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Civil Servants on the Silver Screen

Civil Servants On The Silver Screen

The Intersection of Film and Government

It is hard to know why a particular film and its initial viewing makes such an impression on us and it is unlikely that any of us start watching a movie because we think it is likely to have a tremendous effect on us, but it happens.  Think for a moment about a film that fits this description for you.

For me, I will never forget the first time I watched Top Gun (1986). I have no idea why I watched the movie, and I was probably a bit too young to watch it at the time.  The sleek white uniforms of the pilots—I mean, naval aviators[i]—were striking and the action packed sequences of the F-14s flying were gripping.  And when one of the protagonists in the film dies tragically, I cried.  I can still remember the emotions pouring out of me in the final sequence of the movie when everything ends as it should.  As I got older, I became fascinated with the real-life Top Gun and nurtured an interest in military aircraft.  And even though I live and work near one of the largest U.S. Air Force bases in the world, I have an inexplicable preference for naval aviation.  There is not a question in my mind that it is because of this movie.  Years later, while my father still chides me about the model aircraft used in many of the movie’s scenes, the F-14 is a favorite aircraft.[ii]  I have since watched that movie, without exaggeration, about a hundred times, including very recently in a theater for the first time with a large audience.

I relay this story not to encourage readers to chastise or judge my movie preferences—indeed, I really do have a better taste in them—but rather to point out that there is probably at least one film that we can trace its impact on us.  For me, one of those movies was Top Gun. Looking back, I can trace pretty easily the effects that movie had on me and some of my interests and proclivities today. Earlier I asked you to think about some of those movies that had similar effects on you, the reader.  And if pushed, I would hazard to guess that there are some movies on that list that you freely admit to and some you would rather not say, but the point is, movies influence their audiences and that is the starting point for this book.  For any number of reasons, or maybe even no reason at all, most of us watch movies.  And often times that viewing takes place at our local cinema.

There is nothing quite like it.  Those few moments as the room darkens and the projector hums in the distance are blissful.  As a hush falls over the audience and the movie is about to begin, cinemagoers are not quite sure how the next couple of hours will unfold, but the quiet anticipation of the images that are taking shape on the screen builds.  The majority of Americans, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have shared in this experience annually.[iii]  And if we are not watching movies at the local theater, odds are we are watching them at home.  Since the beginning of the film industry, movies capture our attention.  Why do those movies stick with us?  Can you trace some influence a particular film had on you?  Do the aggregate experiences of watching a certain kind of movie have lasting effects?  What about the actual viewing of the movie?  One of my absolute favorite moments is in the darkened movie theater, just as the audience finally settles in and we see the opening logos for whatever studios are responsible for the film we are about to watch.  In those fleeting few minutes, we do not know if we are going to watch a movie that will leave us breathless or a film that may fundamentally challenge us.  That anticipation is enthralling and it is powerful.

Film can and does leave a lasting impression on its audience and this is our foundation.  What are the images we see on the silver screen (or on other types of screens)?  Could those images effect our perceptions?  Might our perceptions effect what we see on screen?  In particular, we focus here on the images we see of government.  Much like in real-life, government plays a prominent role in movies, whether or not we recognize it.  I am sure I was oblivious to the role of government in Top Gun when I first saw the movie, but government is at the core of that movie. And as will be revealed in the coming pages, government is pervasive, yet often little noticed, in most movies.  This brings us to the focus on how government—and more specifically, the bureaucracy—is portrayed on screen.  Undoubtedly, our views and opinions about government are constructed from a multitude of sources over a long period of time, but our political socialization is invariably influenced by popular culture.  Therefore, if film has the potential to influence our socialization, what images of government do we see in the movies?  And how do the civil servants that comprise that bureaucracy fare?  If movies can leave lasting impressions on us, just as Top Gun has on for me, what images of government do audiences see in movies?

Audience Expectations

As we unpack these questions and search for answers, we begin by considering our expectations as moviegoers because those expectations play a role in the influence of films.  Why do audiences watch movies?  What are we looking for when we sit down and give our time a movie?  Think of the last movie you watched; why did you watch it?  Do we usually stop and think about our motivations and our expectations for the movie, beyond hoping that the movie is good and not a waste of our time?  Perhaps not.  But understanding our expectations grounds the conversation about how and why films can be influential.

