Facing criticism that the FBI may have dropped the ball on the DNC hacks and broken protocol in the Clinton email investigation, the agency may be considering a PR reboot. If so, they're in luck: despite a history of high-profile blunders, Hollywood has always had a soft spot for the G-Men. With help from authors, film critics, and a former agent, Brooke explores the films and TV shows that have helped the FBI win back the trust and admiration of Americans throughout history, from the disciplined agents of old gangster films to the X-Files to The Silence of the Lambs.
When I Grow Up (The G-Man Song) by Harold Rome X Files by Mark Snow Let's Face the Music and Dance by Harry Roy & His Orchestra
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One piece of conventional wisdom voiced this week was that the discord between the two agencies was due, in part, to class. G-Men are down-to-earth working stiffs, while the denizens of the CIA are effete Ivy Leaguers. Tim says that that depiction, fostered by Hoover, is mostly wrong. But Hoover was a PR master, so we thought we'd replay a piece exploring that part of his legacy.
[CLIP/ WHEN I GROW UP/THE G-MAN SONG]:
Gee, but I’d like to be a G-man
And go bang-bang-bang!-bang!
I’d be a brave, gang-busting he-man
And go bang-bang-bang-bang!
I’d put on disguises of all different sizes,
And would I win prizes
For telling who spieses….
RONALD KESSLER: I’ll tell you, things have really changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ronald Kessler is author of Inside the FBI: The World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency.
RONALD KESSLER: Under Hoover, the Bureau created this image of this invincible agency where they always got their man. They did this through the media, through radio shows, TV shows, movies that they controlled.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
ANNOUNCER: Many of the incidents in the story you are about to hear are based on the actual records and authentic experiences of Matt Cvetic, who, for nine fantastic years, lived as a Communist for the FBI.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J. Edgar Hoover policed the Agency's image through an office with the impenetrable name of the Crimes Records Division. It was charged with furnishing what were called "interesting case memoranda" to the radio shows and later TV shows and movies, over which Hoover exercised an invincible veto power. He was ever vigilant in the pursuit of good PR.
J. EDGAR HOOVER: I am your new director. I did not ask for the position but now that I have it, I intend to give it the best I have. The Bureau will operate solely on efficiency, and we are going to do it as a team.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Once upon a time, Hollywood loved the organization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Edelstein is the film critic for New York Magazine.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: There was something very, very reassuring about the discipline, the order, the routine, the sticking to the rules. There was something very reassuring about those men in those gray suits, all with identical haircuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the love affair had cooled for the average American in the mid-‘70s, with the Senate investigation under Frank Church of the intelligence community. It turns out, the FBI was regularly engaged in violating our civil liberties, through harassment, blackmail, intercepting mail and all manner of black bag operations.
RICHARD POWERS: That pretty much blew the lid off all of the FBI horrors that Hoover had kept, you know, bottled up over all those years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Powers is the author of G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture.
RICHARD POWERS: Once you have an image that the FBI promoted during the 1930s, of being an omnipotent, all-knowing, all-powerful agency that never could make a mistake, it was setting itself up for a terrible fall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the image of the FBI splintered. Films like the Die Hard series showed up the FBI as officious and obstructionist bureaucrats.
BRUCE WILLIS AS JOHN McCLANE: Al, talk to me. What's goin’ on here?
REGINALD VEL JOHNSON AS SGT. AL POWELL: Ask the FBI. They got the Universal Terrorist Playbook and they're running it step by step.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, the Bureau regained a measure of its old omniscience with a Jodie Foster vehicle.
SCOTT GLENN AS JACK CRAWFORD: Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see.
JODIE FOSTER AS CLARICE STARLING: Well he's a white male. Serial killers tend to hunt within their own ethnic groups. He's not a drifter. He's got his own house somewhere, not an apartment.
JACK CRAWFORD: Why?
CLARICE STARLING: What he does with them takes privacy. And he's never impulsive. He'll never stop.
JACK CRAWFORD: Why not?
CLARICE STARLING: He’s got a real taste for it now, and he's getting better at his work.
JACK CRAWFORD: Not bad, Starling.
JOHN DOUGLASS: Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs probably did more for the Bureau as a fictional case than any real case, any real publicity [LAUGHS] that the Bureau could have done. It, it was – it’s amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ex-profiler John Douglass is the model for Agent Starling's mentor, Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn.
JOHN DOUGLASS: A lot of high-ups in the FBI itself at first didn't like the movie. They said it was very, very violent. And when I went to a movie screening, I got up and I said, I don't know what the rest of you think in the FBI. I see this work day-in and day-out.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Damn, you know, who wouldn't want to sign up and, and go out and hunt themselves some serial killers?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Critic David Edelstein says that despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the gods of Tinseltown have consistently favored the Bureau with positive portrayals.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In the beginning, the FBI was all that stood between us freedom-loving Americans and those nasty immigrant gangsters. Then the FBI was all that stood between us and that evil Communist menace. Then, when the Communist menace no longer seemed so imminent, suddenly the FBI was, was out doing battle with right-wing white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.
[X-FILES THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even the X-Files, which depicts a dark and dangerous place, an agency at war with itself, has proved a boon to the FBI. As long as it seems powerful, the Bureau can't lose.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's only in very, very, very rare instances that the FBI is portrayed as incompetent, which seems to me the worst danger to an organization that thrives on secrecy and that presents itself as a model of superhuman and enlightened efficiency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the Agency’s rep remains in flux. We have a hair trigger body politic and Director Comey is in the crosshairs. Hoover’s PR machine is broken down and, in this media-saturated environment, cannot be revived. I mean, who alive today has the skills to manipulate the media amid all this chaos? Well, as the Russians say [RUSSIAN LANGUAGE]. Speak of the devil and he will appear.
Coming up, will the Voice of America be trumpified? This is On the Media.