WASHINGTON -- 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," not only has Mel Gibson been brainwashed by the CIA but he also figures out NASA is about to assassinate the president. With the Space Shuttle, no less.
Even 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 of, 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 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, New York Democrat. "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 theorizers claimed it was Big Brother's attempt to "program" children by determining their careers for them.
At a time when even Martin Luther King Jr.'s family 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 "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."
In Helgeland's movie, the president and other world leaders are only lieutenants in a global conspiracy. The militia groups who claim to hate the United Nations so much are actually the U.N. forces themselves, disguising their Czech accents with a Texas drawl. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are spies. Why else do you think they traveled around so much?
Sounds wild? Only in Hollywood? In test screenings, Helgeland said, about 10 percent of the audiences said, "You guys are really onto something." Or "Very realistic."
"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."
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."
John Whalen, co-author of "The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time," in its fourth printing, calls it a new kind of "blowback."
"A lot of politicians made political hay feeding paranoia, with blacklisting or warning that the Soviets were massing just south of the Mexican border," Whalen said. "They created a beast in the American psyche." With no Cold War enemies to be afraid of, he said, that paranoia is "backfiring and coming back in their faces."
Think of the secret bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Tuskegee and human radiation experiments, Ruby Ridge. 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?"
But Benson Saler, an anthropologist at Brandeis University, said the reason paranoia is "fluorescing" lies deep in the human psyche.
Conspiracy theories, like primitive folklore, are a grasping attempt to simplify a vast and unknowable world, he said. Why, after all, did early humans create gods? Why do people see psychics or read their horoscopes? And as science and technology rapidly make life more complex and faceless, a good conspiracy theory, like forbidden fruit, is as comforting as it is bewitching.
"In trying to just live our lives, there's a kind of feeling that we don't matter as individuals anymore," Saler said. "Our identity is now concentrated on our PIN numbers. All of that is kind of unsettling. The mystery has gone out of life." Conspiracy theories, he said, are an attempt to bring enchantment back.
What that bodes for the future of democracy is unclear. Saler argues that conspiracy theories, while troubling, seek to understand why things are. To make things better. "I find that hopeful," he said.
And Tom Smith, who tracks public opinion at the National Opinion Research Center in Illinois, finds hope in the fact that each time a new president is elected, a distrustful public shows signs of optimism, hoping that maybe this time things will be different.
"That tells me, despite the paranoia, there's resilience in the system," he said.
Brigid Schulte wrote this article for Knight-Ridder News Service.
Pub Date: 8/10/97