Showbiz spies: How the CIA and Hollywood are working together

As an associate professor of film, television and digital media at Texas Christian University, Tricia Jenkins keeps up with the latest missions of James Bond, Carrie Matheson and Jason Bourne.

In doing so, she's crafted some fascinating conclusions about how the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and some of the country's favorite spy shows and movies work together to shape perceptions about the government agency.

At TCU, Jenkins' research is leveraged directly in her teaching. Her class, titled Media, Politics and Social Values, looks at the ways the military, FBI and CIA have historically used Hollywood to boost their own images, gain support for their policies or enhance recruitment.

"I especially want to understand how government agencies shape the content of films and television shows, what motivates their involvement in that industry, and how my students' ideas about those agencies, war and foreign policy are all being influenced by the works they watch," Jenkins said.

"I believe the more they know about how Hollywood works, the better they become at critical media consumption -- a process that I hope helps limit some of the negative effects of constant media exposure while enhancing the pleasures of entertainment."

Such conclusions are nothing new to Jenkins. She's known since her graduate studies that the government has had a long history in shaping popular culture.

As early as the 1930s, the FBI maintained a department to improve and control its image in radio programs, films and television shows. This can be seen in the positive depictions of the FBI in the 1935 film "G-Men," and "The F.B.I.," a television series that aired from 1965 to 1974.

In 1947, the Department of Defense followed suit by opening an entertainment office, Jenkins said.

"And now the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security -- and the Secret Service -- all have motion picture and television offices or official assistants to the media on their payroll," Jenkins said.

The CIA is a modern player, though. Despite existing since 1947, the agency did not hire its first entertainment industry liaison officer until 1996, Jenkins noted. This recent change shaped Jenkins' research.

"Once I became aware that the CIA had started working with Hollywood and how many texts it had already influenced, I became increasingly curious about how it goes about influencing these products and what the result is," she said.

Jenkins' work shows that the image of the CIA has dramatically changed in popular culture since the late 1990s and that the CIA itself is partly responsible for that shift.

In movies and TV shows that debuted before the 1990s, the CIA was typically represented narrowly as either buffoons, assassins or morally reprehensible rogues.

"These representations can be found in films including 'Three Days of the Condor,' 'In the Line of Fire,' 'Scorpio,' 'Body of Lies,' and the Jason Bourne series," Jenkins said, where characters playing CIA officers are ne'er-do-wells who will stop at nothing to meet their goals.

After the CIA opened its Hollywood liaison office in 1996 the popular images became more likely to feature the agency as an organization that is effective in thwarting national threats and has to make tough choices -- but ultimately has a strong moral compass.

"Examples of this are in 'The Agency,' 'Alias,' 'Covert Affairs,' 'Argo' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' -- all programs that received CIA assistance in some capacity," Jenkins said. These depictions offer a more nuanced, character-driven view of the officers, giving them (and the agency itself) a more humanized effect.

To change its image in popular culture, the CIA's first response was to take a page from the FBI's book and develop a TV show called "The Classified Files of the CIA." This show was to be developed by a hand-picked production company the agency felt would protect its interests. Also, the agency was allowed to see the script in advance.

Tensions developed, however, when producers wanted to reduce the level of agency control in the 11th hour, which dampened CIA enthusiasm for the project, said Jenkins. Ultimately, the project was axed.

"The CIA, to my knowledge, never tried such a hands-on approach to developing an entertainment text again," Jenkins said.

But the agency still has influence over the programming we consume, as Jenkins is quick to remind her classes.

So the next time you see a movie about shadowy government forces influencing the media, it may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

--Alicia Doyle for TCU

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