Bureaucratic Heroism

The political and moral problems involved with particular bureaucratic practices are largely whitewashed by those same narrative and aesthetic techniques that draw all of these films into generic proximity. The filmmakers, like their characters, are just doing their jobs.

Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults.

Photo by larzor via Flickr.

Early in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, a disaster movie about a supergerm that makes its way from Macao to Minneapolis and infects a quarter of the world’s population along the way, a renegade blogger takes the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to task for its bureaucratic mismanagement of the pandemic. According to the blogger, Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), the CDC’s slow-going quest to find a cure is nothing short of big government incompetence—institutional failure veiled in technocratic jargon. There is a homeopathic remedy at hand, he claims, one derived from a common plant and available at overstocked pharmacies everywhere. As those near death raid their neighborhood drugstores, Soderbergh reveals that Krumweide is working for the company that produces the so-called cure. The homeopathic remedy is a sham, as is the blogger’s status as a noninstitutional actor.

The film’s true hero turns out to be the CDC, a tight regiment of epidemiologists and administrators whose acts of heroism are largely bureaucratic in nature: functional and routine, incremental and hierarchically situated, and keyed to the collection of data. With the requisite paperwork in hand, the CDC’s employees expertly collect samples, culture cells, produce and test vaccines, and save the world from the supergerm. Considered alongside the measured work of the CDC in Contagion, otherwise unmemorable disaster films from the last quarter century suddenly stand out for their characters’ melodramatic flair: Dustin Hoffman cradling a disease-ridden monkey in Outbreak, Bruce Willis’s ungainly polyethylene get-up in Twelve Monkeys. This was precisely the comparison Soderbergh wanted to invoke. “Everybody felt there was a place for an ultrarealistic film about this subject,” Soderbergh announced at the press conference preceding Contagion’s release. “Nobody hesitated. . . . So it made me feel like maybe we’re on to something.”

The heroic potential of bureaucracy is a strange theme, but not a new one. As early as 1996, David Foster Wallace, speaking through his wunderkind protagonist Hal in Infinite Jest, described Captain Frank Furillo as a kind of hero-bureaucrat in the television series Hill Street Blues. A police drama set in an anonymous American city, Hill Street Blues presented law enforcement as a recurring project of “triage and compromise and administration,” as opposed to the take-no-prisoners task forces who ran cop shows like Hawaii Five-O. A devoted, if ambivalent, TV watcher, Wallace embraced a generic revolution on the small screen whose legacy can be seen in the serial offerings of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom), David Simon (The Wire), and Soderbergh himself (K Street, starring real-life institutional figures James Carville and Mary Matalin). It makes a certain amount of sense in the world of pre-DVR television: as a form, the serial drama seems well suited to represent the episodic and cumulative work performed by the organization man. But it has taken much longer for Hollywood to claim the bureaucratic hero as its own. Other than Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) and Sydney Pollack’s long-forgotten Absence of Malice (1981), examples from an earlier era are difficult to come by.[1]

In the last half-decade, what we might call bureaucratic heroism has made its presence felt with a certain degree of cinematic heavy-handedness, especially in films that consider the American state and its institutional management of political disasters. Consider the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a torture scene in which CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogates a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb). The topic is ostensibly a series of financial transactions between Ammar and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but both torturer and detainee begin by mocking each other’s job descriptions. “You’re a mid-level guy,” Ammar says as he dangles by the ceiling from his wrists. “You’re a garbage man in the corporation. Why should I respect you? Why?” Dan responds in kind. “And you’re a money man . . . a paperboy . . . a disgrace to humanity.” Ammar’s disgrace is not just his ideological monstrousness, but his marginal status in the terrorist organization. The check-signing arm of al Qaeda’s underground leadership, he’s easily recruited and easily replaced: a bureaucrat. But like most low-level employees, he has contact information Dan wants. “I know you know this dude, just give me his email,” he demands. (For a real world analog, look no further than international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, dubbed al Qaeda’s “most difficult employee” by its leadership. According to an internal memo found by the AP in an al Qaeda stronghold in Mali, Belmoktar had typically bureaucratic failings. He dismissed a meeting in Timbuktu as “useless.” He accepted ransoms well below market rate. He didn’t turn expense reports in on time.)

