Propaganda Vérité

Propaganda Vérité

            The nature of propaganda changed the day the World Trade Center collapsed. It's well documented that the United States has a tendency to turn to the movie industry in order to further their agendas. In 1916, The Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, wrote a letter to a Major General Frederick Funston stating, “…it is of national importance that a proper dissemination of military news be promptly furnished to the public. At this particular time the psychological effect of a thorough diffusion of such items cannot be over-estimated” (Wood 103). And so begins the wondrous relationship of government and the film industry. What is the government to gain? Peter Biskind (1), former editor of Premiere magazine and author of several books on the cinema, explains:

It has never been much of a secret…that movies influence manners, attitudes, and behavior. In the fifties, they told us how to dress for a rumble or a board meeting, how far to go on the first date, what to think about Martians or, closer to home, Jews, blacks and homosexuals. They taught girls whether they should have husbands or careers, boys whether to pursue work or pleasure. They told us what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad; they defined our problems and suggested solutions.

Governments are notorious for advertising a national disaster in order to further a cause. But where does propaganda meet fact? During World War One, three years after the fact, civilians were reminded of the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-Boats. Propaganda posters hung everywhere showing the painted depiction of a woman drowning from the attack. The only word that appears on the poster is: ENLIST. The same happened under Roosevelt’s administration. In his speech referring to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt spoke that, “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.” Posters hung everywhere reminding us to “Avenge Pearl Harbor” and to “Remember December 7th”. September 11, 2001 struck and the government reacted quickly. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that 9/11 was an “enormous opportunity” and that America, our friends, and our allies must “take advantage of these new opportunities” (Rice). As I write this essay, I find the line between inspiration and exploitation in a constant thinning.

            The atmosphere after September 11 was of numb confusion. Those in the media had no idea how to approach the topic, so instead resorted to constant replays of the attacks. The way the mass media approached the topic was going to be very decisive in the attitudes Americans would begin to shape. Of all the mass communication mediums, the film experience has often been considered the most socially influential art form, one beneficial to push ideas towards people. German psychologist Hugo Mauerhofer stated that during a film, “The spectator gives himself voluntarily and passively to the action on the screen and to its uncritical interpretation supplied by his unconscious mind” (Austin 46). The audience has a collective need to empathize with the situations and characters presented. What happens then, when the action on the screen presents itself in an uncritical fashion but pushes a critical agenda?

On November 11th, 2001, exactly one month after the attacks, President Bush’s top advisor Karl Rove rushed a meeting in the Beverly Peninsula Hotel in California. The people who attended are some of the most powerful figures in the film industry today. Just a small sample of those who attended: Sherry Lansing, chair of the Paramount Pictures, Jonathan Dolgen, head of Viacom Entertainment, Bryce Zabel, CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association (Cooper). It’s interesting to note that Jack Valenti has worked alongside presidents and the government through out most of his career. He even appears in the photo of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn into presidency aboard Air Force One after Kennedy’s assassination.

The purpose of this Hollywood summit was made clear by Karl Rove:

Americans must be called to national service; that Americans should support the troops; that this is a global war that needs a global response; that this is a war against evil; that American children have to be reassured; and that instead of propaganda, the war effort needs a narrative that should be told with accuracy and honesty. (Cooper)

As time went on and the American flag pins came off, we saw a clear divide in the unity of the American people. The state of film and its representation of the event were on sensitive ground.

It took until April 2006 for the first fictional film based on the events to be released. The film United 93, directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, has been the subject of both scrutiny and praise since its release. Director Paul Greengrass stated that his objective with the film was to, “…reach back to the common ground, and the common ground is whatever it is that happened that morning…examine in detail, and see what it can tell us about what happened and where we've come from” (Balfour).

This film excited the masses. On its opening weekend it only received 11 million dollars. As with all important movies, word of mouth is the true contribution to a films success. By the next weekend, United 93 received over 20 million dollars and by June 25th over 35 million. People were talking. Some might say that this film was nothing but propaganda while others felt it was a tasteful depiction of the events.

Conservative columnist George Will wrote in The Washington Post,

Going to see United 93 is a civic duty...The movie may quicken our appreciation of the measures and successes--many of which must remain secret--that have kept would-be killers at bay...The message of the movie is: We are all potential soldiers.