Having worked in movie theaters while I was in high school and college, as well as video rental stores (when they still existed), I encountered a range of moviegoers.  From the passionate fan of a particular actor or director’s work to the individual desiring a ticket to that movie that, has that actor in it but unable to remember the name of said movie, I have seen a lot.  I encounter students in film and politics courses who groan when I announce that the next movie we are watching is in black and white because they expect high levels of technical sophistication.  And in my own movie watching, I too have a variety of expectations.  Our expectations of a movie matter.  They explain our motivations in selecting and watching a movie, representing a giving of our precious time.  So what is it we want when we watch movies?  I offer three rationales.

First, and perhaps foremost, we view films because we want to be entertained.  Narratives, of various forms, have long played an important role in our lives.  We use narratives to be distracted, to learn and understand, to get a glimpse into experiences we have not had and may not ever have.  Stories provide a window into other lives, other pursuits.  For me, in watching Top Gun I got a glimpse into the world of naval aviators—albeit a world defined by Hollywood, not the U.S. Navy.  There is little reason to think, then or now, that I will ever have a career in the military or as a pilot, but yet, watching this movie, I will always feel that I have some idea of what it must be like.  For other viewers, though, it is plausible that they saw this story as representative of their hopes and dreams for their own careers.

The entertainment value of films is important.  Just as audiences today look for the movies to provide an escape, so did audiences decades ago.  Perhaps today’s cinema audiences are even more desirous of the escapism afforded by movies as a recent New York Times analysis of the top box office grossing films of 2016 outlines.  This article points out that none of the top ten box office grossing films in 2016 were “rooted in a real-life setting.”[iv]  Of course, film is not the only vehicle we use to seek a release from our own lives nor is it the only form of entertainment.  Yet, as we will see in the coming pages, the size and scope of the movie audience is immense and arguably offers the most accessible form of art to the masses, as well as one of the most affordable outlets for our entertainment dollar (chapters 2 and 3 provide greater detail on these points).

This entertainment value ties in with the second explanation for why we watch movies; the social aspect of film viewing is significant.  On both a micro and on a macro level, movie watching is often very social.  Again, think about some of your own experiences watching movies, it is likely that many of those instances involved other people.  For example, you might have gone begrudgingly to watch a movie you were ambivalent about, only because someone else wanted to see it, and that movie was surprising and ultimately left an impression on you.  In other cases, going to a movie may be less about the movie itself and more about the friends you want to hang out with or someone you have a romantic interest in.  Or maybe going to a movie over a holiday is a good way to avoid discussions of religion or politics over the holiday dinner table.  Watching movies is very often social.

Additionally, movie watching has a social dimension on a more macro or societal level.  Whether or not you are a Star Wars fan, more than likely, you were aware of the release of Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story at the end of 2016.  The film quickly dominated the box office capturing news headlines and was the source of debate among a range of fans.  Numerous media outlets covered its debut.  Other films engender controversy for various reasons and find themselves the subject of much discussion in the public square.  Decades ago, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) stunned audiences and precipitated debate about the film’s graphic content and depictions.  Likewise, the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain and its portrayal of an elicit relationship between two male cowboys sparked controversy about romantic scenes between two men on screen.  Regardless of whether or not you had an interest in or saw the film, you were probably aware of it and its debate.  The point here is that even if you are not part of a movie’s audience, there are numerous reasons why you might well be aware of a film and know what it is about.  You might encounter questions from friends, family members, or even colleagues as to whether you have seen the movie in question and quizzical looks if you express disinterest.  Movies provide shared cultural experiences and the social dimension of film is substantial.

