The G-Man as the Fall Guy

Times Staff Writer

Dan Goldberg was a kid when his grandmother took him to see "The FBI Story" with Jimmy Stewart, but he never forgot that motion picture experience. With the new film "Feds," Goldberg and his writing partner Len Blum set out to do unto the FBI what they'd done to summer camps and the U.S. Army in "Meatballs" and "Stripes."

An Ivan Reitman film from Warner Bros., "Feds" opens Oct. 28, is directed by Goldberg, and stars Rebecca DeMornay and Mary Gross as FBI recruits. The $6-million film chronicles DeMornay and Gross' struggle to survive target practice, "simulated crime exercises" and dating.

With "Feds," Goldberg and associates join a growing list of film makers who skewer the FBI on screen. Among the movies getting a good laugh--and great box office--at the expense of America's G-men are:

--"Midnight Run" (Universal)--Martin Brest directs Robert De Niro as former cop Jack Walsh, a small-time bounty hunter who takes on the FBI and the Mob to bring in bail-jumping accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Yaphet Kotto plays FBI agent Alonzo Mosley as one tough bumbler.

--"Married to the Mob" (Orion Pictures)--Jonathan Demme directs the tale of Mafia widow Angela DeMarco (Michelle Pfeiffer) and undercover FBI agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) who first trails, then falls for her as she tries to leave Mafia life.

--"Die Hard" (Fox)--Director John McTiernan pits off-duty New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) against a group of terrorists, while police and the FBI seem more interested in arguing over jurisdiction.

The G-man as comic relief is a far cry from the days when J. Edgar Hoover wrote an article in TV Guide that praised ABC's "The FBI" series and his "devoted friend and citizen" Efrem Zimbalist Jr. There's no FBI seal of approval on the current movies.

"Movies are aimed toward young people who often feel frustrated with authority," says psychologist David Gorton, director of the Gestalt Therapy and Training Center in Sherman Oaks. "It's pleasing to see the school principal being a fumble-bum--like in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off"--but to see somebody in such a position of control and authority as the FBI fouling things up is the ultimate satisfaction."

The clean-cut, incorruptible FBI agent has been a Hollywood staple since James Cagney stalked the screen in Warner Bros.' "G-Men" in 1935. From John Dillinger to Ma Barker, criminal after criminal leaped from FBI files into the newspapers and onto the big screen.

Hollywood's interest in G-men has hardly abated in the '80s. "FBI priorities the past 10 years have been organized crime, foreign counterintelligence and white-collar crime," says former FBI agent John Morrison, today a private investigator in Los Angeles. "The setting is delicious for the media."

Enter action comedy writers. An FBI agent, says "Married to the Mob" co-author Mark R. Burns, represents "an American myth, a generic American," and the perfect comic contrast to a Mafia wife from Long Island.

Like their counterpart George Gallo on "Midnight Run," Burns and writing partner Barry Strugatz needed national policemen who could pursue investigations across state lines, but they also needed some fall guys. Consider, for instance, the scene where FBI regional director Franklin gets merry widow DeMarco to play ball after threatening her with both a jail term and the deportation of her Jamaican buddy Rita (played by reggae star Sister Carol). The incident prompts the following dialogue:

DeMarco: "My God, you people work just like the mob. There's no difference."

Franklin: "There's a big difference, Mrs. DeMarco. The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States."

Audiences roar at that line in the theater, but not everybody's laughing. Few people embrace the portrayal of their race, religion, sex or profession in the media, and FBI agents are no exception. When he used to see negative images of the agency on the screen, says former agent Morrison, "it cut me right to the quick. I was proud of the FBI and I liked what I did."

Nobody means to be insulting, explains "Die Hard" director John McTiernan. Just funny. "There is a long tradition of using authority figures for comedy," says McTiernan. "It goes right back to the Keystone Kops, who are really pretty innocent. . . . It would be a great shame if people read 'Die Hard' as an accurate portrayal of the FBI. The FBI agents in 'Die Hard' were a pair of comic characters."

Consistency is also important. Everyone was foolish in "Midnight Run," observes TV producer Stephen J. Cannell. If the FBI characters had been very real, says the co-creator of "The Rockford Files," "Wiseguy" and other crime action shows, "they would have looked like characters out of another movie. They wouldn't have fit the tone of the picture."

The FBI image "has been seriously tarnished, starting with the revelations of goings-on under J. Edgar Hoover (and continuing) to a variety of recent troubles the FBI has had with its own personnel," says George Gerbner, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.

"Also, exposures of the CIA had a fallout that affected the FBI too. Many people don't make a distinction between foreign and domestic surveillance, (and) the notion of secret covert operations and secret police has surfaced with greater awareness in the last 10 years or so. Humor is a way of cutting down to size and of undermining the mythology."

Given the controversial Abscam investigations, the 1986 conviction of former agent Richard W. Miller for espionage and current criticism over minority personnel policies, the bureau has drawn increased media attention in recent years. But the FBI doesn't shy away from the media: Agents will read and comment on TV and film scripts.

In Los Angeles, for instance, FBI media representative Fred Reagan says it's "a very rare day when we don't have two or three calls" from a researcher or writer wanting to check titles, clarify jurisdiction or even confirm where Billy Bad Guy sits in the agent's car after an arrest. And agent Wiley Thompson, chief of the FBI's special productions unit in Washington, estimates that at any given time, his office is probably handling two dozen industry inquiries and requests for assistance.

"We do have the ability to laugh at ourselves," says Thompson, talking of how his office provides help on comedies and spoofs like "Feds" as well as on more serious fare. "We don't expect anything more than what we're told, but that doesn't lessen our cooperation. We still welcome the opportunity to develop a relationship with the producer in hopes that we can have some influence on how the FBI's image is projected."

Film makers also rely on their own research sources, of course.

Convicted Watergate conspirator--and former FBI agent--G. Gordon Liddy was in the "Feds" cast for a while and helped out as "an informal technical adviser," says Goldberg. Not only did "Midnight Run" screenwriter Gallo turn to Sgt. Stanley White of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for counsel, but many extras in a "Midnight Run" stakeout were, in fact, real FBI agents.

Actor Kotto's restrained agent Mosley in that film also evolved from research. Kotto says he talked with FBI agents in Washington and New York, decided they were more like attorneys than policemen and suggested to director Brest that he play his role that way. Brest agreed, says Kotto, "and by playing an attorney, I came out being an FBI agent."

Editorial librarian Patricia L. Brown assisted with the research on this article.

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