Stop me if you’ve seen this one before. There’s a guy (it’s almost always a guy) who lives on the fringes of society, perhaps in a basement with a computer. He believes in a conspiracy theory that sounds a little nutty to his friends and family. He’s the butt of jokes, until one day he’s targeted for assassination. Turns out the Deep State is after him because the conspiracy theory wasn’t so crazy after all!
This paranoid thriller plot is, by now, one of the laziest tropes in the world of TV and movie writing. Not to be confused with the first wave of paranoid thrillers in the 1970s, classic movies which recounted actual attacks on democracy (All the President’s Men, Z) targeted a genuinely out-of-control CIA (3 Days of the Condor) or examined our obsession with eavesdropping (The Conversation), this second wave of conspiracy entertainment dates back to the 1990s. That’s when Hollywood appears to have discovered that if it sanded its villains down to a simple, shadowy “they,” it could pander to a wide range of viewers who fear all kinds of secretive elite cabals.
This is fine, up to a point; suspicion of power is healthy in any democracy. But now here we are in 2021, and a good chunk of the U.S. believes that the most obviously corrupt president in history was actually trying to bring down a shadowy cabal of liberal elites who abduct children and drink their blood. Polls in 2020 suggested that as many as 56 percent of Republicans believe some aspects of this bizarre theory, known as QAnon (though the actual numbers are hard to measure). Undoubtedly, the followers of Q helped drive the January 6 assault on the Capitol. And they may not be done yet.
The HBO documentary Q: Into the Storm, which wraps up Sunday, expends much effort on unmasking the shadowy Q who propagated the theory in the first place (spoiler alert: It has probably been Ron Watkins, admin of 8Chan, for some time). Largely unexplored is the more interesting question of why the fairy tales of QAnon found such fertile ground. Are the usual suspects to blame for sowing seeds of truth-free anti-Democratic paranoia— Fox News, Info Wars, Trump himself? Of course. Should we point the finger at social media algorithms for radicalizing unsuspecting users with extremist content? Absolutely.
More insidious and unexamined, however, is the role played by the entertainment industry itself — and not just in the case of the failed screenwriter who became a major QAnon influencer. The makers of popular stories spent decades telling us, over and over and over again, that our government was nothing but a mass of shadowy conspiracies, no matter who was in power. They had no agenda other than keeping you in your cinema seat or watching through the next ad break. Most of Hollywood would be horrified to think that they contributed in any way to a conspiracy theory like QAnon, which claims that Hollywood itself is part of the blood-drinking cabal.
But culture is always driven by the stories it tells itself. So should we really be surprised, in a world where we might watch dozens of anti-government thrillers each year, that QAnon and anti-vax conspiracy theories have taken root? Is it any wonder that an increasing number of viewers, even the ones who don’t watch Fox, now distrust official narratives and “fake news” media, to the point where they stopped being able to understand the difference between truth and fiction?
Misinformation in the multiplex
The starting gun for the second wave of conspiracy entertainment was fired by Oliver Stone in 1991. JFK, Stone’s expansive three-hour take on the Kennedy assassination, is a cinematic masterpiece. The editing, the tense John Williams soundtrack, the rollicking plot that carpet-bombs you with every hint of something amiss on that dark day in Dallas: Together, they leave you powerless to resist. I’m not the only moviegoer who left the theater thinking “well, something in that must be true.”
You have to be something of an obsessive conspiracy theory researcher yourself to discover that much of the movie is fantastic. The real prosecution brought by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) relied on a witness whom Garrison had drugged and hypnotized; this witness is conveniently replaced in the film by Kevin Bacon’s fictional prostitute (one of a number of aspects that make JFK look troublingly homophobic 30 years later).
The hits keep coming. David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) did not claim to be in the CIA and died of natural causes. The so-called “magic bullet” did not take the journey shown in the film, and more recent ballistics have come out in favor of its path. And worst of all, Colonel X, the whistleblower played by Donald Sutherland, was based on L. Fletcher Prouty — a professional conspiracy theorist, with ties to the far right, who advised Stone. Prouty published so many weird lies in his life that there are entire websites devoted to debunking “Proutyisms“.
Even Stone himself admitted prior to its release that JFK was “not a true story per se.” So what was it, then? A hybrid of infotainment and propaganda; one that boded ill for the future. To quote Stephen Colbert’s parody conservative talk show host, JFK had “truthiness.” It feels right that we don’t know the whole truth about November 22, 1963. There is, as Eisenhower warned, a “military-industrial complex” that benefits from vast Pentagon budgets. Kennedy was wobbly on the military advisers he’d sent to Vietnam, and LBJ was prepared to lie to ramp up U.S. involvement in the war (See: Gulf of Tonkin incident).
Colonel X was, in many ways, the forerunner of Q
But none of that truthiness comes anywhere close to proving that LBJ headed up a vast shadow-state coup d’etat conspiracy — one that was simultaneously so efficient it erased all evidence of its existence, while also somehow relying on a bunch of colorful buffoons in New Orleans and Dallas.