Finally, just as the first motion pictures captured the awe and amazement of their audiences in the early part of the 20th century, film continues to dazzle audiences today.  Film and Media Studies Professor William Paul (2016) describes this as a “kind of natural magic” of film.[v]  In watching movies, audience members frequently wonder how the filmmakers did what they did and brought those images to the screen.  Movies incite curiosity in viewers’ minds.  Moviemaking itself is mysterious and the images brought to the screen show us worlds we may never have even imagined.  Simply put, films are magical.  Whether it is the latest special effects, or a narrative unfolding in ways we could have never predicted, viewers are intrigued.  Back when I watched Top Gun for the first time, I was captivated by the aerial sequences and though I know better, my father and I have a long-standing debate as to whether or not they were “real” planes in that movie.  Other movies bring to life astonishing worlds.  James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) conceives of an incredible world that is simply stunning.  Movies of the past and present captivate viewers and it is inevitable that they will continue to be mesmerizing in the future.

For these reasons, along with others, we watch movies.  Whatever the reason, whatever our expectations, movies provide information, shared experiences, and a glimpse into the lives and worlds of others.  The magic that unfurls on the screen before us excites us and we share stories about memorable movies and our experiences watching them.  These experiences and our stories about them demonstrate that movies can and do influence us.[vi] Recognizing our motivations in watching movies and considering our expectations of them are only part of the foundation for our look at how government is depicted on screen.

The Ability of Film to Influence Audiences

Cognizant of these expectations of viewers in mind, we have to consider how film can influence its audience and the evidence for it.  Several explanations merit attention here, including (1) the size and scope of movie audiences, (2) the ability of film to inform, (3) the nature of the viewing experience itself, and (4) the long history of efforts to control and regulate the content of films.  Each of these points will be discussed briefly as a preview of more thorough discussions of them in subsequent chapters.

Size and Scope of Movie Audiences

Movies command huge audiences in a variety of forms.  Film is a form of art that is more accessible to a larger audience than any other form, including live theater and music.  Even though cinema ticket prices have climbed over the years, it is still far cheaper to attend a movie or subscribe to a movie streaming service than it is to attend the theater, live sporting events, or visit theme parks.[vii]  Accordingly, film is the least segmented market in popular culture and cinemas attract a variety of individuals from different segments of the population.  Traditional measures of the size and scope of movie audiences focus on box office receipts.  In 2016, $11.37 billion worth of movie theater tickets were sold in the U.S., reflecting a two percent increase over the previous year.[viii]  This translates to more than a billion tickets sold in 2016.[ix]  Popular films at the box office that drew patrons in 2016 included Finding Dory, Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, and Captain America:  Civil War.  And the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reports that two-thirds of the population goes to the cinema at least once a year.[x] Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, a large majority of the American population watches at least one movie each week.[xi]  These figures demonstrate the size and scale of Hollywood’s reach and the scale of these figures indicate that Hollywood commands a massive audience.  The magnitude of this exposure to the public is significant.  And these figures do not reflect figures on watching movies in homes via on demand or internet streaming services.[xii]  Not many other industries can boast this level of reach and these numbers convey the ability of this industry to exert influence on its audience.

The Power of Film to Inform

A second explanation for the potential of film to influence its audience comes from its ability to inform, shape ideas, and even depict historical events.  Watching a movie brings to life scenarios, events, and periods in history and provides a vehicle for understanding those circumstances, regardless of their accuracy.  Put differently, movies enable audiences to understand an event or what it might be like to experience a situation we will never have.  They help answer the question what it is like to do something, to experience something.  For example, the 2016 film Jackie provides audiences a glimpse into the life of First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the week after her husband’s assassination.  Of course the movie is one filmmaker’s interpretation of those events, coupled with artistic license, but it provides a vivid representation of those events.  Audience members who were not alive at that time may unconsciously use the film to inform themselves of what it was like to be alive then.  Viewers of the movie are likely to understand that what they are watching is just a movie, but that movie still provides vivid images and an engrossing story of those events.  And viewers who were alive during that time in the nation’s history may have different reactions to the same film and those responses may align with the film’s perspective or may stand in sharp contrast.  Regardless of the reaction, the film serves as a reference point for those events and how Jackie Kennedy may have actually responded and dealt with those events.

