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How Hollywood Sows Seeds of Discontent With Government

In movie after movie, Hollywood has urged us to question the motives and methods of government agencies and officials.
Image: Tom Hanks as Chesley \"Sully\" Sullenberger
TOM HANKS as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' drama "SULLY," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.Keith Bernstein / Warner Bros. Pictures

It's become a scene we're all-too-familiar with when we go to the movies.

Our hero tries to do something brave but a wet-blanket bureaucrat gets in the way — think "Ghostbusters."

Or it's the climax and we learn that a corrupt government agency is behind the nefarious plot threatening the protagonists — think most modern espionage thrillers.

Sometimes the feds simply drop the ball, and it's up to our main character to clean up the mess they made —that's in just about every '80s action movie ever.

In movie after movie, Hollywood — a supposed bastion of liberal ideology — has urged us to question the motives and methods of government agencies and officials.

It has often been a talking point, particularly on the right, that Hollywood is out of step with mainstream American culture, but when it comes to perceptions of the government, it appears that the content has been consistent with the public's mood. With the exception of a brief spike in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, trust in our elected officials has been largely on a steady decline since the late 1960s and early '70s, when fallout from the Vietnam War and Watergate left a nasty taste with voters. Some would argue that negativity has never gone away.

Even when the president occupying the White House is personally popular, the bureaucracy of government has become a familiar audience-pleasing punching bag for decades.

"Isn't it a lovely contradiction? The entertainment industry that is noted to be sort of domain of liberals and a progressive agenda is also perpetuating as archaic, problematic brand of American conservatism," said Dr. Stephane Dunn, associate professor of film and English at Morehouse College. "It's almost ironically absurd."

Jonathan Kirshner, a professor of international political economy at Cornell University and the author of "Hollywood's Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America," believes that the government will likely always be a reliable antagonist because the story line of lone, underdog individuals triumphing over the odds is uniquely American.

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"The government is very powerful, and so opposition to power is always a good trope," he said. "We also have things that are walled behind us in secrecy and so we are allowed to let our imaginations run wild."

In other words, because so much of what our national security apparatus does day-to-day is unknowable, it is inherently easier for creative people to project over-the-top conspiracies onto them. In our anxious, post-9/11 era of surveillance these conspiracies can take on different forms — both left wing and right wing — and they can be comforting to viewers who want clear and concise explanations for villainy, even in fiction.

In just the past year alone, we've seen the attack in Benghazi re-imagined as a soldiers-versus-strategists action film by Michael Bay, where a repeatedly debunked "stand down" order delivered by the State Department sets the stage for disaster. And this weekend "Deepwater Horizon" will resurrect one of the most trying episodes of the Obama administration — the BP oil spill.

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Recently, "Sully," the Clint Eastwood film about Chelsey Sullenberger, the real-life former US Airways pilot who successfully landed an imperiled plane in the Hudson River seven years ago, has suggested that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was a perpetual thorn in the side of a man who saved hundreds of lives.

The NTSB has pushed back hard against the hit film's narrative, lamenting in a statement that they were "not asked to contribute to or participate in the production of ‘Sully.’" But the film's box office success may eclipse concerns about its accuracy.

Similar questions are already being raised about Oliver Stone's "Snowden," which casts the controversial NSA whistle-blower of the title as an idealistic hero.

One blogger determined five years ago that "American military/government/law enforcement" figures were the most frequent go-to bad guys in the action genre.

Kirshner believes audiences are the ones driving these narratives, not the filmmakers.

"The industry is desperate to reflect social trends, not to lead them," he said. "They are a very pure embodiment of capitalistic impulses, they want to make massive entertainment for the largest audiences possible."

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This wasn't always the case. In the golden age of Hollywood, the industry colluded with the government to produce unabashedly flattering projects like "G-Men" and "The FBI Story." In the run-up to the World War II, the movies frequently trafficked in pro-war propaganda to rally the American public in favor of the anti-Nazi effort.

Today, there are still instances when the government tries to make sure their perspective is accurately reflected in art. For instance, CIA and Pentagon officials consulted on Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," a polarizing portrait of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

And not all depictions of rank-and-file civil servants are uniformly negative, for instance the Jack Ryan films and the 2012 Oscar best picture winner "Argo" have all presented a fairly positive portrait of American national security operations. Still, even those films usually prize an individual's actions over the state's.

Such simplicity can be problematic, and even dangerous, when it comes to young people who may be watching a film about a distant or recent historical event without comprehending that what they see is just one interpretation, instead of a definitive account.

"The contemporary generation that lives in a digital universe and reality — they get information not through books or school, but instead getting their knowledge from the media they consume — and film is one of them," said Dunn. "The films enjoy a level of liberal freedom to represent fiction and non-fiction based on the interpretation of the writer, director and the research and even the research is a subjective rendering of reality."

Case in point, Eastwood has said about "Sully" that “until I read the script, I didn’t know the investigative board was trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing.”

However, the NTSB has maintained that the script was inaccurate, and Malcolm Brenner, a retired NTSB specialist in human behavior who was among those to first interview Sullenberger after the Hudson landing recently told Bloomberg there was "no effort to crucify him or embarrass" the pilot.

The question remains: which narrative will stand the test of time: Eastwood's or the NTSB's?

"Younger generations will hopefully be motivated and want to learn more about this particular situation on their own," said Dunn. "Unfortunately a lot of people will take films as their truth, the reality as they know it of that history."