- 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.

(Widely misremembered as an FBI agent, Eliot Ness, of later “Untouchables” fame, worked for the Bureau of Prohibition, a division of the Treasury Department and a forerunner of today’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.)

“Law enforcement was seen as ineffective - and the gangsters seemed to be thumbing their nose at it,” Mr. Fox says.

Look how long it took to bring down Al Capone. On a tax evasion rap, no less.

A sequence of high-profile events gave the bureau its big break.

In 1932, the FBI, then known as the Bureau of Investigation, played a role in the investigation of the kidnap and murder of aviation celebrity Charles Lindbergh’s son. A year later came the so-called Kansas City Massacre, in which four law enforcement officers, including one FBI agent, were killed when a federal prisoner’s friends tried to free him.

In 1934, the bureau spearheaded the demise of John Dillinger, one of the era’s most notorious - in some quarters, beloved - criminals.

After Dillinger was foiled, “the FBI really emerged in the public mind,” Mr. Fox says.

Hollywood took particular notice.

Studio executives and producers at the time had begun to shrink from controversial movies that glorified gangsters and other criminals as anti-heroes. They needed a fresh archetypal “good guy.”

In turn, Homer Cummings, U.S. attorney general from 1933 to 1939, intuited the possibilities of a creative marriage between government and Hollywood. Movies and other popular fiction, he thought, could help elicit public support for a nationwide battle against crime - a battle Mr. Cummings thought the country was losing.

Mr. Fox says Mr. Cummings cultivated the talents of Henry Suydam, a journalist and true-crime writer.

Mr. Cummings also connected Mr. Hoover to the writer Courtney Ryley Cooper, who is said to have ghostwritten “Persons in Hiding,” a book published under Mr. Hoover’s name that provided source material for three feature movies, including “Queen of the Mob” and “Parole Fixer,” both released in 1940.

An icon is born

Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, worked as a special agent in the FBI’s organized crime unit in Chicago from 1988 to 1994.

The popular image of the G-man as a model of smarts, bravery and incorruptibility “made a significant impact on me,” says Mr. Rogers, 45.

Stories about the capture of Dillinger, the battle against mobsters, the chasing of Soviet spies - “I read everything I could get my hands on,” he says.

Two movies - 1951’s “Public Enemy No. 1” and 1959’s “The FBI Story,” starring Jimmy Stewart - made a particular impression on him.

The FBI’s big-screen prominence began in earnest with 1935’s “‘G’ Men,” with James Cagney as Agent “Brick” Davis.

As a figure of movie mythology, the G-man, snappily dressed in dark suit and fedora, is intelligent but can handle himself in a fight. He is, distinctively, a “rational and scientific law enforcer,” Mr. Fox says.

Though figures like Mr. Cummings and Mr. Hoover recognized the benefits of popular portrayals of FBI agents, the bureau did not move immediately to cooperate with filmmakers.

Indeed, Special Agent Leon Turrou was fired for leaking information to the press about the bureau’s involvement in the breakup of a German spy ring based in the United States. Reports about the investigation formed the basis of the 1938 film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

“Later in the war, I think Hoover realized that working with Hollywood could be a way to educate people about what the FBI does and how it does it,” Mr. Fox says. “It could be a recruiting tool. It could encourage people to cooperate with the bureau.”

By 1945 and the release of “The House on 92nd Street,” about the breakup of another Nazi spy ring, the FBI was providing surveillance footage and pictures of its New York field office to filmmakers. Real agents, too, appeared in the film, which earned screenwriter Charles G. Booth an Oscar for best original motion picture story.

Mr. Hoover cast “his shadow over American public life,” wrote historian Richard Gid Powers in his book “G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture.” “His agents were the stars of movies, radio adventures, comics, pulp magazines, television series, even bubble-gum cards.”

Peace, love and misunderstanding

Russell Williams was born and raised in Washington and went on to win successive Academy Awards for best sound-mixing (“Glory,” “Dances With Wolves”).

“I do remember, growing up in the ‘60s, that the image of the FBI started to change,” says Mr. Williams, 55, who is an artist in residence at his alma mater, American University, where he teaches film students about sound design and the financing of independent productions.

He recalls wondering: “Was the FBI really seeking out the enemies of the civil rights movement? Or was the civil rights movement the enemy?”

