Tuesday, February 9, 2016

5 Most Heavily CIA-Assisted Films and TV Shows

U.S. government agencies from the Department of Defense to the Center for Disease Control employ entertainment liaison officers. Those officers' mission is to influence how the public perceives their government agency and to feed information to a willing consumer about government policy or action through film and television. Even the most secretive of agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), works with Hollywood to shape story lines about the government's work. For example, retired CIA officers have been involved in the making of Meet the Parents (2000), Syriana (2005), Rendition (2007), Charlie Wilson's War (2007), among others. 

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But the CIA's role in films and television goes beyond shaping how Robert DeNiro's character in Meet the Parents would needle information from his potential son-in-law. Author Tricia Jenkins writes in the introduction to her first edition of The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television (2012), "It is my hope [to] . . . encourage more critical media consumption and shed additional light on the topic of government propaganda." With a history of censorship during the Cold War and even using Academy award-winning makeup artists to disguise agents during missions, the CIA's influence in entertainment goes beyond straightforward fact-checking. With key production roles in recent pop culture phenomena like the Homeland series and the award-winning films Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, we asked Professor Tricia Jenkins to list her top film and TV programs heavily influenced by the CIA. The revised and updated edition of The CIA in Hollywood is now available.

Five of the Most Heavily CIA-Assisted Films and Television Programs
By Tricia Jenkins

The Recruit (2003)

This spy thriller stars Colin Farrell as a young CIA recruit, training at The Farm under the watchful eye of agency veteran and mentor, Walter Burke (Al Pacino).  What the public doesn’t know about this film is that the CIA’s Entertainment Liaison, Chase Brandon, wrote The Recruit’s treatment and original draft alongside the credited screenwriter, Roger Towne. The documents discussed in the revised edition of The CIA in Hollywood reveal that Brandon’s role far exceeded the one that even an aggressive studio executive or producer would play in the development of a film, even though Brandon is merely listed as a technical consultant in the film’s credits.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

An Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty follows Maya, a persistent CIA analyst, who successfully tracks Osama bin Laden to Pakistan, allowing the U.S. to eventually kill its greatest public enemy. Documents reveal that CIA officials were eager to collaborate with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, as they felt confident that “Mark and Kathryn” would be sympathetic to their interests and work to construct a positive portrayal of the agency’s role in the bin Laden operation. To assist the filmmakers, the agency set up multiple meetings for Boal and Bigelow with several experts who could offer inside information on the long search for the 9/11 mastermind. These included a real-life Maya; a translator involved in the raid; the unnamed Director of the Counter Terrorism Center; the CIA Director’s Chief of Staff, Jeremy Bash; the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Michael Vickers; and Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell. The Office of Public Affairs staff also held at least four conference calls with Boal, where he verbally shared his screenplay and discussed the direction of the script, allowing the Agency some input into the final scenes. Boal was also allowed access to a 2011 ceremony for roughly 1,300 military and intelligence officials, where CIA director Leon Panetta discussed information designated as “top secret” and “secret” during his presentation about the raid.

The Agency (2001-2003)

A CBS television series, The Agency was created with the guidance of Chase Brandon, the CIA’s entertainment liaison. While the public record suggests that the CIA and Brandon only collaborated on the pilot episode,  later conversations with series creator, Michael Frost Beckner, revealed that throughout season one, the two would often converse about the show’s storylines, with Brandon offering up ideas that eventually led Beckner to suspect  that Brandon and the CIA may have envisioned The Agency as a useful intimidation tool and a threat scenario workshop, in addition to a way to help the CIA burnish its image in a tumultuous time. 

Argo (2012)

Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Argo uses docudrama to tell the tale of Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who successfully freed six Americans trapped inside of Iran during the hostage crisis of the late 1970s. The film’s production is based on both Mendez’s memoir, Master of Disguise, and a 2007 Wired article entitled “The Great Escape.” The CIA arranged for several members of the cast and crew to consult with former and current officers in order to get the look and feel of the agency in the 1970s just right. Screenplay writer Chris Terrio and director Ben Affleck were also in regular contact with the CIA’s official historians to discuss the finer points of the Iranian operation. CIA officials also granted permission for scenes to be shot at the agency's famous Langley headquarters, and Mendez himself became an active participant in the film’s development. In fact, Terrio spent a week at Mendez’s Maryland farm talking about the Iranian mission and the inner life of a CIA operative, and Mendez's wife, Jonna, eventually and affectionately christened Terrio their “mole” because the writer would often send them script updates, as well as photos of the sets to keep them in the loop.

Homeland (2011-present)

Claire Danes plays Carrie Matheson, a CIA analyst and eventual station chief, in this Emmy-award winning Showtime series. The show’s creators, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, report that they regularly work with a CIA liaison, who answers questions about agency culture and practices. The writers also run invented story elements past the CIA “to ensure [they aren’t] laughable to those in the know,” and those contacts also help to generate story ideas.

Show creators and on-screen talent have also visited CIA headquarters in Langley. Danes revealed that she has visited the Agency numerous times and that Carrie is loosely modeled on a real female CIA officer, who took the actress to the campus and introduced her to other female colleagues. Reportedly, Gansa has used his on-campus visits to solicit ideas regarding the locations of future story lines, and a gaggle of current agency staffers, former director Michael Hayden, and former head of the clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, attended a glamorous premiere and reception at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2013 to further enhance the CIA-Homeland connection.

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