National Security Cinema


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3 stars
Important research marred by poor editing and conspiratorial tangents

Hollywood blockbuster action movies are full of depictions of military machinery, of men and women in uniform, of undercover agents. These depictions are often the direct result of partnerships between the filmmakers and the Department of Defense, the CIA, or other government agencies.

In exchange for access to equipment and personnel, the government may provide remarkably detailed script notes ranging from legitimate factual corrections (“General Perry would likely not be the convening authority”) to changes in plot and characterization (“To make [the civilian ambassador] look like a real wet noodle, have [the Lieutenant] say …”). The viewer is none the wiser that the film they’ve just seen was originally more critical, or that important elements of the plot were changed.

Matthew Alford (Teaching Fellow for Propaganda Theory, University of Bath) and Tom Secker (writer, podcaster, researcher) are authors of a new book, National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood, which documents these connections. It is based in significant part on new research under the Freedom of Information Act.

To his credit, Secker has put the source documents online as a ZIP file. Whether or not you buy the book, I recommend grabbing a copy. Incidentally, the quotes above are from the Marine Corps script notes to Rules of Engagement, and they cannot currently be found anywhere else on the Internet.

Much of the book consists of case studies, contrasting the requested changes to movies like Iron Man, Lone Survivor, or Charlie Wilson’s War with the original script, or (where applicable) source material and actual events. It cites examples from film and television, and also briefly discusses financial incentives which may reinforce pro-military biases, such as product placement by gun manufacturers.

The book is poorly edited and includes both typos and repetitions that could easily have been caught. It would also be a stronger book without conspiratorial tangents about, e.g., the timeline of 9/11’s doomed Flight 93. Co-author Tom Secker is no stranger to conspiracy theories, which undermines the credibility of this work.

In spite of these distracting flaws, the authors have done important work in documenting the pervasive pro-government, pro-military biases in US entertainment. Read critically and patiently, National Security Cinema does offer a necessary and useful perspective on these biases, and the downloadable archive of source documents is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to explore the topic further.

Further reading

Co-author Matthew Alford wrote a good introduction to the research featured in the book for The Conversation (a nonprofit media outlet which I’ve previously reviewed here): “Washington DC’s role behind the scenes in Hollywood goes deeper than you think”.