After the travails of the civil rights era, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the public’s trust in government was badly shaken.

The FBI was no exception. Scrutiny of the bureau only intensified after Mr. Hoover’s death in 1972.

“There was a kind of general attitude around campus that anyone who emphasized their First Amendment rights a little too vigorously was a tool of the communists,” Mr. Williams says.

“We were raked over the coals by the Church Committee,” says Mr. Fox of the 1975 congressional panel, led by Sen. Frank Church, that investigated what it saw as excessive intelligence activities by the federal government.

Opprobrium related to domestic surveillance or infiltration - of antiwar groups, Black Panthers or civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King - landed squarely on the bureau’s doorstep, not least for its covert counterintelligence operations against dissidents, known as Cointelpro.

Thereafter, the G-man as embodied by Jimmy Cagney - the paragon of probity and professionalism - clashed with more sinister portrayals conceived by left-liberal filmmakers such as Oliver Stone, whose 1995 chronicle of the Nixon administration, “Nixon,” aired some of the most grotesque rumors about the bureau and Mr. Hoover.

More recently, the 2006 documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” assailed the Nixon administration and the Hoover-led bureau’s efforts to muzzle the former Beatle’s antiwar rhetoric.

Mr. Lennon’s FBI file was made public in 1998 under the Freedom of Information Privacy Act. Available online, it specifies the bureau’s suspicion of Mr. Lennon’s connection to an antiwar group that had planned to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami.

“Fingerprint File,” a track off the Rolling Stones’ No. 1 1974 album “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” typified the paranoia of the era. Riding a blaxploitation funk groove, Mick Jagger sang in the song’s refrain: “Some little jerk in the FBI/keeping papers on me, six feet high.

“It gets me down.”

The ‘X’ factor

While the unblemished image of the early G-men likely will never return - no matter their faith in government, modern viewers demand sophistication and nuance from their drama - the past 20 years have seen a substantial recovery.

For every overbearing, high-handed agent (1992’s “One False Move,” co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, offered a sustained portrait of what, in “Die Hard,” was a semicomical riff), there are more upstanding, competent cops.

The CBS series “Without a Trace,” which debuted in 2002 and centers on a fictional missing persons division of the FBI, was directly inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Our show was in response to a post-9/11 world where audiences wanted heroes,” says Greg Walker, an executive producer of the series. “It was clear that audiences had a hunger to know government officials were out there trying to help them.”

That’s a far cry, to say the least, from the invidiousness of the ‘70s.

A popular reassessment of the bureau has even been projected into the past. “Mississippi Burning” (1988), an acclaimed recounting of the FBI’s 1964 investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers, was, in radical historian Howard Zinn’s view, too sympathetic toward the bureau.

“The FBI could not be counted on, and it was not the friend of the civil rights movement,” he insisted.

The Oscar-winning “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) became one of the most popular films ever to dramatize the work of the FBI. Moreover, it was a reflection of contemporary filmmakers’ judgment of the bureau: that it’s a praiseworthy institution made up of flawed human beings.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is earnest, bright, ambitious - and cynically exploited by her boss, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn).

Similarly, in movies such as “The Rock” (1996) and “Catch Me if You Can” (2002), FBI agents ultimately prove victorious, but, along the way, they’re prone to mistakes and are easily outfoxed.

Soon after the debut in 1993 of “The X-Files,” a Fox TV series starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents that was adapted into a 1998 movie of the same name - as well as a sequel, “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” scheduled to open Friday - creator Chris Carter was contacted by the bureau.

“The FBI called and said, ‘We’d like to know who you are and what you’re doing,’” Mr. Carter says.

He thought, ominously, it was “the long arm of the law” come to quash him. Instead, Mr. Carter says, the bureau reported it liked the show.

Even though Special Agents Mulder (Mr. Duchovny) and Scully (Miss Anderson), who handled a special portfolio of probes into the paranormal, were given short shrift by bureau brass and often stymied by more shadowy elements within the government, bureau personnel “liked the way the FBI was portrayed,” Mr. Carter says.

Mr. Carter has since befriended several FBI agents; he bunked with them at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and is a graduate of the FBI Citizens’ Academy, a community outreach program.

The FBI, along with the public, apparently has come full circle. It doesn’t mind the fiction - and realizes we can handle the truth.

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