Movies first and foremost tell audiences a story and usually that story is for entertainment purposes.  But, while we are being entertained, we are absorbing information, calibrating reference points and that may indeed be more powerful than a film trying to overtly argue a point or perspective.[xiii]   Moreover, films reproduce and disseminate ideas.  Tony Shaw (2015) discusses terrorism in movies and notes that images—often overly simplified ones—about terrorism and terrorists are shown over and over again and have the effect of naturalizing and legitimizing particular notions or beliefs about the individuals who perpetrate terrorist acts.[xiv]  Indeed, movies have “…the power to define who or what a ‘terrorist’ was (and is)…”[xv]  These images become a sort of “new normal” and may or may not advance accurate ideas, but they become a touchpoint for individuals.

Building on these ideas, movies can inform their audiences what it is like to be in a particular situation, to experience a certain event.  For example, the film All the President’s Men (1976) helped moviegoers understand the struggles of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they chased down leads that ultimately tied the Watergate scandal to President Richard Nixon.  Similarly, the 2015 movie Spotlight enabled audiences to experience the challenges reporters at The Boston Globe encountered as they peeled back the layers of the priest sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.  Most of us are not journalists, but these films help us glimpse what investigative journalists encounter as they pursue stories in an effort to inform the public and keep those in power accountable.  And while these films focus on real-life stories, there are many other examples of movies that detail the world of journalists.  Network (1976) and The Paper (1994) are just two of the hundreds of examples of films chronicling this landscape for moviegoers.

Through retellings of historical events and the presentation of various circumstances, audiences are informed about situations they are unlikely to ever experience firsthand.  Narrative films may not set out to educate and even sway their viewers the way documentaries and related films might, but their influence is still present.  Indeed, it could be argued that the emphasis on entertainment is more prone to influence since audience members let their guard down when they elect to watch a film for entertainment purposes, rather than watching a documentary explicitly to learn something.  This and related points will be discussed further in subsequent chapters, but it is already evident that film can have a tremendous power to influence.

Experience of Watching Movies

A third explanation for the ability of movies to influence comes from the nature of the very experience of watching.  Think back to those movies that have left their mark on you.  Odds are you remember the first time you watched that movie and the recall of that experience says a lot about the very act of watching a movie.  Watching a movie, particularly in a movie theater, is an engrossing experience.  Individuals proactively go out of their way to pay admission to sit in rows of chairs with strangers in the dark and stare at a screen for a few hours.  Our senses of sight and sound are captivated, and perhaps even our sense of smell as popcorn and other concession smells waft throughout the cinema.  An argument might be made that in theaters with exceptional sound systems, our sense of touch is tapped with the rumble of subwoofers in the auditorium.  We cede control to movie theater projectionists who decide when the movie starts and there is no stopping the hum of the projector once it gets going.[xvi]  During that precious time, there is little meddling from the outside world—especially as theaters strictly enforce their cell phone bans and remove patrons who violate it.  Indeed, there are probably only a handful of circumstances these days in which we can say that our attention is not otherwise diverted.  Simply put, it is quite something how cinemagoers are engaged while they watch a movie.

Of course an argument cannot be made that every member of the movie audience grants his/her unwavering attention every moment of the movie, but periods of rapt attention are likely.  And this focus provides an opening for films to influence their audiences.  In this era, the next logical step is to mention other forms of movie watching, such as utilizing one’s own movie library or streaming service, but even still, choices about activities, content, and the like are being made.  Even if one’s attention watching a movie at home is not what it is while at a movie theater, the possibility is still there that as our senses are captivated by the movie, and we open ourselves up to the possibility of being influenced by the movie.

Definitive proof that films clearly and decisively influence their audiences will likely prove elusive; nevertheless, the argument that films can influence their audiences abound, for the reasons outlined above as well as other reasons that will be discussed in subsequent chapters.[xvii]  Granting the possibility that film can have an effect on audiences is our starting point to explore the image of government on screen.

