When it comes to U.S. Military intelligence branches, everything isn’t always above board. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is tasked with gathering, processing, and analyzing national security information for the government. Classified documents and missions mean that the government is continuously trying to cover their tracks and paint themselves in a better light. In the past, the CIA used to have journalists in their pockets to combat any negative coverage that the media was putting out. However, when that was exposed in the 1970s, they knew they’d have to take a different route.
Now, the CIA is using Hollywood to spin their narratives. According to The Atlantic, “American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favors at CIA headquarters.” This tactic is used more often than you think. These movies and TV shows have been influenced or flat out sponsored by the U.S government.
1. Black Hawk Down
- The CIA asked that a major character in Black Hawk Down get a new name and backstory
Though Black Hawk Down was one of the biggest disasters in post-Vietnam military history, the government and the CIA still wanted the Battle of Mogadishu told accurately. In fact, The Pentagon provided training to the actors, as well as authentic equipment and on set technical assistance. However, the movie wasn’t completely true.
Ewan McGregor’s character was based on Army Ranger John Stebbins; a company clerk drafted into combat. However, they made sure to give the character a different last name and a different backstory since the real Stebbins is currently in prison serving time for raping a child. Horrendous.
Next: An FX series about some spies living in the ’80s.
2. The Americans
- The Americans’ creator is a former CIA agent
You may love to see Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys slay as two KGB spies posing as Americans in the 1980s, but we bet you didn’t know the special connection The Americans has with the CIA. One of the show’s creators, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA agent.
As a result, Weisberg is beholden to the agency. Every single script from The Americans must be approved by the CIA first so that nothing too important is given away. The CIA also has the right to censor the show which honestly is beyond the pale.
Next: A film based on Osama bin Laden’s capture and death
3. Zero Dark Thirty
- The Justice Department opened an investigation into the production of Zero Dark Thirty
After winning the Academy Award for Best Director (the only woman in history to do so), for her Iraq War film, The Hurtlocker, the CIA reached out to director Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty. The story centers around the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, and Bigelow and her team were given unprecedented access to the CIA files on the event. The film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal was even able to attend a classified CIA ceremony as part of his research.
However, all of this access came at a major cost. The producers were forced to portray torture as beneficial, effective, and crucial in the death of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and the CIA was allowed to veto or approve creative decisions. Someone caught wind of this, and the Justice Department opened an investigation into the film which was dropped in 2013 after the movie took home no major wins at the Oscars.
Next: A CBS show that fizzled after 9/11
4. The Agency
- The 9/11 attacks killed the CIA-backed show The Agency
CBS’ The Agency followed highly skilled CIA agents based in Washington, D.C., and though it was a good show, it premiered at the wrong time. The series was created by a former CIA agent and had a ton of assistance from the agency. In fact, the series was set to screen at the CIA headquarters, but then the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks occurred.
CBS dialed back on the show a great deal trying to revamp and recast it, but it didn’t work, and CBS decided to pull the plug.
Next: A movie that had to change its ending
5. Charlie Wilson’s War
- The real-life figures in the movie wanted to be painted in a positive light
The Aaron Sorkin penned Charlie Wilson’s War follows Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who form an alliance to boost funding for Afghan freedom fighters in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Eventually, that aid would help them during the 9/11 attacks.
When the film was being made, the real-life Charlie Wilson, asked Sorkin to change the ending. Initially, Sorkin wrote the script that ended with Wilson witnessing the attack on the Pentagon. In the end, Wilson and Hanks convinced Sorkin to go with a happier ending.
Next: A Showtime series with major CIA ties.
- Homeland producers often consult with the CIA to make sure the show is realistic
The Claire Danes led Homeland was originally developed from an Israeli TV series. However, the series’ producers turned to the CIA to put an American stamp on the show. In fact, the producers have gone to the CIA headquarters to meet with agents about possible storylines on numerous occasions.
The CIA’s reach on Homeland doesn’t just end there. Consultants attached to the agency are on set to the make sure that the show stays as realistic as possible, especially when it comes to those gruesome interrogation scenes.
Next: A 2002 film sponsored by The Pentagon.
7. The Sum Of All Fears
- The Pentagon was so thrilled by The Sum of All Fears they practically gave away military equipment
The 2002 espionage thriller The Sum of All Fears stars Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman. The movie follows a conspiracy set up to draw the United States and Russia into World War III. The Pentagon was so thrilled by the film that they pretty much sponsored it.
For the price of just $1 million, the film’s producers got, “Two B-2 bombers, two F-16 fighter jets, a National Airborne Operations Center, three Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters, a UH-60 Army helicopter, four ground vehicles, 50 Marines, and an aircraft carrier.” The cheap military equipment brought the film in well under budget.
