Hollywood Puts Civil Servants on a Pedestal

Posted July 20, 2010 at 4:59pm

Hill staffers may not enjoy the status or the perks of the Members of Congress for which they work, but they still may have a leg up on their powerful bosses: Hollywood likes them better.

According to research conducted by two political science professors at the Ohio-based University of Dayton and North Carolina-based Elon University, civil servants are portrayed more favorably than elected leaders and governments as a whole in American cinema.

After analyzing various scenes from 150 box-office chart-toppers, Michelle Pautz of Dayton and Laura Roselle of Elon found — not surprisingly — that governments were portrayed rather negatively. Sixty percent of movies showed governments in a malicious, incompetent or ineffective light. In the Jason Bourne series, for example, Matt Damon’s character is viciously hunted by his former CIA colleagues.

“Generally speaking — both in life and in movies — we don’t think of government in a positive” way, Pautz said. “The distrust of government is inherent in our American nature and runs back to the founding of our country.”

But that negative portrayal didn’t seem to cross into civil servant territory. Most government workers were portrayed positively, as well-trained and intelligent. Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive,” for example, helped Harrison Ford’s character, who was framed for murdering his wife, find justice in the end of the movie. In “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” Gotham City’s cops and Rachel Dawes, the assistant district attorney, sincerely try to save their city.

That’s good news for staffers, who fit into the civil servant category and are seen by Hollywood in a more positive light. More often than not, Pautz and Roselle found that civil servants were described as good-looking and knowledgeable. Will Smith’s Agent Jay, for example, is definitely not bad on the eyes in “Men in Black.”

Although there is a clear disconnect between Hollywood’s depictions of government and its civil servants, Pautz does not find the difference surprising. She thinks it reflects reality and “parallels the experience of most Americans, who on the surface think government is bad but actually find their day-to-day interactions with government to be positive.”

Pautz said most people have positive views of teachers, librarians, postal workers and astronauts — even if the government pays their salaries.

“Americans don’t seem to connect these positive experiences with their view of the government, which remains vastly negative,” she said.

According to the study, the type of civil servant matters. Sixty-eight percent of Hollywood’s depictions of CIA officials showed government in a negative light. But 67 percent of teachers, such as Nemo’s teacher Mr. Ray in “Finding Nemo,” and 100 percent of astronauts, including those in “Apollo 13,” appeared in films with a positive depiction of government workers.

The researchers also found that two-thirds of films that portray government negatively did so because the “system” was flawed. In “Chicago,” for example, government officials allow Roxie Hart to get away with murdering her lover because of a poor investigation.

The professors’ study began in 2007 when Pautz was completing her dissertation. During her undergraduate studies, she’d worked at a movie theater and from there saw her love of film and politics meld.

The research was done in part by students who were paid to watch one of the films that premiered between 1992 and 2006 and give extensive feedback on how the government and civil servants were portrayed. Slightly more than half of the movies examined were action or adventure films, including “Spiderman,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. About a quarter were comedies such as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Shrek” and “Austin Powers.” Others included “Forrest Gump,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Star Wars.”

Although their findings have already been published, Pautz and Roselle are expanding the study to look specifically at politicians, military service members and the police.

Pautz said the study shows the importance of Hollywood depictions. “Unlike any other form of entertainment, cinema reaches more people in more demographics than any other sporting event, theater or play or concert — everyone goes to the movies.” she said. “Even in bad economic times, box-office figures soar.”

The universality of Americans’ love for movies is power in and of itself since it can influence perceptions, she said.

“We go to movies and want to be entertained, yet at the same time, we’re constantly being bombarded by these images of government and government workers,” Pautz said. “If it doesn’t alter what we think, it at very least reinforces our perceptions.”

She said viewers should step back and ask, “Are these perceptions justified?”

Pautz and Roselle’s article, “Are they ready for their close-up?” is available in the National Center for Public Performance’s journal “Public Voices.”