If Hollywood is a window into the American soul, what does it say that in one of the most popular TV shows, “The X-Files,” the bad guy is the U.S. government?
Or consider that in this summer’s “Conspiracy Theory,” Mel Gibson has not only been brainwashed by the CIA but figures out NASA is about to assassinate the president. With the space shuttle, no less.
In “Men in Black,” secret government agents Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith “neutralize” hapless Americans who stumble upon space aliens. In the works are movies featuring a power-hungry State Department and a government experiment gone awry that hurls a hurricane at Los Angeles.
Plausibility aside, Hollywood has created a new and powerful enemy. Worse than Godzilla. Scarier than the Soviets. It has turned a democracy by and for the people into a corrupt cabal that has turned against its citizens.
Granted, a healthy suspicion of power is as American as apple pie - the overthrow of tyranny is our founding legend. Bouts of paranoia of a government takeover by the Masons, the Trilateral Commission or the pope have flared throughout U.S. history. And Hollywood has produced some stellar Washington conspiracy thrillers in the past.
But movies, television, the Internet and pop culture are virtually exploding with conspiratorial plots starring Washington as the heavy. Writers and producers could never create a monster unless people bought it.
“These are paranoid times,” said Bryce Zabel, producer of NBC’s “Dark Skies,” a show that cross-pollinates conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination and alien spaceship landings. “Is Hollywood reflecting the times, or creating the times? The more you see a conspiratorial, paranoid movie, the more apt you are to believe it. The more you believe, the more Hollywood is likely to make a movie for you.”
“The Rock,” “Chain Reaction,” “The Net,” “Absolute Power,” “The Shadow Conspiracy,” “The Arrival,” “Eraser,” “Independence Day,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Pretender” are just a few television shows and movies that feature shadowy forces within government conspiring to hold onto power and to keep people in the dark.
What was once the province of fringe groups, militia and some twisted minds is becoming mainstream. At a time when just about every indicator shows trust in government and interest in politics at historic lows - not to mention that more people believe in UFOs than in their Social Security benefits - the trend has some people worried.
“There was a time when people feared conspiracies directed against the government. They’d look for the spy or the saboteur threatening national security,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. “More and more, people think the government is involved in a conspiracy against us, the people. That is new. And very unwelcome.”
Perhaps we’re not quite to the point of believing, as zealots on the Internet do, that blue M&Ms; leave radioactive cobalt in our fillings, so the “shadow government” can track us. But the legitimate government is spending more time, and more tax dollars, fending off conspiracy theories.
Congress has held hearings on black helicopters - are they really U.S. Fish and Wildlife copters, or harbingers of the coming United Nations takeover? - and has argued about them on the House floor.
Both the General Accounting Office and the Air Force have issued lengthy reports about perhaps the hottest conspiracy theory - that the government for 50 years has withheld the truth about aliens crash landing in Roswell, N.M.
And a bill to consolidate job-training programs sponsored by Nancy Kassebaum, when she was a senator from Kansas - and she’s hardly a new world order type - went down in flames not long ago, partly because conspiracy theorists claimed it was Big Brother’s attempt to “program” children by determining their careers for them.
At least one Republican congressional office has a staffer whose “unofficial” job is to keep on top of the latest twists in Washington conspiracy theories. Did the military really shoot down TWA Flight 800? And was former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown “murdered” because he knew too much about Whitewater?
“We joke about it,” the staffer said, who insisted on anonymity. “But if we have town hall meetings or the boss is going to be questioned somewhere, like on C-SPAN, we’ve got know this is out there. We’ve been blind-sided one too many times.”
At a time when even Martin Luther King Jr.’s family now believes the government, not the convicted James Earl Ray, conspired to kill the renowned civil rights leader, Hollywood writers and producers say they’re just giving the people what they want.
Conspiracy, they say, is simply in the air. Why that is so, is a little more complicated.
“I think a lot of it stems from the Cold War being over,” said Brian Helgeland, who wrote the upcoming “Conspiracy Theory.” “Once the Berlin Wall fell, and the Russians fell apart on us, we’ve sort of looked within for enemies. The natural, faceless enemy we picked was the government. Or the nefarious part of government.”
“It’s not healthy for the population to be so suspicious of the government,” Helgeland said. “Cynicism is good. But when it reaches the levels we’re reaching, it’s dangerous.”
Sen. Moynihan, pushing to declassify a mountain of Cold War government documents, puts the blame for the current paranoia craze squarely on the government itself. “Government secrecy,” he said, “breeds conspiracy theories.”
Think of the secret bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Tuskegee and human radiation experiments, Ruby Ridge. All the times the government was, in fact, doing something less than honorable and being less than truthful about it.
Those true-to-life conspiracies shaped a distrusting generation of writers and producers now coming into their own in Hollywood.
“We were the ones who came of age during the Kennedy assassination and the assassinations of everyone basically worth a damn in the ‘60s,” said Zabel of “Dark Skies.”
“We know they lied to us about Vietnam, that the Gulf of Tonkin never happened,” he said. “Can you blame my generation for being more open to conspiracy theories than my father’s?”