welcome the extended format of weekly television that allows a continuing engagement with questions of good or evil and whether there is difference between them any more. Against the simple world view of the Bush administration we have the complexities of the real world.

Author Biography

Stephen Stockwell