Sometime during production of the film All the President’s Men, the director Alan J. Pakula fired the screenwriter, William Goldman. This isn’t especially notable—writers are always the first people to get fired off any production—although this wasn’t just any screenwriter. In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman writes that it seemed like everybody on the planet knew he’d been having issues with that script. He says he happened to meet Walter Cronkite during this period, and the only thing Cronkite said to him was “I hear you’re having script trouble.”
In 1976, Goldman won the Oscar for writing All the President’s Men, despite having been fired off the picture.
Other writers had done passes on the script, most notably Nora Ephron. Ephron was dating Carl Bernstein at the time, the reporter portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the picture, who in turn was the partner to Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford. Goldman later observed that Bernstein sure seemed to be “catnip to the ladies” in Ephron’s scenes.
Did Goldman deserve the Oscar? He definitely built the structure to carry the story, which is not easy to do. All the President’s Men is—aesthetically—a terrific movie, and it starts with the writing. Jason Robards got an Oscar for stealing every scene he’s in, but honestly the part is gift-wrapped for him. There is snappy dialogue, some terrific reversals, and a gripping story. It’s become a model for this sort of film—the recent Oscar-winning Spotlight showed its influence, for example.
There’s only one problem. All the President’s Men is a lie. It’s the setting in stone of the public face of the Richard Nixon scandal, told with the help of Woodward and his ex-ONI buddies and Al Haig. It glorifies the myth of “Woodstein,” intrepid reporters taking down a criminal president. It also did for Bob Woodward what the JFK assassination did for Dan Rather—provide a platform to kick off a career serving the state through the media.
Hollywood has had a complicated relationship with the government for a long time, partly for reasons of actual patriotism and partly because of money. (It’s always at least partly the money.) Right now on Netflix there is a wonderful documentary series Five Came Back, about how great directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, and John Huston, among others, helped make films supporting the U.S. against the Nazis. They took their job seriously in this regard. Joseph McBride details the background, for example, of the making of the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in his wonderful book Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Capra, a complex figure if ever there was one, felt conflicted by the thought he might have made a picture casting his adopted country in a negative light. “When a prominent man like the ambassador of England says this is going to hurt the war effort, that was serious. Would it do that? I wanted to do what was right.” (McBride, 423).
However, it’s one thing to make pro-American films when the cause is just. When Indiana Jones says, “Nazis. I hate these guys,” we agree.
Unfortunately, there are some Hollywood directors who are eager to cooperate with the U.S. in favor of more dubious causes, as with Kathryn Bigelow in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, or Michael Bay making the military look terribly exciting for young men in the Transformers series. Clint Eastwood took up the ridiculous cause of invading Grenada in Heartbreak Ridge and the Pentagon backed Top Gun: essentially a long commercial for fighter pilots. Ben Affleck celebrated the CIA in Argo and was rewarded for it by both the public and the Academy. Tom Hanks infamously backed Vincent Bugliosi—a project that united the typically fractious JFK research community.
On the other side, films opposing the American military-intelligence-complex tend to face stiff opposition and little funding. Oliver Stone has been the exception rather than the rule in this arena, as the best political films tend to be either foreign or small-budget enterprises, such as Costa-Gavras’s Z. While controversy can help sell a picture, criticizing established structures of power isn’t the kind of controversy producers like. This even extends to actors. When Jean Seberg, the beautiful ingénue from Jean-Luc Godard’s famous film Breathless, began to donate money to leftist causes, the FBI opened a COINTELPRO operation against her. Among the things they did was falsely accusing her of fathering a boy with a Black Panther.
In the last few years, a slate of books about the unhealthy relationship between domestic intelligence agencies and media centers have emerged. Nicholas Schou’s Spooked is one of the newest, and it comes with heavy praise: a foreword by David Talbot, as well as endorsements from the likes of Oliver Stone and Peter Dale Scott. Schou’s own bona fides are formidable, having worked as an investigative journalist and written the Gary Webb biography Kill the Messenger, which was made into a film of the same title starring Jeremy Renner.
The subtitle of the book is How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood. Unfortunately, this subtitle is itself something of a hoodwink. A short book (less than 150 pages), the content really consists of a survey of some of the major news stories of the last half-century or so. The chapters deal with various aspects, for example, of WikiLeaks and its relation to the media, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, the Iraqi war scandals, the Church committee, Seymour Hersh on the Osama bin Laden raid, Robert Parry and his work, and a short summation of the Gary Webb crack-cocaine CIA scandal. These are all worthy topics, and deserve longer treatments than they get here (and in fact did, since as noted Schou also wrote the Webb biography.)