Past Concerns About Film Content

A final piece of the explanation about the ability of film to influence audiences comes from past concerns about the content of movies and efforts to curb those depictions.  Put differently, there is evidence that various stakeholders, and even the movie industry itself, were concerned about what was being shown on screen because of the potential to affect audiences.  During the golden age of Hollywood, the industry succumbed to pressures from outside entities, including religious organizations, and imposed its own standards of decency, manifesting in “Production Codes.”  These codes served a gatekeeping function ensuring that the movies released in theaters met certain morality standards.  Years later during the Cold War and concerns about the threat of communism also affected Hollywood.  During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee gave special attention to the movie business out of concern that actors and filmmakers would use their power to influence Americans to be sympathetic to communism.  Then, decades later, the industry again responded after concerns were raised about the violence and sexuality finding its way to the screen by instituting a ratings system, which is still in place today.  These particular efforts will be detailed in the next chapter, but suffice it to say here that worries about the subjects in films were enough to compel efforts to address what was being shown because of the power of the medium.  Accordingly, these incidents are demonstrative of the recognition of the movies to influence viewers.

Focus on Government and Civil Servants

With the acknowledgment that film can influence its audiences, we consider next the justification for our focus on government and civil servants along with key definitions.  First, our interest here is on government generally, along with individual civil servant characters.  Government is taken to mean government generally and encompassing of both elected leaders, politicians, and rank and file bureaucrats.  Such an expansive definition includes many varied aspects of government, but it is important to think about government generally since movies do not often provide a more nuanced or sophisticated delineation of it.  And it is unlikely viewers spend much time parsing out the particular nuances of government on screen.  This leads us to the narrower focus on civil servants or bureaucrats.  Often times the word bureaucrat is used pejoratively to describe those individuals who work in the imposing government bureaucracy who are consumed with rigid adherence to rules and an obsession with paperwork.  Bureaucrats include government employees that range from police officers to public transit drivers to employees at the local bureau of motor vehicles.  The term civil servants is the preferred term to describe these individuals as the negative connotation is less apparent.  And the emphasis in this research is on all the unelected government officials in movies from federal intelligence officers with the Central Intelligence Agency and members of the military to public school teachers and first responders because they all are civil servants.

Academic research and courses have long explored the intersection of film and politics, but largely ignored is the role of those unelected, career civil servants who serve the public interest in the bureaucracy on film. Numerous, excellent volumes exist about how politics is depicted on screen, and how those messages have changed over the years.  Additionally, studies of presidents, real and fictional, in the movies are another popular focus.[xviii]  War films are the subject of numerous research studies.[xix] Yet, missing in these conversations is consideration of bureaucrats and the nation’s government agencies on the silver screen.

It might be easy to surmise that government and civil servants have not been studied on screen because they are not common, but that is far from accurate based on existing research and a more thorough consideration of recent movies we have all seen.  After all, Top Gun is about the government, and one of the film’s lead characters, Charlie (played by Kelly McGillis) is a civilian astrophysicist who is an instructor at Top Gun.  Or more recently, the Disney animated film Zootopia (2016) depicts a scene in which a main character is at the motor vehicles office literally being helped by a sloth that works there.  If a sloth as a stand in for a motor vehicles bureaucrat does not convey an obvious image of government, one would be hard-pressed to find a clearer one.  The data at the center of this book, representing the top ten box office grossing films from 2000 through 2015, include more than 600 government characters and the vast majority of those characters are civil servants—or, put differently, not elected politicians and leaders.

With the prevalence of civil servants on screen, and recollection of the size and scale of movie audiences, it is important to note that our opinions about government come from a multitude of sources and constitute our political socialization.  Various agents of that socialization cultivate these attitudes, including popular culture.  And among popular culture sources, film has a starring role.  Political scientists and others, as we will discuss in subsequent chapters, have endeavored to understand how citizens arrive at their political beliefs and what factors contribute to the development of those beliefs.  Movies are among the many forms of popular culture that can prove influential so the study of government’s depiction in them is meritorious.

