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More Details On How Far FBI Will Go To Control Its Image In Cinema

Journalist Jason Leopold obtained hundreds of documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that further reveal how the FBI relies upon movies and television to bolster its image.

In a report for Buzzfeed, Leopold and Ariane Lange write, “Over the past five years, the FBI’s Hollywood-focused Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit has played a role in the development of hundreds of movies, television shows, and documentaries. Examples are varied, and include the newly released ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,’ a biopic about the famous Watergate leaker Deep Throat; the 2012 straight-to-DVD Miley Cyrus romp ‘So Undercover;’ and an episode of the documentary series ‘Fatal Encounters.'”

“The bureau views these projects as marketing tools for an agency that desperately wants to build the FBI ‘brand,'” they add.

For the widely panned adaptation, “The Company You Keep,” on a former member of the Weather Underground, which was directed by Robert Redford, the agency boasts, “FBI provided input and changed approximately 30 scenes.” The changes led the FBI to grant permission to the production to use the agency’s seal in sets and props. It was released in 2013.

In 2014, the FBI refused to support an independent film, “Land Of the Free, Except For Me,” about a survivor of human trafficking named Marie Paquim.

“After consulting with colleagues and unit chief, determined that, due to the nature of the script (included drug use by special agent and based off of real events) as well as IPPAU’s limited resources, [the FBI] declined assistance with project,” according to an Office of Public Affairs log.

The filmmaker was also instructed not to “reach out to any current FBI agents” when she mentioned she had contacts, who could “put her in touch with FBI agents” that could help actors with their portrayal of agents in the production. (Note: It does not appear the film was ever completed.)

For the forgettable action flick, “Empire State,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the FBI again disliked how agents were depicted and declined to provide support.

“Reviewed script. P. 70 had FBI agents rolling onto screen and immediately condescending NYPD,” the log from April 27, 2012 reads. “Also later in script agents were ‘dragging’ patrons out of restaurants and theaters. Advised [filmmaker] that the script does not accurately portray FBI procedures and personnel and therefore use of official seal was declined.”

Additionally, when a Wall Street Journal reporter wanted to know details about the collaboration between the FBI and Clint Eastwood’s biopic, “J. Edgar,” on the infamous FBI director, the agency was more than pleased that the reporter found nothing significant for her story.

“We advised her of how we work with all Hollywood productions, from comedy to documentary and that the writer reached out to us first, not vice-versa. Story ran 11/4/11, and did not mention FBI [headquarters] at all. She didn’t get the controversy she wanted from [headquarters] so she quoted” two retired FBI agents.

The Office of Public Affairs was thrilled to support the film, “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp, on the FBI’s efforts to take down bank robber John Dillinger.

According to a memo approving collaboration, “This approval is made consistent with the OPA mission interest in developing the public image of the FBI and ensuring an accurate portrayal of FBI personnel, past and present, in order to encourage public cooperation with the FBI in performing its mission.”

That does not mean the FBI did not have any reservations about the film. An FBI historian suggested the portrayal of the FBI and Hoover heightened the “image of the FBI as an agency seeking to win by whatever means necessary.” While the agency did not demand a “flattering” portrayal, they believed there were inaccuracies to correct in this depiction of “criminal investigations” during the Depression Era.

The FBI claims that it has much to offer entertainment producers and touts several items as services it may choose to provide: “guidance” on content about the FBI’s investigations, procedures, structure, and history; “information on costumes, props, scenery, and weapons,” “fact checks,” “liaison and coordination with local FBI field offices,” “coordination of local shots,” and “access to FBI facilities for filming scenes, interviews, or b-roll footage.”

Yet, in exchange for these services, the FBI expects filmmakers or television producers to cooperate with their requests for script changes or else they will deny support.

Finally, producers must also be concerned about using fictional names in productions that may turn out to be the real names of FBI agents. There are a number of emails in the documents obtained that show the FBI confirming whether a certain name can be used. It appears failing to check could result in litigation that might be costly or bring negative publicity to a production.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."