I would usually make more effort in thinking of a title but there really isn’t a better way to discuss a film that reveals itself so openly. True Lies was released in 1994 which was seven years before the events of September 11th, 2001 when Islamic terrorism became the previous “new normal”. This film (and there were plenty of others) did much to pre-program the US population for what was to come. It is fair to note that this sort of terrorism was already happening in parts of the Middle East with hijackings and other acts pf violence but it hadn’t yet come directly to the United States as it would in the coming years.
Directed by James Cameron which I believe was his last film before Titanic gave his ego a very underserved boost. I will say as an aside here that I quickly went from liking to disliking Cameron’s films from Titanic onwards and it caused me to re-think what he had been doing in his films going back to The Terminator. To be clear, True Lies is a well-made and entertaining film in most respects. It is a blend of drama/action/comedy and appealed to a wide audience on release. What I want to look at here is not the quality of the film but the window it gives us into the US government and the nature of the world.
You may dismiss me for reading too much into a 1990s Arnold Schwarzenegger action/comedy but even the silliest films can have pernicious messages. In True Lies the main one to notice is the way the US intelligence service is portrayed. As in the last few years we’ve witnessed how nakedly corrupt and evil they are, something showing this early on is worth analysing.
This film pre-dates the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security and the leaks and scandals that followed in the last twenty years. Yet in this film we are shown an intelligence service with a very sophisticated intelligence apparatus already spying on their own citizens to “save” them from terrorists that weren’t really a threat back then — if they ever really were.
We’re also shown these agents nakedly misusing this power including raiding a used-car salesman’s trailer home even though they knew he was no real danger to anyone except bored housewives. Even worse, one of the agents put his own wife through incredible trauma just so he could establish she wasn’t committing adultery with him.
The audience is supposed to think this is cute, quaint and lovely because they’re really just a humble American family and it is all for love. However, if you stop and think at what is being shown in real terms, it takes a much more sinister turn. Schwarzenegger’s character Harry expended what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on a personal issue he knew had nothing to do with national security. We’re also given hints that this is not out of the ordinary when Tom Arnold’s character Gib tries to lambast him for this only to have Harry remind him of his own series of indiscretions.
The other is the insult on the life of a normal and productive family man. Harry’s cover is that of a furniture salesman. His bored wife and jaded daughter are unhappy with the beautiful home this provides them. The film unsubtlety sympathises with Harry’s wife Helen’s desire to have more “adventure” in her life. That she is a prim and proper but played by Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t an accident either.
There are two parallel narratives in the film which are Harry and Helen’s domestic issues and a real terrorist threat that the whole family is drawn into for the final act. It is shown that this misuse of resources and time-wasting allows terrorists to sucessfully smuggle nuclear weapons into the United States and detonate one in the Florida Keys.
So these intelligence agents are shown to be outrageously corrupt and incompetent but it’s okay because Arnie saves the day and kills all the terrorists. The audience is supposed to laugh and smile and think all is well when some rather terrifying truths about their government are revealed. That there intelligence agencies spy on them, have tremendous resources and are cynical and corrupt — if not evil. We know this all well now but we’ve actually been getting shown this directly for many years.