Editors Note: This interview with Dr. Matt Alford, co-producer on Theaters of War (2022) and The Writer with No Hands (2014), was originally conducted by Adam Bouiti for a forthcoming untitled volume on political culture published in French. It has been translated, adapted and arranged for Publication in Propaganda in Focus.
Adam Bouiti (AB): For your early work, you applied Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s propaganda model, consisting of five “filters”, to explain the politics of cinema. What is this approach?
Matt Alford (MA): Herman and Chomsky’s “filters” are just a simple list of five factors that filter out and therefore determine what emerges from mainstream media channels. Chomsky pointed out that these factors were summarised by the great English novelist George Orwell in just a few lines: billionaire owners, who do not like news stories that oppose their strata of society; advertising companies, which want stories to remain light to maintain a “buying mood” so they can sell products; the government, which is particularly willing and able to control narratives about the state, and finally what Orwell called “orthodoxy” – often manifested in an acceptable knee-jerk contempt for foreign nationalists, communists, or Islamists.
Of course, Hollywood films and network TV shows have always been part of the mass media, but Herman and Chomsky focused on the highest levels of discourse, such as that of intellectuals, policymakers, newspapers of record, and publishers rather than on the lower echelon, namely that of popular entertainment.
I think Herman and Chomsky were right to approach the media in this way, but they did so in part because neither man really knew anything about popular culture. Herman once told me this when we bumped into each other in a 7/11 in Detroit buying sandwiches and Chomsky confirmed that he had hardly even been to the cinema since courting his wife in the 1950s.
In fact, I suspect that the last film Chomsky actually went to the pictures for was Marlon Brando’s film On the Waterfront in 1954. He has previously mentioned the popularity of this film, while observing that Salt of the Earth, released at the same time, had been banned for decades. Both films were critically acclaimed; both were about the activity of the unions but one was anti, the other pro. Not hard to guess which was which.
In fact, a few months ago Chomsky clarified to me “one of the most horrible experiences of my life”, when in the early ‘50s he and his wife saw a film called Hiroshima, which they expected they might enjoy. However, when they got to the cinema, it was just war footage being shown as pornography. The audience was laughing hysterically at people running around with their skin falling off. Neither myself or Noam was able to identify exactly what this video nasty was but you can see why he fell out of love with the movies.
AB: With the rise of streaming platforms, has the Hollywood propaganda model had to change?
MA: One of the limitations of Chomsky and Herman’s model is that just one of the filters may in some cases be enough to explain why the news report, or film, whatever, falls in line with the state. So, yes, streaming platforms are a little less affected by some of the filters – which means some shows are a little more interesting (The Boys (2018), for example, I think is a must-see) but it’s worth asking, what difference does it make? What shows actually challenge our assumptions, on foreign policy issues especially? Can there be sufficient critical material from this “new mainstream” to reach critical mass and therefore affect public attitudes, let alone governments? If you want a more civilized world, we won’t get there by watching Netflix.
AB: Over the past decade, you’ve demonstrated through sourcing government documentation how the security state in Washington directly affects scripts. Why is it so important for the Pentagon, for example, to exert this influence?
MA: If the Pentagon withdrew from Hollywood, a medium-term consequence would be a significant decrease in military recruitment: far fewer children being fooled into often appalling conditions.
I suspect, though, that the Pentagon’s role in Hollywood is also fundamentally central to the entire construction of American empire – and always has been. Actually, we recently discovered that the Navy alone keeps 240,000 pages of movie and TV script notes, which it does not want to disclose, which dwarfs even the 20,000 pages we have already recovered. I’d bet that even now we are underestimating the impact of national security. Either way, it’s clear that the Pentagon is holding onto a rebel’s graveyard of entertainment and, under slightly different political conditions, Hollywood could have become a significant cultural power bloc opposing American foreign policy – just as the right always feared it might.
AB: And the same question for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)?
MA: In the mid-1940s, Hollywood made three films about the forerunner of the CIA, the OSS. The leading film historian of this period Simon Willmetts came to conservative conclusions about the CIA, calling it an “absent presence” in Hollywood, a view which Tom Secker and I criticize thoroughly and correctly – drawing in numerous new examples. Simon himself actually argues that without these three films, the CIA might not have come into being.
By the 1990s, the CIA was frustrated, after three decades, by being considered a go-to villain in cinema. It therefore created its official liaison office. Some have suggested that Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire (1993) — a film in which John Malkovic plays a crazy former CIA agent determined to kill the president — was the straw that broke the camel’s back, though the Agency had been fairly active in the years just prior and had been interested in the recruitment boon for the Navy following Top Gun (1986).
The CIA probably would still exist without its post-Cold War embrace of public relations in the entertainment field. Nonetheless, its work in Hollywood certainly played a critical role in restoring its reputation, which had tanked in the 1970s by association with all kinds of horrors, from the assassination of President Kennedy to the invention of a “heart attack gun”.
AB: Is this sort of propaganda system specific to the United States?
MA: I have done a little work on the intersection between entertainment and propaganda outside the Western world. The communication of power is of course endemic in all societies; has been since the ancient Egyptians made the pyramids.
