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Getting smart

Professor Tricia Jenkins examines the relationship between Hollywood and the CIA.

Getting smart

Professor Tricia Jenkins examines the relationship between Hollywood and the CIA.

Shows such as 24, Alias and, most recently, Covert Affairs, show the thrilling exploits of agents involved in American espionage.
But just as interesting is the relationship the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has forged with Hollywood to craft a positive image. That’s the topic of a new book written by Tricia Jenkins, assistant professor of film, television and digital media (FTDM) titled The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television, published in February by the University of Texas Press.
The CIA was actually late to the Hollywood scene, Jenkins notes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened a Hollywood office in the 1930s to improve and control its image in film, radio and television shows such as G-Men, which aired in 1935 and The FBI, which ran from 1965 to 1974. In 1947, the Department of Defense opened a Hollywood office and was soon joined by all the branches of the armed services.

“What’s interesting to me about the CIA is, despite the fact that it’s existed since 1947, it actually didn’t start working with Hollywood until the 1990s and it didn’t hire its own entertainment liaison officer until 1996,” Jenkins says.
She set out to examine why the CIA waited and what changed in the 1990s to get it engaged. She also wanted to look at the nature of the relationship and the ethical and legal ramifications of collaborations.
“I quickly found out I would have to do some creative digging,” she says. “Neither the CIA nor Hollywood are particularly transparent groups.”
She was able to find CIA internal memos, press releases, and news articles that gave some insight into the relationship. She also looked at how productions that had received CIA assistance differed from ones that hadn’t.
“I was able to interview a lot of people who worked on both the Hollywood and the CIA’s side of the relationship, which was my favorite part,” she adds.
She discovered that the CIA hadn’t really been interested in forging bonds with the entertainment industry because agency officials didn’t see many advantages to revealing the CIA’s inner workings and were more focused on international affairs than their image at home.
That changed in the 1990s, she says, when the agency was faced with the end of the Cold War. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Russian relations thawed, Congress debated whether the CIA was still necessary. That, coupled with the public relations disaster that occurred five years later when veteran CIA agent Aldrich Ames was arrested for being a mole for the Soviets and selling the names of double agents for millions of dollars, meant dark days for the agency.
“These events left the CIA feeling underappreciated and underfunded at best,” Jenkins says.
The agency turned to Hollywood, knowing it was the No. 1 source of information the public had about the agency, thanks to the popularity of films such as Mission Impossible and The Bourne Identity.
Initially, Jenkins says, CIA officials tried to produce a television series itself, but that approach didn’t pan out and the project was scrapped.
The next approach was to hire professionals whose job was to work with filmmakers, producers and authors to pitch story ideas and extend offers to work with them in pre-production while developing scripts. As an added perk, projects that portrayed the CIA in a positive light could get access to its expertise and even locations, such as CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.
One of the best examples of a CIA-partner production is the USA Network show Covert Affairs, which is set in Langley. Jenkins says the show’s producers describe their relationship with the CIA as “loose” but they also acknowledge the connection adds authenticity to the show. She knew the show had likely received assistance when she spotted a scene that showed the Starbucks located inside CIA headquarters.
“No one would know there’s a Starbucks inside there unless they had been there,” she says.
In looking at the difference between shows that had worked with the CIA versus those that didn’t, Jenkins found those receiving assistance generally offered a much more positive portrayal of the agency.
“In these projects, the CIA never makes mistakes, is highly ethical,” she says. “Usually the CIA looks like a great career choice and is seen as very important to national security.”
But Jenkins also sees conflicts with the First Amendment right to free speech and the ethics of a governmental agency doling out benefits to certain productions and not to those unwilling to promise a positive portrayal.
“While producers benefit from the relationship and the CIA benefits from the relationship, I am not sure how the general viewer benefits from this relationship, if they do at all,” Jenkins says.