Americans have a tumultuous relationship with their government, from the nation’s origins rejecting of one form of government (monarchy) in favor of another (democratic republic), through today when political divisiveness is only growing and seemingly hardening.[xx] Routine measures for Americans’ view of government often include questions about the direction of the nation and measures of trust in government.  Since the 1970’s, there have been steady declines in public opinion about government.  These figures are demonstrating a crescendo at the start of the Trump administration when an incoming president begins his term of office with the lowest approval ratings in history.  A CNN/ORC Poll in early 2017 revealed that 53 percent of Americans believe that things are going badly or very badly in the U.S.[xxi]  These figures represent a more pessimistic turn, but are generally in line with attitudes Americans have held for years.  When Gallup asks Americans how satisfied they are with the way things are going in the U.S., the majority of respondents have expressed dissatisfaction for years; in fact, one has to go back to early 2004 to find poll results that have a slight majority of Americans satisfied with the direction of the nation.[xxii]  In sum, it has been more than a dozen years since a majority of Americans expressed some positivity about the nation and that optimism was short lived then.  While history will be the ultimate arbiter of the election of Donald Trump as president and whether or not Americans can overcome their differences, it is abundantly clear how divided Americans are about government and political parties and levels of trust and faith in government are at low points.

Regardless of one’s own political ideologies or opinions on the Trump administration, there has never been a more important time to understand political socialization as we look to the future.  What are our images of government and where do those images come from?  The study of government’s portrayal in the movies has much to illuminate about one aspect of this quest.  Exploring film is of particular interest since the size of Hollywood’s audience and the reach of its products continues to grow.  We will see in subsequent chapters that the industry is changing, as it has for decades, but the influence remains.  Moreover, while our movie watching habits are evolving as the comfort and convenience of streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, leave many of us watching movies in the comfort of our homes, movie theaters continue to do big business and admissions grow.  Therefore, movies are likely to remain an integral component of our entertainment and, as a result, the images that they project are just as important as they were when the first production codes were being established nearly a hundred years ago.

The purpose of this book is to explore how government fares at the movies by focusing on the top box office grossing films of 2000 through 2015.  Arguably, even the most casual movie watcher is likely to have seen one of the films in this sample as opposed to research methodologies that explore hand-picked—and often obscure—films to investigate key questions.  We are particularly interested in how civil servants, or government bureaucrats, of all types are shown in film.  As was mentioned previously, much study has been done about politicians on film, but frightfully little has been conducted about those government officials the average American is likely to have routine interactions with in the course of his/her life.  Information about the role of government generally is collected along with data about each government character on screen who has at least one line of dialogue in the movie.  The resulting dataset is complimented by additional study of specific subcategories of government on film and case studies exploring in detail the portrayals of leading characters who are civil servants.  Succinctly put, what we find may startle some readers.

It is very common on the silver screen to find civil servants portrayed in movies.  While it probably is not surprising that government generally is portrayed poorly, what might be surprising is that individual government characters are shown fairly positively while representing a range of types of civil servants.  These results invariably add to conversations about the sources of Americans’ attitudes about government.  The final section of this chapter outlines an overview of the book.

A Preview

Before we can contemplate the implications of the prevalence of government in the movies and the generally positive depiction of bureaucrats in this sample of films, we have to start with Hollywood itself.  Chapter 2 is devoted to setting the stage of our journey.  The history and economics of the movie business are detailed, not in an effort to be comprehensive, but rather in an effort to help us understand where Hollywood has been and where it is today because that facilitates our understanding of its audience.  Economics is an important driver of that industry and this is also considered in this chapter.  The history and economic realities of the movie business help us understand the relationship between movies and audiences, and the ever prominent focus on box office performance.

This background enables us to explore movie audiences then and now in Chapter 3.  Movies would not be made if there was not an audience to watch them.  With a historical look at movie audiences, we also come to understand longstanding concerns about the ability of movies to influence audiences.  Therefore, the relationship between movies and their audiences is significant and helps us understand the role of popular culture in political socialization.  The latter half of this chapter discusses political socialization and demonstrates how movies can influence their audiences and why this influence matters.

Chapter 4 introduces this book’s primary dataset by detailing the top ten box office films each year from 2000 through 2015.  This dataset was constructed through the use of coding worksheets, adapted from previous research in this area, that gathered a wealth of information about each movie individual and specific movie characters.  Background information about each of the films is provided along with a detailed look at the research approach.  This chapter also reviews the limited, existing efforts to explore the intersection of government and public administration on film.