Conservatives all over praised the way director Greengrass presented the events. Rush Limbaugh particularly enjoyed that it, “…didn't sympathize with them [the terrorists] and…didn't give them reasons…that might explain why they were doing this. It was just cut-and-dry. It's really, really well done.” Another advocate of pushing military agendas in the media stated the following in his semi-autobiographical book:

For this, to be sure, from the child's primer down to the last newspaper, every theater and every movie house, every advertising pillar and every billboard, must be pressed into the service of this one great mission, until the timorous prayer of our present parlor patriots: 'Lord, make us free!' is transformed in the brain of the smallest boy into the burning plea: 'Almighty God, bless our arms when the time comes; be just as thou hast always been; judge now whether we be deserving of freedom… (Hitler)

These ideals correspond with the values of many Americans today. Bill O’ Reilly, FOX News commentator, spoke of the author of that passage saying, “Hitler…understood that if you say something loud and long enough many people will believe it. A good journalist's first priority should be to separate propaganda from fact -- but sometimes it’s very hard to do that.” The commentary of journalists and pundits are the result of (usually) carefully constructed criticism. Their job is to speak out loud. Any statement that could be potentially offensive to a group of Americans does not get printed or said. Though what of the uncensored voice of the American people?

            The popular Internet Movie Database website reveals many member reviews of the film. One member, Dozyd87, wrote on the message boards:

I got such a rush of blood when watching the scene with the passengers taking over the plane, i was just shouting at the tv in pleasure as the 2 terrorists were getting beaten to death. it really sucks that the terrorist had a quick death as well as the other passenger, had the passengers of united 93 survived I would enjoy watching them terorist *beep* have a slow painfull execution, especially the one with glasses, i dont know why but hes the one that pissed me off the most.

IMDB member framecut-1 spoke of his reaction to the film:

Watching this film all what I can think is (The passengers rising up against the terrorists): TEAR OUT THEIR EYES! TEAR OUT THEIR THROATS! TEAR OFF THEIR FACES! KILL THEM! …Bomb the hell out of them…NUKE THEM if you have to.

These are not prepubescent boys needing attention. These are the responses from people in college. Meanwhile, 17 year old member Treadstone_Agent asked, “How many of you are afraid of Muslims?” Is this the message intended by the film? Not all the reactions to the film were in this way, of course. One woman, user name mlambertint, titled her review United We Could, and wrote:

Frozen, speechless, devastated. That's how I was at the end of the film and judging by the silence in the auditorium the whole audience felt the same. A remarkable achievement. Not a single cheap shot. Knowing, as we all know, what happened on that fatal September 11th…The faces of the passengers, without even knowing their names, are still vivid in my mind. Extraordinary. Not to mention the terrorist's faces. So real, so human. Tears were running down my face as a chill run down my spine…

Though these people do not stand high in the communication of national opinion, for example Rush Limbaugh or George Will, it’s undeniable they are the voice of the national opinion. Though there is an obvious divide between fact and opinion, it seems that they are on the same ship slowly sinking. In the age of new media and globalization, fact and opinion are slowly blurring away. This is an age where political pundits claim fact to be opinion, and filmmakers claim opinion to be fact.

            It would be fair to examine the effects of this film objectively if it were created for no other purpose than documentation. I find this hard to believe. Howard Zinn (8), author of A People’s History of the United States said,

“…selection, simplification, emphasis…inevitable for both cartographers and historians. The historian’s distortion is…ideological; it is released in a world of contending interests, where any chose emphasis supports some kind of interest, whether economical or political…”

If all Paul Greengrass wished to do was to “examine in detail”, much the way a historian would of a passed and forgotten time, it’s fair to put him under the same scrutiny. Perhaps it would be easier to believe that United 93 had nothing more than heartfelt intentions for its topic if it were not for the fact that during a private screening for journalists and critics, the film originally ended with a title card stating: "America's war on terror had begun” (Lim).

            Karl Rove, in his meet with the film industry majors said, “…instead of propaganda, the war effort needs a narrative that should be told with accuracy and honesty” (Cooper). The entire film plays out in an extremely realistic style, down to the people and crew members who were present on that day playing themselves. The problem here is that the film makes it seem as though everything we are watching is fact. The propaganda of yesterday relied on lavish orchestral scores and slow motion shots. Now, the soundtracks are supplied by ambient noises to make us believe we’re there. My prediction lies on the fact that the language of communication has changed, therefore propaganda has changed as well. United 93 started all of that.

There are three portions in the film that go against Greengrass’s goals to, “…reach back to the common ground, and the common ground is whatever it is that happened that morning…examine in detail, and see what it can tell us about what happened and where we've come from.”  The film opens with the terrorist praying in their native language. A shot of the city at night is then shown with a voice over of the terrorist continuing to pray. Tension is created by the contrast of the quiet recitation of the Arabic prayer over a quiet shot of the typical American metropolitan night. It’s that one divergence of the aesthetic established that can make one believe there is a statement to be made.

