Talking with Dr. Matthew Alford: "US military influence on cinema and TV is far greater than originally thought".
By Charlotte Knowles
It has been known for some time that certain Hollywood producers work with the US military or intelligence agencies. However, it has always been hard to know the exact number of productions influenced. Now, researchers Dr Matthew Alford and Tom Secker are close to being able to do that thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests.
"I wish you'd interviewed me in a few months from now! Frankly I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information i’m processing for the new book i’m working on with Tom Secker because, as a group of researchers, if you were asking us 10 or 15 years ago, how many media entertainment products have been affected by the national security apparatus, we’d probably have said a couple of hundred or so. But that number is so much higher - we don’t know because we are literally in the middle of it! But it could be five or ten times higher over the past 100 years.”
Alford refers to films that have been influenced by the CIA, NSA, US military or the FBI as 'national security cinema'."'National security cinema' is a good label for a set of films which look at American foreign policy and American national security and are typically very favourable to national security interests."
Whilst the quantity of films affected by these specific political influences might be much higher than expected, Alford reminds us that political influence over media, and particularly cinema is nothing new.
"Cinema has always been used as a political tool. Cinema has been around for about 120 years. Literally the first thing that was ever made was a piece of political propaganda - a Spanish flag going down a flagpole and the stars and stripes going up the flagpole. That’s the earliest example, 20 second film. Cinema is essential to political communication."
Now more so than ever, personnel from the NSA, the FBI, the CIA the department of defense and sometimes the White House, will attempt to influence Hollywood film scripts and other scripts, often by offering quid pro quo - offering tanks, helicopters, aircraft carriers, advice, extras dressed in military uniform and so on. As Alford says, "they are able to give something to the film producers that they can’t get elsewhere".
"The thing that they emphasise that they want to do is to show the military in an accurate light. So they’ll talk about the need to have the ribbons in the right places or the uniform is in the right colour or the language used is ‘sir, yes sir’, or whatever it is. But really and what they should be emphasising is the other little line in their directive is to not do anything that goes against the interests of the American government and also to present the military in a positive light for recruitment processes. Sometimes, they want to remove a line, sometimes they want to have just a general long-standing influence over the production so that there is no temptation by the producers to push the narrative down a line that would be more aggressive towards the government. "
One of many examples of this would be the film Black Hawk Down which is based on a novel by journalist Mark Bowden. The book details the US invasion of Somalia in 1992, showing how it may have had some humanitarian impulses to hand out food, but, as Bowden says, "no one could have really interpreted it like that because they ended up killing loads of people, and destroying a bunch of stuff". The film removes any of that critical content. As Alford reminds us, "It happens all the time"
“I mean if you watch a video of Meryl Streep giving a speech, you might get the impression that Hollywood are all left-wing, liberal anti war, da, da, da… Well yeah, there’s a liberal element to it that they’ll tend to support women’s rights and that’s obviously important, but when it comes to matters of national security, when it comes to matters of war and peace, they are nowhere. Hollywood celebrities are useless in this regard. There were more people in the House of Commons that opposed the Iraq war than the entirety of celebrities that signed the a piece of paper in 2003.
There is ideological connections there and it might not be great that Hollywood is supportive of American empire, American supremacy, particularly when it is over controversial issues - Israel/Palestine, the Vietnam War, Iraq war, whatever. But this stretches far beyond cinema. "We’re not just talking about war films, we talking about comedies, TV shows. I’m not saying there is an enormous political significance to this but the US Department of Defense will work on things like game shows and cookery shows, like Cupcake Wars.... we don’t know the exact script changes were on all these things, but we do know that the number of TV shows is in the hundreds, possibly higher - we are literally counting up the numbers now.”
The impact on audiences is understandably great. It would be difficult for anyone to watch the same message repeated across television, film and other media without it taking root as a perceived reality. That is, after all, why the national security apparatus bother to do this in the first place.
"You might very well be resistant to the political messages of individual films and that’s great. But you might be less resistant to dozens and dozens and scores and scores of films and TV shows and video games constantly promoting the same message, that the United States Government and that western governments are essentially benevolent. That essentially the system works. That we are not in a world that is going to severely damage itself through environmental degradation and so on and so on. That kind of message is harder to resist when we have got a constant stream - it’s harder for me to resist! All of us I think are living in a media saturated world, and there is loads of good work in the entertainment media. But if the media isn’t helping to awaken us politically to the dangers of nuclear war, the dangers of climate change, the dangers of conflict generally, the ravages of the economic system, then… i’m not saying it’s morally obliged to do that, but it’s certainly morally obliged not to lie about that, and that’s what I think is really important when the military comes in and other organisations deliberately spin, I think that’s really objectionable.
"I think that Hollywood should be free, and it says it’s free but it’s not. There’s one simple thing that could be done - instead of having at the end of the credits ‘thanks to the Department of Defense’, or any other entity, there should be legal obligation to say at the beginning of the film ‘this film was made with the cooperation of the US military’, or any of these other entities. Because if that flashes up in the first few seconds of an audience watching a film, you are going to be turned off it, because it’s political. The audience has enormous power. You should use it."
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