Building on the preceding chapter that introduced the sample of films, Chapter 5 investigates the hundreds of civil servant characters in these films that were successful at the box office.  The chapter explores the frequency and the different kinds of civil servants that find their way to the big screen.  The prominence of these roles is discussed and a typology of civil servant characters is offered.

Chapter 6 shifts to take a case study approach with two prominent types of civil servants on screen:  cops and intelligence officials.  While a wide variety of civil servants are seen in movies, audiences regularly see these two categories of civil servants so additional efforts are undertaken in this chapter to explore these subcategories in greater detail.  Police officers are the focus of the first half of the chapter and a sample of cop characters is culled from movies reaching back into the mid 1980’s.  Then the focus shifts to looking at intelligence officials in two fairly recent films, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, that showcase in a very prominent way the work of the U.S. intelligence community.  Each of these movies depict a real-life episode in the nation’s history in which the bureaucrats in the intelligence community were essential; Argo portrays events surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis and Zero Dark Thirty considers the actions that led up to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound in 2011.  These more narrowly focused cases augment the aggregate data presented in the preceding chapters to provide a more nuanced view of specific categories of civil servants.

This alternative approach continues in Chapter 7 where we consider Hollywood’s presentation of public policy topics in a handful of films.  Working under the assumption that the images presented to movie audiences might leave an effect on those audiences, this chapter investigates how particular public issues are presented on screen as it is through these policy areas that civil servants serve the public.  Environmental issues are the focus in the movies The Day After Tomorrow and Promised Land.  In the former, a dramatic and scientifically improbable sequence of events besets the planet causing major and sudden changes to the climate.  In a plot befitting its classification as a summer blockbuster, an epic journey is undertaken to save high school students from the perils of Mother Nature.  Promised Land is an independent film that is the story of what happens when an energy company looking for land and mineral rights comes to a struggling small town and the characters grapple with the complexities of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.  The threat of terrorists on the national security of the United States and the work of the intelligence community is also considered through Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which were introduced in the previous chapter.  By exploring specific policy issues in film, we can round out our focus on the depiction of the bureaucracy and its activities on screen and consider the effects those images might have on audiences.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, brings our discussion to a close by exploring possible implications for the images of government and civil servants found in these movies.  Potential explanations for the nature of these depictions are offered, including the necessities of the film medium as well as audience expectations.  The next section considers the implications for these findings, including the potential to influence audiences generally and the possible repercussions for current and future civil servants.

The Big Picture

The aspirations of this project are not meant in any way to change your viewing habits or the joy you find in watching a truly great movie.  Rather, the objectives here are to add to the robust discussions of film and politics by including the often nameless, faceless bureaucrats who comprise the multitude of government officials that carry out the work of government day in and day out.  Perhaps after reading this book you will be a bit more aware of the prevalence of public administration on screen and cognizant of the images that are shown of this sector.  I leave it to the readers to make normative judgments about what these images should be, and to consider whether these images may or may not have contributed to their own attitudes about government.  Because, in the end, it turns out that civil servants are commonly found in the movies—the question is whether or not they are ready for their close up.[xxiii]



[i] Those readers who have seen this film will understand why “pilot” is not the appropriate term to refer to the naval aviators featured in this film.

[ii] It is worth noting that my father gleefully made me aware when the U.S. Navy retired the F-14 as it became outdated technology.

[iii] “Theatrical Market Statistics Report 2015,” Motion Picture Association of America, 2015_Final.pdf. (10 February 2017).

[iv] Barnes, Brooks.  “Reality?  No, Thanks.  Moviegoers Sought Escape in 2016.”  The New York Times January 1, 2017.

[v] Paul, William. When Movies Were Theater:  Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film. (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2016) 190.

[vi] Waller, Gregory A. “Introduction:  A Century at the Movies.”  In Moviegoing in America, edited by Gregory A. Waller. (Malden, Mass.:  Blackwell Publishers, 2002) 1-7.  Franklin, Daniel P. Politics and Film:  The Political Culture of Film in the United States. (New York:  Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006).  Kolker, Robert.  Film, form, and culture. (New York:  McGraw Hill. 1999).  Wielde, Heidelberg, Beth and David Schultz.  “Mr. Smith Goes to the Movies:  Images of Dissent in American Cinema.” In Homer Simpson Marches on Washington:  Dissent through Popular Culture.  Edited by Timothy M. Dale and Joseph J. Foy, (Lexington, KY:  The University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 59-74.

