On the CIA and Their Strangely Open Relationship With Hollywood

On the CIA and Their Strangely Open Relationship With Hollywood

Sep 16, 2011

CIA Lobby SealWhile watching X-Men: First Class, a curious special effects detail stood out.  The aerial shot of the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia was historically accurate.  We've all seen aerial shots of the CIA in films for years.  It's not much of a secret after all.  It looks like a giant, cement complex recessed in the woods.  However, back in the 1960s, Langley wasn't quite so giant.  See, in the '80s the agency greatly expanded their facilities with the construction of a New Headquarters Building that directly connects to the Old Headquarters Building and that view is what we're used to seeing.  In a nice touch, however, the shot in Matthew Vaughn's film was created to show just OHB.

What's this have to do with anything?  Nothing in particular, it's just yet another sign of how the CIA regularly opens themselves up for consultation with filmmakers, often giving them resources and information in order to make their portrayal of the CIA as accurate as possible.  As this article at Wired points out, they really don't care to be seen as this closed-off factory of secrecy where gruff men and women work in windowless rooms deep beneath the Earth.  The CIA is happy to dispel with the Cold War-era cloak and dagger mystique.

Having actually been to the CIA a number of times, I can attest that's just not how it is.  It's a massive, well-lit place that's very warm and welcoming.  There's a museum you can walk through.  Huge, scale models of spy planes hang from the ceiling. It's got a food court with everything from Burger King to Starbucks.  The CIA even has a gift shop.  I recall one day when the agency had arranged to bring in Mike Myers for a meet and greet and Q&A.  Why Mike Myers?  I don't remember (this was years after the last Austin Powers movie came out, but I guess the spy connection was still worth it), but it just goes to show how the CIA's relationship with Hollywood is a surprisingly accessible two-way street.

Of course, there are people who think it actually shouldn't be that way and that a CIA liaison to Hollywood is just a not-so-subtle way of injecting pro-CIA propaganda into Hollywood movies.  But that's an ethics question for another time.  In the mean time, it's fascinating to me that the CIA, this mammoth source of perpetual conspiracy and intrigue, and other areas of the Department of Defense do more than just offer planes to Michael Bay.  As Wired outlines, they consult on scripts and even offer up ideas of their own with declassified stories that would make for good script materials.  The idea of that may make some break out tinfoil hats and a copy of their favorite Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts movie, but I actually think that level of openness is kind of cool, whether it results in a two-second aerial shot in X-Men: First Class or a Breach-like earnest look inside the agency.

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