Or, with international screen entertainment, consider in the early 1980s, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the creation of a telenovela entitled The Long Days (1980). It was a biographical account of his attempted assassination of Prime Minister Kassem in 1959, edited by 007 director Terence Young. Young also produced Clash of Loyalties (1983), starring a famous English hellraising superstar, Oliver Reed, who played a 1920s British intelligence. Apparently, Saddam loved the resultant film, though, incidentally, Olly was a total wreck-head: on-set stories had him shouting expletives at a dinner with the dictator, pissing in a wine bottle then sending it to the next table “with compliments”, and being dangled off a balcony by a bodyguard.
I’m also supporting a PhD researcher to examine the British system. His initial findings indicate that the Ministry of Defence has worked closely on hundreds of entertainment productions.
However, while it’s generally a good idea to oppose all propaganda, US propaganda is remarkable for several reasons: it’s barely seen and known, it’s grotesque in every way, it’s still happening now and the stories and attitudes it feeds are likely to kill many people around the world.
By any measure – military size, film industry size, foreign policy ambitions, or global cultural influence – the US dwarfs everyone.
Of course, even the US entertainment-security system is not all-encompassing. Indeed, since we started research for our book National Security Cinema (2017) there have been several incredible films – if you seek them out – that depict Western foreign policy in ways that are both entertaining and to some degree challenging to the notions of American exceptionalism and benevolence: Vice (2016); Backstabbing for Beginners (2018); Dark Water (2019); The Report (2019); Official Secrets (2019); The Day Shall Come (2019); The Banker (2020), The Mauritanian (2021), Oslo (2021), and Oppenheimer (2023). It’s possible to make a lovely DVD shelf of subversive movies, it’s just that you’ll notice they are almost all low budget, foreign-funded, and/or suffered distribution problems. The opposite shelf is far larger, packed with high budget movies, which reflect the dominant ideology, with huge production and advertising budgets.
AB: Can you give another example of a film where national security influenced the script?
MA: It’s so hard to choose – almost every film and TV show that has anything to do with the US military has been altered. They eliminate any association between the US government and, for example, war crimes, corruption, criticism of nuclear arsenal, racism, sexual assault, assassination, lost wars or torture. Independence Day (1996) lost a scene in which aliens destroyed the Pentagon itself. On War of the Worlds (2005), the Pentagon insisted that the army should be more effective at killing invaders. On the Bruce Willis movie Tears of the Sun (2002), they ensured the removal of all references to what they called “nasty conspiracies”, which we are confident relate to Shell Oil’s real-world collaboration with the repressive Nigerian government.
Sometimes the propaganda is just so clumsy it makes you cringe. The Long Road Home (2017) tells the story of a disastrous American mission in Iraq. In the 2007 story on which the mini-series is based, the US failed to anticipate an uprising and may have provoked it, but the series makes the man in charge of the battalion, Gary Volesky, the unambiguous hero – this is the guy who had been the army’s head of public affairs during the series’ production! The series also denigrates Tomas Young who, after serving, had become a prominent anti-war campaigner. We see Young at protests but we get the impression that he’s just bitter because of his injuries. We never hear his speeches. The army has literally sifted through every slogan on the protest signs in the series and, naturally, the series entirely avoids mention of Young’s resultant suicide.
Similarly, in Godzilla, the monster had always been an explicit and critical allegory for the US bombing of Japan in 1945. But by the time the 2014 film saw the light of day, with the US Department of Defense (DOD) overseeing the script, the bomb now helps solve the problem – the nuclear detonations of the 1950s are no longer tests but attempts to kill Godzilla. Re-engineering the whole franchise, the DOD replaced the submarine carried by Godzilla with a Russian submarine, so as not to give the impression that they might lose control of their nuclear arsenal. One of the characters tells the poignant story of his grandfather surviving the bombing of Japan, to which the DOD responded: “If this is an excuse or a questioning of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it will be a drag on us”. So we were treated to a generic speech about the “arrogance of Man”, instead. The super-charged monster itself ultimately emerges as a metaphor for the benefits of nuclear power.
AB: Can you give two examples where you can demonstrate that the population has actually been impacted by the release of a film or television production?
MA: I’ll give you at least three. A researcher called Michelle C. Pautz found that after watching Argo (2010) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), viewers had heightened levels of trust in the CIA and the government.
In November 1915, William Joseph Simmons revived the Ku Klux Klan by organising a cross-burning at Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Historian John Hope Franklin believes that without the film Birth of a Nation (1915), the Klan might not have been reborn – and this time with millions of members.
On a more positive note, surveys suggest that The Day After Tomorrow (1983) increased public concerns about nuclear war and had a salutary impact on President Reagan’s own desire to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union. The Pentagon had tried to tone it down but, unusually, the producers pushed back hard and won.
AB: Which model of cinema do you advocate?
MA: No models. I just want the national security apparatus removed from the entertainment industry. If this happened, the quality and diversity of cinema would automatically increase. I like a good, silly American movie from time to time. It’s funny, a posh literary magazine once asked me what I considered to be the greatest motion picture. I panicked and said the first thing that came into my head: Bad Teacher (a formulaic comedy starring Cameron Diaz). I really think it goes without saying that independent films and indigenous industries should be supported over Hollywood. But my campaign is not against American culture, it is against our own extinction.