- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

With a German accent, actor Alan Rickman uttered one of the most memorable lines in the 1988 action blockbuster “Die Hard.”

“You asked for a miracle, Theo. I give you the FBI.”

Mr. Rickman, movie buffs will recall, was playing the bad guy - and FBI agents, by predictably following their hostage-crisis playbook, had played directly into his hands, cutting off power to an office tower and thus disabling the locks to a vault holding millions of dollars’ worth of negotiable bonds.

The portrayal marked another step in a long journey for an icon of American cinema and television - the G-man, a slang term among criminals for “government man,” which became almost exclusively synonymous with FBI agents.

From pulpy heroes to bumbling bureaucrats to the grittier, more complex characters of recent years, FBI agents have figured in hundreds of movies and television shows.

In the rearview mirror of pop history, the G-man has served as a sort of cultural litmus paper. As attitudes about government changed, the FBI of popular imagination evolved with them.

The bureau itself has tacked accordingly. After its discovery in the late 1930s of the tremendous power of media to influence public perception, the FBI under its first and most powerful director, J. Edgar Hoover, fed - and sometimes shaped - the output of the entertainment industry.

At the peak of its influence, it reviewed the scripts of the long-running television series and Sunday-night ritual “The F.B.I.” (1965-74), starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Inspector Lewis Erskine. It even ran background checks on actors.

Today, the bureau helps Hollywood when it’s asked - even if there’s no longer any guarantee that, as with the recent internal espionage drama “Breach,” the results will be completely flattering.

Filmmakers need the bureau’s permission only when they use its official seal.

Just about everything else - even, say, blowing up the FBI’s headquarters (as depicted in the climax of 1999’s “Arlington Road”) is fair game.

Wanted: heroes

The FBI was a largely obscure division of the Justice Department for the first 25 or so years of its history, according to the bureau’s official historian, John F. Fox Jr.

During the Great Depression and on the heels of the Prohibition era, the public had little sense of cops as heroic professionals. Less still did it have a favorable impression of federal law enforcement efforts.

“When people thought of federal law enforcement, they often thought of the Prohibition agent. And although there were many good ones, there were also many corrupt ones,” Mr. Fox says.

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