The short length of the book means that each topic is dealt with in a superficial manner. For example, he mentions that when CIA agent Valerie Plame was “outed,” it was by Richard Armitage (Schou, p. 67). However, he gives no further information on Armitage, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under Ronald Reagan, and a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal. In addition to that, Armitage also met with General Mahmoud Ahmed, the leader of the Pakistani ISI, the week of 9/11. General Ahmed is important because he ordered a wire transfer of $100,000 to the alleged leader of the Saudi-Arabian hijackers, Mohammed Atta. There is a wealth of information lurking behind the stories that appear in Spooked, and while it’s understandable that he can’t get to everything, Schou misses some key aspects of the particular events he is trying to summarize. He also fails to cite much information in the way of demonstrating that CIA “manipulates the media” or “hoodwinks Hollywood.”
First of all, the idea that the CIA “hoodwinks” or “manipulates” the media is a questionable premise to being with. In many cases, the CIA more or less is the media. We know because of Carl Bernstein’s famous article in Rolling Stone that the CIA quite often pays journalists directly to work for the agency. And Schou does mention this in his book, as well as citing examples like William Paley at CBS and other stories that are already pretty well known.
Also, Hollywood isn’t hoodwinked. Like any other business, there are people who are willing to play ball and others who aren’t. For example, when it was announced that Antoine Fuqua was going to make a picture about heroin being smuggled into the United States in the caskets of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, I got excited. Fuqua tried to push the boundaries while he was hot off his film Training Day. Not hot enough, alas. Universal fired him, replacing him with Ridley Scott. Scott made American Gangster into a fairly standard cop and criminal picture, soft-pedaling the elements that might make the state nervous.
This kind of thing happens all the time.
So let’s get back to Schou. He should have a deep insight into at least one project in particular, right? Which would be Kill the Messenger. I remember when the film was announced, because of Peter Landesman, who had written and directed the disastrous JFK assassination film Parkland. That had the smell of cover-up all over it. Landesman, who had never helmed anything remotely the size of Parkland before, made a bad film that tanked at the box office.
When Parkland was still in pre-production, I had been hired to work as a research and script consultant to a film called Dallas in Wonderland, directed by Ryan Page. Over the course of three years or more, we did location scouting, casting, and—while we were waiting to get Dallas off the ground—ended up making a documentary with Oliver Stone called King Kill 63. Anyway, I was in L.A. a lot during that time, and in a lot of meetings, and that Parkland script was everywhere. Everybody had seen it. And everybody said, “Hey, listen, don’t tell anybody, but I saw this script … ” It was well-known in the industry that the Parkland script was a pile of crap.
At the time, the idea was that Dallas in Wonderland would be the anti-Parkland. And the script was good. It would have been a thriller in the tradition of 70’s thrillers like The Parallax View and, especially, Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (itself a quasi-remake of Antonioni’s Blowup, a film that alluded to the JFK assassination directly). Anyway, during this period I learned a lot about how films are made—in terms of the production aspect—and all the things that go into how decisions get made in Hollywood.
Mostly, it’s accountants. You’d think that with a modestly budgeted picture (say $12-15 million) you could more or less cast who you want. You can’t. There were actors that I thought would be great to play the lead, for example, but we couldn’t do it because they had no juice in China. Or they’re considered TV actors (see the James Toback documentary Seduced and Abandoned for more on this). If we were going to get the picture made, we needed a male lead and that male lead needed to be a big star.
But that’s another story. The point is, Parkland had NOTHING going for it. Not a thing. The director, Peter Landesman, was not only not a name director, he had never directed a film before. The script was bad—even Hollywood people who liked the message, thought it was bad. There’s really no foreign market. (JFK assassination pictures which mimic the Warren Commission don’t travel.) There were no big stars to build a campaign around; some fine actors, but no A-listers who can get a film made and then open it. But in spite of all that:
The thing got made anyway.
That’s what I would have loved to hear about from Schou. Why? Parkland disobeyed the natural laws of how Hollywood pictures get made. But it got made anyway. How did that happen?
This is what Schou says about Landesman:
Landesman, who worked as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan after 9/11 and wrote national security stories for the New York Times magazine, was equipped with a better bullshit detector than most filmmakers by the time he got to Hollywood. “I have had a number of dealings with the CIA, both as a journalist and a screenwriter,” he said. “I quickly learned that I could never, ever, take what any [CIA] officer says at face value. They are hardwired to deflect, even off the record.” (108)
I felt like Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in JFK reading this part: Ask the question! Ask the question!
What’s the question Schou needed to ask Landesman?