On the one hand, Zero Dark Thirty gives us the banality of terrorist practices as embodied by the al Qaeda “paperboy”; on the other, the banality of counterterrorism efforts in the figure of the intelligence “garbage man.” The conflict is between twinned organizations, each functioning through similar institutional means despite their incommensurable ends. Both al-Qaeda and the CIA, neither of which is famous for its care with administrative niceties, are revised as fundamentally concerned with paperwork and office life. The CIA finds its human avatar in an obsessive agency lifer named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Working alongside expert teams of analysts, interrogators, and Navy SEALs, Maya spends her days tracking down email addresses, rifling through poorly organized files, crunching data, making cold calls, chatting online with coworkers—until she kills Osama bin Laden. Bigelow presents all of this with a routinized sense of calm control that seems numb, almost boring, in its by-the-book execution. This is bureaucratic heroism at its finest.


Films like Contagion and Zero Dark Thirty are missing what critic Harvey O’Brien identifies as the most important feature of the action film: a hero who operates as a self-sustaining and independent agent of will. Here we can think of Dirty Harry and John McClane and Martin Riggs and Tony Stark, of everything and anything Arnold: rebels who have logged box office success after box office success by pissing off their superiors and pissing on the rules. Theirs is a formula that, over the past half-century, has transformed the action film into a doggedly anti-institutional Hollywood institution—or, in O’Brien’s words, a “cinema of volition” whose narrative tensions trade on the clean break between the hero’s boundless animus and the inertia that surrounds him. Action movies work best when they’re not realistic—when they fail to register how individual will is conditioned by risk management, collaborative decision-making, and bets that are continually quantified and hedged by hierarchical teams of experts.

Theatergoers still enjoy big men with big guns who throw caution to the summertime wind, but despite the genre’s enduring appeal, there is now a nagging reflexivity to making an action movie: a half-campy, half-sheepish awareness on the part of filmmakers that, for this kind of movie, the moment has passed. How else to explain the generically self-referential tagline to The Expendables (2010), impossibly starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis: “Every movie has a hero. This one has them all.” Or cinematic pileups like The Avengers (2012) or The Expendables 2 (2012), or The Expendables 3 (2014)? If these syncretic tributes to the heroes of the past—the comic crusaders of the 1950s and 1960s, the bad boys of the 1980s and 1990s—feel knowingly recycled, it’s because they are. When pressed to describe his ensemble casting in The Expendables trilogy, Jean-Claude Van Damme admitted, “It has, like, one fifth of a cartoonish feeling . . . I was really into it.”

Bureaucratic heroes are not cartoon heroes, heroes for children who do not yet understand that the social world places limits on their actions. Nor are they adolescent, “dark” heroes like Batman, alternately rebelling against and ingratiating himself to lame authority figures. Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults: beholden to, yet eager to please, the systems of governance in which they operate. The rules they follow are not universal rules of justice, morality, or even common sense. They are rules that only make sense—that are only justifiable—within a particular institutional context, be it the CIA, the CDC, the corporation, or Hollywood itself. They are rules that perpetuate the self-preserving logic of the institutions that articulate them in the first place, like: “Don’t be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes” (Dan to Maya on Gitmo protocol in Zero Dark Thirty); or “Don’t do this shit again. Don’t do this vigilante thing” (a small-time drug dealer to Robert Wakefield, the head of the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in Traffic). Perhaps this is why it doesn’t really matter to filmmakers like Bigelow and Soderbergh what these bureaucracies do in the real world, whether they cure the sick or take out America’s enemies. The actions of bureaucrats—however shady, inefficient, or repugnant—are sanctioned by the pragmatic demands of their job. Adopting these demands as the demands one makes of oneself—this is what it means to be an adult in America.


In a post–Cold War world in which everything has “gone global,” the struggle between a small-town sheriff and his nemesis is no longer a persuasive pitch for a multimillion-dollar cultural production that needs to gross as much, if not more, abroad as at home in order to break even. Like Hollywood itself, the bureaucracies that reign over Contagion, Traffic, and Zero Dark Thirty assume that international interconnectivity is the natural (and sometimes the only) context for understanding complicated political issues like epidemics, drugs, and terrorism. None of our most pressing social and political problems can be contained within municipal, state, or national boundaries; no local heroes need apply. (Cinematographers have followed suit, zipping from DC to Dakar to Delhi with black-screen coolness, reproducing networked worldliness in visual form.) The shift from the small screen’s bureaucratic hero to the large screen thus entails a corresponding scalar explosion in the zoom out from the small town to the world, one that narrates Hollywood’s own industrial conditions at the beginning of a century when almost 70 percent of profits come from outside the US.