Later, there is an interesting juxtaposition of the victims praying and the terrorist praying at the same time. Though this event taking place in this manner is not fact, the scene was chosen to be presented in such a way that would stir strong emotions in the viewer. It would be easy to mistake from that scene that the sole purpose of the attacks was their religion. On the Internet Movie Database, there is review titled After Watching United 93 by user argyre-1 which states, “Americans, want to win the war on terror? Ban Islam.” This misunderstanding of the religion is a clear result of Paul Greengrass’s subtle accusations through juxtaposition.

At the very end of the film the passengers attempt to and finally succeed in breaking into the cockpit. While this action takes place, a string-laden score plays quietly under the screaming and shouting of the people and torrent of the plane. By the end of the scene, all the noise stops abruptly. The use of such a cliché musical accompaniment further proves that a strong emotional reaction was the target of the filmmaker as opposed to his examination of events.

Film critic James MacDowell wrote on how the aesthetic choice of United 93 was a “troubling ideological statement”. These three elements of the film stood out by going against what Greengrass established as his goals for the film.

Karl Rove succeeded. Bryce Zabel, screenwriter and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, said after the meet with Karl Rove, "What we are excited about is neither propaganda nor censorship…The word I like is advocacy” (Cooper). The United States government then has introduced a new form of “advocacy”: one I call Propaganda vérité.

 The film industry was reminded at the meeting that Americans must be called to a national service. And the people responded. After watching the movie in theaters, a middle aged couple in Scottsdale, Arizona harassed three Muslim women wearing head scarves (“World Net”). The film spoke to the people protecting our nation as well. Lewis Alsamari, the actor who portrayed a hijacker in the film, was denied entry into the United States, missing the film’s premiere in New York. He told a British newspaper, “I think this was because I am still an Iraqi citizen” (Silverman).

There is no common ground, there is no mutual concern. Globalization has changed the way we communicate ideas. The propaganda we receive today is nothing like it was in World War One and Two, where studios like Walt Disney’s were literally under control by the United States government. “Any comparisons to Hollywood's prolific pro-war output during World War II are simply misplaced,” argues Robert Rosen, the dean of UCLA's Film and TV School. "During World War Two there was no TV," he says. "The only way you could 'see' the war was through the movies. That's hardly the case today” (Cooper). He’s right because today we have TV, the internet, wide spread of independent publications, and information traveling at the speed of thought. With the shift in our narrative we find a shift in our discourse.

This is what is happening now. Valley of the Wolves Iraq, a Turkish film made in 2006 depicting the Americans as the brute invaders to the nation, has stirred quite a bit of controversy over seas…over seas. We hear nothing in this country and that is not accidental. A memo sent out by Army officials tell soldiers stationed in Europe, “…to avoid theaters or movie-plexes showing the film and to avoid getting into discussions about the movie with persons you don’t know” (Tugend). It opened all across Europe last year but it is yet to see a release here in the United States. One can definitely not say that it’s due to the production value: the budget spans over 8 million dollars, there are 2 well known American actors in it (Gary Busey and Billy Zane), and has gone to gross over twenty million dollars.

Also, to inspire pride among the working class, “…all those yuppie-millionaire movie projects are being replaced by stories featuring gritty and courageous blue-collar heroes” (Cooper). Propaganda has changed its face. It’s no longer a series of films to make you think a specific idea. It’s now become a control on the who, what, when, where, why, and how you see films.

The only solution I see in this situation is the recognition of what is occurring.  Samuel Rothafel, the man responsible for opening Radio City Music Hall, said, “The public always know what it wants just after it has seen it” (Austin 1). I feel we live in a time where this no longer needs to be true. United 93 is only one example.

Our propaganda does not exist anymore in the form of a poster or cartoon characters fighting Hitler. Our propaganda now comes in the guise of nonsensical statements such as “Support our Troops” or “Pro-Life”. In the guise of films dressed with a cloth of artistic honesty. In the guise of cease-and-desist and foreign suppression, with hopes negative light does not touch our shore. "We are already propaganda experts," producer Lynda Obst, who did not go to the filmmakers summit, stated, "We are the veritable American Dream Machine. We hardly need any instruction” (Cooper).

At least Donald Duck punching a Nazi was entertaining.


Works Cited

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The Internet Movie Database. 07 March 2007. <>

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O’Reilly, Bill. The O’Reilly Factor. Fox News. 24 Jan., 2000

Silverman, Stephen M. “Iraqi United 93 Actor: U.S. Won't Let Me In”. People. 07 March 2007.


Tugend, Tom. “American Actor Busey Stars as Murderous Jew”. The Jewish Journal.

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