If you learned you can’t trust anything the CIA tells you, why the hell did you make Parkland?
That question doesn’t get asked.
The punchline is that this director who laid an egg with Parkland wrote Kill the Messenger, and that ended up being a solid film. (see the review of the latter at Consortium News)
Because Hollywood is weird. And complicated. And who knows what back-room deals got engineered—maybe it was “do this one for us, and we’ll let you do one for you.” There’s a story there somewhere. In the end, both films got buried. For Schou to write this book, on this topic, without even getting to the details of how his own book got made into a movie is inexplicable and inexcusable.
The movie I worked on, Dallas in Wonderland, might never get made. The documentary I co-wrote and co-produced, King Kill 63, closed the Dallas International Film Festival at the Texas Theatre and played great. I answered audience questions afterward until they literally kicked us out of the theatre. The reason nobody can see it is that it’s long and complicated and I’ll write that book someday. Meanwhile, I cross my fingers that it gets released.
One last anecdote.
When Ryan and I arrived in Dallas for the DIFF showing in 2015, we had an email waiting for us from the Sixth Floor Museum. They were very disturbed about our movie being shown. We were using footage that belonged to them—by which they meant, essentially, all extant footage even vaguely involving the Kennedy assassination. They suggested we not show the film that night unless we were prepared to pay them, for example, for using the Zapruder film. These were not nominal fees, and this already was an expensive film—we had shot with a full film crew all over the country.
We discussed our options, legal and otherwise. I talked to another documentary filmmaker friend who had recently gone through this with the Sixth Floor. At the end of the day, we decided to show it.
The morning after our showing at the Texas Theatre, we got another email. The representative they sent from the Sixth Floor had liked the film, they said, and hoped we could work something out in the future. The person they’d sent had stayed for the Q&A session afterward but declined to identify himself.
A little creepy, that.
One more aside: when we were location scouting for Dallas in Wonderland, it was decided that I would not go with the producers that day because they were concerned Gary Mack or somebody on the Sixth Floor staff would recognize me. (I don’t think that would have happened, but they didn’t want to take chances.) So I went out with the second unit crew to shoot some stuff in Lee Harvey Oswald’s jail cell. Anyway, when we all met again that night, the producers said the Sixth Floor had a large board set up in the Sixth Floor offices that showed every single film or television project on the topic of JFK that was ongoing. Even if it was just in the option stage.
We were on that list, and we hadn’t even been announced in Variety yet at that point.
There’s a lot more to this story, much of which I can’t tell for various reasons, but the main point is that my expectation would be that Mr. Schou would have some insight into similar aspects in the making of Kill the Messenger.
He doesn’t. He says he wasn’t at all involved. Okay. Contrast that with Jim DiEugenio’s recent interview with John Barbour, whose newest film is an extension and expansion of a long interview he did with Jim Garrison.
Having said all that, this is not a bad book. It just doesn’t really live up to the title and subtitle. However, if you’re looking for a short overview of important aspects of journalism and the government, there is good information here. It would make a good gift for someone who is getting introduced to this material and, as a quick read, does efficiently get across, for example, some of the key aspects of the Gary Webb story.
Schou also directs attention to one of the real classics in this genre, Frances Stonor Saunders’s The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. That’s a fine book every researcher should have. There are many other good ones, like Hugh Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer. Another classic, which is similar to this book but superior, is the anthology Into the Buzzsaw edited by Kristina Borjesson. (That book, among other things, tells the story of how William Casey bought ABC. For a while.) The books that deal best with the media in relation to the JFK assassination were written by Jim DiEugenio: The Assassinations, Reclaiming Parkland, and Destiny Betrayed. Very few other writers ever talk about people like James Phelan, for example, where you really get to see how the sausage gets made in the media.
And that might be a good place to point out what I think the key issue is with this book versus more useful books. There are different kinds of thinkers on the left of the political spectrum. There are those who are so because they believe that people shouldn’t be denied basic human rights for their sexuality or religious preference, or that Social Security is a good thing and that having a post office and health care is desirable for everyone, rather than just those who can afford them (people with these views usually refer to themselves as "progressives"). This is all well and good.
They stop, however, at the Kennedy assassination or anything tainted by “conspiracy.” Noam Chomsky-type "structuralists" can be like this; and corporate democrats run away from the word.
The trouble is, if you don’t understand that the state killed JFK, and MLK, and RFK, and Malcolm X, and a whole lot of others besides, you’re never really going to fundamentally understand how the world works. Spooked is written for the first type of progressive, and that’s OK. But for people who are serious political researchers, it’s not good enough. Spooked is limited in scope, and therefore limited in impact.