In order to become an adult in this world, one must first become a computational thinker. Devoid of feeling, depth, and nearly all other markers of classical human characters, bureaucratic heroes are, as Frank Rich complained in his review of Zero Dark Thirty, distastefully “two-dimensional.” “What else have you done for us other than bin Laden?” Maya is asked by the CIA director, to which she responds, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Rebuking the social advances of a female colleague who lightly inquires if Maya and Dan have “hooked up yet,” Maya snaps, “I’m not that girl that fucks, it’s unbecoming.” It’s tempting to take this as an absolute statement: She’s the girl who never fucks. Flattening the heroic self seems the only plausible way to represent how the character teams in ultrarealistic action films go about their data-centric jobs. Whether it’s watching hours of grainy surveillance footage or mapping a viral genome, the sheer amount of information pieced together in the service of fighting institutionally savvy enemies means that heroic gestures must be divided up into more manageable and rationalized tasks. One person could never do it all, and so the bureaucratic hero has little choice but to become “a computer almost” (Chastain’s own description of how she method-acted her way through Zero Dark Thirty.) Set against backdrops of equally flat, monochromatic spaces, faces flooded by the sort of office lighting that washes out all expressive depth, bureaucratic heroes appear as extensions of their home institution, at one with their surrounding space as they are at one with their instruments of the trade.

The office’s fluorescent flatness eventually washes out plot as well. Drowning in information and plagued with uncertainty, the discovery of key documents and moments of statistical analysis emerge as occasions for dramatic climax. “40 percent chance it’s Osama bin Laden,” drones an anonymous CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty, “35 percent chance it’s a local arms dealer, 25 percent chance it’s a retired drug dealer.” Gone are the depths of the action era’s organizational paranoia. Gone is the notion that there is something or someone or some place of power the action hero doesn’t know yet, a social world that holds the key to self-empowerment and success. “If you thought there was some secret cell somewhere working al Qaeda, I want you to know that you were wrong,” yells a CIA deputy director to his subordinates after they fail to stop an attempted bombing in Times Square. “There’s nobody else hidden away on some other floor. There is just us. And we are failing.”

Absent an agent of will, it is the bureaucratic institution that emerges as the posthuman protagonist of these action films: its principle of will. The internal workings that make the CIA, the CDC, or the DEA a functional unit—that make it machinelike—are the only real points of interest in a world where highly structured groups of people fight other highly structured groups of people: cartels, terrorist organizations, corporate interests. Neither Dan nor Ammar, Robert Wakefield or his drug dealer make the case for a salient difference between good and evil, other than who is better at their job. Villains are heroes seen in the darkened mirror of institutional dysfunction.


The ascent of bureaucratic heroism in film coincides, perhaps surprisingly, with a sustained attack on bureaucracy from the libertarian right — the Tea Party’s ironic call for “a bureaucracy of our own” was one in which Big Government was aggressively dismantled, leaving grassroots conservatives to spontaneously reassemble the social order. In part, then, bureaucratic heroism is liberal Hollywood’s response to this new form of conservative radicalism. Contagion’s Alan Krumwiede is a caricature of Tea Party politics, his anti-government posturing for sale to the highest corporate bidder.

Yet from this defense, a different kind of conservatism emerges. These films uphold bureaucracy in its most general form. No matter that developing a vaccine is a very different from torturing suspected terrorists, or from carrying out drone strikes under the auspices of airtight (but secret) bureaucratic supervision. On camera, following the rules exactly saves lives, and saving lives is more important than anything else. The political and moral problems involved with particular bureaucratic practices are largely whitewashed by those same narrative and aesthetic techniques that draw all of these films into generic proximity. The filmmakers, like their characters, are just doing their jobs.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, a cheerfully retro treatment of the Iranian hostage crisis, celebrates the union of Hollywood and the CIA with blithe reflexivity. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, in which a CIA deputy director explicitly asks his agents to “bring me people to kill,” Argo’s Tony Mendez, who is also played by Affleck, doesn’t want to kill people. All he wants to do is his job, which is to make a movie. Affleck succeeds in doing exactly that, complete with cartoon storyboards and a bonafide sci-fi producer: the bureaucratic hero under the veil of the cartoon hero and the film industry’s self-congratulation. In the months following Zero Dark Thirty’s release, controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of torture was amplified by the emergence of documents showing collaboration between screenwriter Mark Boal and the CIA’s public relations department: when awards season came around, the film was politically toxic. But only Argo said, in a muted and friendly way, that Hollywood and the CIA simply need each other to do their jobs. It received three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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