Next: A TV show with massive CIA consultants
- Alias lead Jennifer Garner filmed a CIA recruitment video while on the show
In 2001, Jennifer Garner debuted in Alias as Sydney Bristow, a CIA undercover agent who infiltrated a global conspiracy. Chase Brandon, one of the CIA’s veteran clandestine officers was frequently on the Alias set. In fact, once the show’s popularity grew, Alias and the CIA became more entwined. In 2004, Garner filmed a recruitment video for the agency. A press release from the agency said,
The video emphasizes the CIA’s mission, and its need for people with diverse backgrounds and foreign language skills. Ms. Garner was excited to participate in the video after being asked by the Office of Public Affairs. The CIA’s Film Industry Liaison worked with the writers of Alias during the first season to educate them on fundamental tradecraft. Although the show Alias is fictional, the character Jennifer Garner plays embodies the integrity, patriotism, and intelligence the CIA looks for in its officers.
Next: A popular film used to recruit folks to the military
9. Top Gun
- The Pentagon edited the Top Gun script line by line
You might adore Top Gun because it shows a young and hunky Tom Cruise, but The Pentagon was a major fan of the film for an entirely different reason. The government saw the classic movie as a recruiting tool. They felt that it glamorized the life of top-level fighter pilots. As a result, they allowed the producers to use dozens of aircrafts, ships, and vehicles for actual pennies on the dollar.
Of course, nothing in Hollywood is free. The Top Gun filmmakers had to allow The Pentagon to edit the script line by line so that the military looked pristine. This actually resulted in a massive plot change in the film. Still, Top Gun did work in the military’s favor. Post-Vietnam, the military got a massive image overhaul, and the Navy saw a bost in recruitment.
Next: The TV show with ties to J. Edgar Hoover
10. The F.B.I.
- FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover served as a consultant on this ’70s series
The CIA isn’t the only government agency to have some weight in Hollywood. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also influenced film and TV shows. In the 1970’s producer, Quinn Martin worked hand and hand with the agency for his series, The F.B.I.
Telling fictional accounts of real FBI cases and files, Martin asked J. Edgar Hoover to serve as a consultant to the show. Hoover was desperate to rehab his image from the 1950s and 1960s, so he agreed. The show and the agency were almost too close for comfort. In fact, as the end credits rolled, actors often addressed the audience to ask for information about a criminal on the Bureau’s Most Wanted list.
Next: A movie sponsored by The Navy
- Getting help from the military and government means that you also have to sacrifice something
To get insider information and direct access to ships, Battleship director Peter Berg reached out to The Navy. The Navy readily agreed to give Berg and his crew access to multiple facilities. They even allowed him to film a training exercise. In return, Battleship was required to paint The Navy in a favorable light and give them a realistic enemy to fight.
We guess space aliens shooting explosives is kind of realistic.
Next: A perfectly timed TV show
- Jack Bauer in 24 played into the anxiety of Americans after 9/11
Keifer Sutherland’s 24 character Jack Bauer was positioned perfectly for a post-9/11 world. The show played on the anxiety of Americans and unveiled hyper-security that has now been normalized. Homeland and 24 writer, Alex Gansa explained to The Atlantic, “Jack tortured people, and it worked, in the context of a ticking time bomb situation—and, of course in real life, that never happens. The show did come under a lot of criticism for that. What’s interesting is that because of 24, popular culture became the talking point that stirred the debate.”
Next: A movie that changed its ending to make the U.S. look good.
- Argo was the first movie to film at CIA headquarters in 15 years
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hollywood and the CIA became increasingly entangled. By the time Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo premiered, there was a concrete working relationship in place. Argo was the first movie to get permission to film inside the CIA’s Langley headquarters in fifteen years. As a result, Affleck had to bend the truth when it came to his story. The changes were used to make the CIA and Hollywood look more heroic.
In fact, the film deleted a massive role the Canadian government played in freeing the hostages. That’s Hollywood magic for you.
Next: A movie that goes behind the scenes of the CIA.
- Facts had to be changed in order to make Syriana viable for the big screen
George Clooney’s 2005 film Syriana was based on CIA officer Robert Baer’s memoir, See No Evil. And yet, the film is not entirely based on fact. However, Syriana did provide some good insights into the CIA’s work overseas, specifically in how it deals with oil in the Middle East, mergers, business deals, and assassinations.
Next: A Showtime show too close to the CIA.
15. In the Company of Spies
- Sometimes the CIA can be way too involved in a film project.
Sometimes the CIA’s involvement can ruin your project. In 1999, Showtime was gearing up for a new TV series centered around the CIA. In the Company of Spies was literally sponsored by the CIA. It was shot at the company’s headquarters in Virginia and actual CIA agents served as extras.
Unfortunately, because the CIA held the pilot on such a tight leash In the Company of Spies wasn’t actually made for audiences. It premiered to such a lukewarm reception that Showtime pulled the plug on the series and debuted it as a TV movie instead.
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