[vii] More on this point will be addressed in chapters 3 and 4.

[viii] Barnes, Brooks, “Reality?  No, Thanks.  Moviegoers Sought Escape in 2016,” 2017.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] MPAA, “Theatrical Market Statistics Report 2015,” 2015, p. 2.  It should be noted that the MPAA report presents combined data for the American and Canadian markets and data for the American market only is not delineated.  More specifically, in 2015, the most recent year data are available, 69 percent of the U.S. and Canadian population (235.3 million people) went to the movie theater at least once, reflecting an increase of 2 percent.

[xi] Pew Research Center. Increasingly, Americans prefer going to the movies at home. May 16, 2006.  (Accessed Feb. 10, 2017).  The most recent data available is more than a decade old.  In this Pew study from 2006, 71 percent of respondents said they watched a movie at least once a week, if not more.  This includes home viewing and cinema viewing.  One could speculate that in the years following this report, the number might be higher as streaming services have only grown in subscribers.

[xii] In 2016, Netflix alone reported more than 33 million subscriptions in the U.S. alone.  (Statista. Statistics and Facts about Netflix.  (Accessed February 7, 2017).

[xiii] Suderman, Peter. “The original Ghostbusters was hugely political.  The new one, not so much,”  Vox. July 20, 2016.  (Accessed 28 July 2016).

[xiv] Shaw, Tony.  Cinematic Terror:  A Global History of Terrorism on Film. (New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) 285.

[xv] Ibid, p. 283.

[xvi] Unless, of course, there is a technical malfunction with the projector.  And as a one-time movie theater projectionist, I can attest to the technical challenges that come with the job.  I confess to only experiencing one major issue that was my fault, and of course, it happened during an anniversary showing of The Wizard of Oz!

[xvii] See Shaw, Cinematic Terror:  A Global History of Terrorism on Film, 2015 for a consideration of the influence of films depicting terrorism on audience attitudes as one example.

[xviii] See, for example, Gianos, Phillip L. Politics and Politicians in American Film. (Westport, CT:  Praeger, 1998).  Giglio, Ernest. Here’s Looking at You:  Hollywood, Film, & Politics. (New York:  Peter Lang, 2014).  Haas, Elizabeth, Terry Christensen, and Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics:  Political Messages in American Films. (New York:  Routledge, 2015).

[xix] See, for example, Giglio, Here’s Looking at You:  Hollywood, Film, & Politics, 2014, Haas et al, Projecting Politics:  Political Messages in American Films, 2015, Kellner, Douglas M.  Cinema Wars:  Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era.  (New York:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), Weber, Cynthia.  Imagining America at War:  Morality, Politics, and Film.  (New York:  Routledge, 2005)

[xx] “Frontline:  Divided States of America.” PBS, Original air dates January 17 & 18, 2017.  Original air dates January 17 & 18, 2017.

[xxi] “Direction of the Country.” Polling Report.  (10 February 2017).

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] This point of inquiry pays homage to the great Billy Wilder film Sunset Blvd. (1950).  In the movie, the silent film star Gloria Swanson portrays aging star Norma Desmond who descends the staircase of her home under false pretenses at the end of the film.  It is then that she says the often misquoted line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”


This excerpt is from Civil Servants on the Silver Screen: Hollywood’s Depiction of Government and Bureaucrats (Lexington Books, 2017).

Michelle PautzMichelle Pautz

Michelle Pautz

Michelle Pautz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She is the author of several books, including, with Sara Rinfred, The Lilliputians of Environmental Regulation: The Perspective of State Regulators (Routledge, 2012); with Sara Rinfred, U.S. Environmental Policy in Action: Implementation & Practice (Palgrave, 2014); and Civil Servants on the Silver Screen: Hollywood’s Depiction of Government and Bureaucrats (Lexington Books, 2017)

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