And if you’re prepared, like Stone, to make that huge logical leap based on Proutyisms? Well then, you might also believe that a larger, wilder conspiracy of baby-eaters has been able to cover up its existence for decades and that only one brave anonymous soul in Washington is blowing the whistle. Colonel X was, in many ways, the forerunner of Q.
In the wake of JFK‘s critical and commercial success, conspiracies were hot in Hollywood. They permeated movies that we now remember as mere action adventures — such as The Rock (1996), in which Sean Connery is imprisoned on Alcatraz for stealing microfilm of government secrets, and Nicholas Cage ends the movie by reading the secrets and declaring he now knows what happened to JFK.
But the ultimate archetype of the new wave of conspiracy theory movies was Conspiracy Theory (1997). Mel Gibson plays a taxi driver who pushes every wild theory under the sun in his newsletter. Soon the CIA and FBI descend on him because one of them is right! It’s up to Gibson and Julia Roberts’ DOJ lawyer to figure out which one as they fight off the weight of the entire shadow government.
Critics yawned at what already felt like a predictable plot. Still, Conspiracy Theory was a huge box office hit. The lonely conspiracy theorists of the world got exactly the wrong messages: First that it’s OK to stalk cute DOJ lawyers, and secondly that if they just keep digging into all these wild ideas at their disposal (not just in newsletters, but on the nascent internet) — well, something in there must be true! As the tagline for the following year’s similar anti-government thriller Enemy of the State put it, “it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.”
At a distance of 24 years, however, the only true thing about Conspiracy Theory is that Mel Gibson turned out to be a conspiracy theorist himself — only his theories appear to be anti-semitic ones. It’s interesting how rarely pop culture deals with those, even though the outrageous racist bunk known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion counts as one of the earliest and most widespread conspiracy theories out there. QAnon itself has deep ties to anti-semitic tropes.
Hollywood had no idea that its flirtation with the genre was playing with fire. But it was about to get a clue.
Too close to the truth
Meanwhile, on TV, the ultimate example of the 1990s conspiracy boom was The X Files. The show featured not just a true believer and FBI agent Fox Mulder, but also a trio of computer hacker conspiracists named for what they saw as the dubious conclusion of the Warren Commission’s JFK investigation — The Lone Gunmen.
So popular were these basement-dwelling outcasts that they got their own spinoff show. The pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen aired on March 4, 2001. Its plot concerned shadowy forces in the government who aimed a passenger jet at the World Trade Center in New York City, reasoning that the resulting explosion would bring the military-industrial complex a brand new war.
Did the X Files team that wrote the show have some sort of scoop on the very real tragedy that would take place that falls? Did Bin Laden watch the show? Or did the Lone Gunmen prove that 9/11 was an inside job in advance? Of course not — it was a hideous, tragic coincidence. Tom Clancy had written a thriller in 1994 that involved a terrorist attack on Congress using a plane; he was no prophet who foresaw United Flight 93 either. Fiction writers just have fertile imaginations.
Regardless, in the years after 9/11, Hollywood pulled away from the conspiracy theory genre. There was no “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” movie, because that obviously would have fueled a fire of nonsense that was raging online all on its own. Besides, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was plenty of real-world drama to draw on without delving into shadow government paranoia — ironically, despite the fact that the Patriot Act gave the NSA many of the powers that conspiracy theorists had claimed it had all along.
Not until the TV show Homeland in 2011 did the post-9/11 conspiracy thriller find its footing — and even that show was merely a more subtle retelling of a classic piece of 1950s Communist paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate. Which also got a movie remake in 2004, substituting a corporation called Manchurian Global for the problematic anti-Chinese plotline of the original.
Shadowy corporate conspiracies were also the ultimate target of Mr. Robot (2015-2019). Lead character Elliot Alderson, however, represented a return to the classic conspiracy theory trope: A troubled loner, an outsider, a guy with a computer in a basement who turns out to be right about everything. We may never know just how many Gamergaters and QAnons saw themselves in him.
Elliot also represented the “lol nothing matters” attitude of the extremely online in the mid-2010s, as in his famous “fuck society” speech from episode 1. He calls the world “one big hoax” and decries “rigged elections” — an unfortunate turn of phrase now that it is so thoroughly associated with Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 results. I’m not saying Elliot would have fallen for QAnon, but I’m also not not saying it. It was exactly this kind of cynical attitude about all collective action, including our faltering attempts to govern ourselves, that was so prevalent in the last decade. Trump and Watkins took full advantage.
Perhaps, now that America has lived through a terrifying four years of leadership from a corrupt authoritarian, Hollywood can turn back to the All The President’s Men model of thrillers. Where is the modern remake of Z, a 1969 classic that is all about political gaslighting? (A democratic leader is assassinated; right-wing leaders insist that no, it was a car accident.) Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, Trump, Russian influence campaigns: There’s meat for years of entertainment here, no shadow government required.
Just please, no more guys with computers in basements who are the only ones who see the truth.