Federal Agencies Depicted Negatively

Double Standard Bias   High Impact
Table Of Contents

Main Description

Liberals believe the Federal government is capable of doing good things for the general public if people come together for the greater good and they can point to wildly popular government programs that have helped lift and keep millions of Americans out of poverty over the previous decades as proof. Unfortunately, many films and TV shows paint a very different portrait of the Federal government and the many agencies that fall under it.

Hollywood often portrays Federal agencies as being hopelessly unable to do the job they're tasked with doing or as overly bureaucratic behemoths with an almost sinister desire to play spoiler and prevent the protagonist from succeeding.

That is the plot of nearly every superhero movie boiled down in one sentence, but those films aren't close to being the only genre that depicts Federal agencies in a negative light. Whether it be superhero movies, comedies, dramas, or thrillers, Federal agencies are almost universally depicted as a hinderance instead of a help.

Conservative Trope Examples

  • The movie portrays the CIA and American government as a bunch of inept and patronizing elites who prevent the hero private contractors from doing their job. It also gives credence to a number of conspiracy theories that have been debunked, most importantly the allegation that the CIA station chief in Benghazi issued a stand-down order to the soldiers at the compound.
    Historical Context
    A movie falsely critical of Hillary Clinton was released as the 2016 Presidential campaign was ramping up.
  • Isles talks about the NSA surveilling average Americans' phones which is not a thing.
  • Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
    Matt Farrell says "It took FEMA *five days* to get water to the Superdome" when John McClane wonders aloud if the government has a department that can handle a problem they encounter.
  • Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
    Cyber security consultant to the Department of Defense, Thomas Gabriel, hacks into NORAD and shuts down the entire defense network with just a laptop to show that it's vulnerable after his bosses refuses to listen to his concerns.
    Staff Aside
    This is making the department of defense and the federal government look incompetent if one person with a laptop can shut down their defenses. Also, they would have systems in place so that genuine concerns like Thomas Gabriel's wouldn't be ignored.
  • Lord of War (2005)
    ATF agent Jack Valentine is foiled multiple times by arms trafficker Yuri Orlov despite the extensive resources of Interpol backing him up. When they finally do catch him, higher ups in the US federal government orchestrate his release so he can facilitate under the table weapons deals to further America's interests.
    Historical Context
    The real life weapons smuggler Viktor Bout that the movie was largely based on was caught in Thailand in 2008 with help from the DEA. The USA successfully got him extradited and subsequently found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012. The movie version doesn't go to prison though because the federal government is corrupt.
  • The Bourne Identity (2002) | CIA Depicted with Conservative Biases
    The entire movie follows a team of CIA assassins trying to hunt down and kill Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) after he failed at an assassination attempt on an exiled Nigerian dictator.
  • Rules of Engagement (2000)
    Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) is shown as scared, weak, clueless & unpatriotic during an evacuation of the US embassy in Yemen. He yells in a panic, "Colonel, we can’t wait here! Let’s go! Why are we still here?" just before he is given the embassy's USA flag brave marines took down while under fire. He is later convicted of lying in a plot to frame Samuel Jackson's Colonel Childers.
    Staff Aside
    In real-life, ambassadors know the risks of regions they serve and act nobly along with all the men and women they serve with.
  • Enemy of the State (1998) | NSA Depicted with Conservative Biases
    Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) is a corrupt top NSA official who kills a sitting Congressman in order to help push through a bill that will unleash a virtual surveillance state in the country after the Congressman refuses to help him.
  • Armageddon (1998)
    Oil rig drillers are depicted as more competent than NASA engineers and astronauts and save the world after only two weeks training because their “practical” private sector experience means they know better than the government scientists whose solutions are portrayed as overly complex and bureaucratic.
  • Die Hard 2 (1990)
    John McClane argues with very unlikable Carmine Lorenzo in the air traffic control tower because John is upset at mistakes he feels they are making dealing with terrorists. Lorenzo cites "FAA regulations regarding unauthorized personnel in the control tower" and has John removed.
  • Die Hard (1988)
    John McClane (Bruce Willis) calls for help using a radio transmitter he got from terrorists. Instead of responding with concern, a woman in an official government office cites FCC regulations against civilians using that frequency and advises him to get off as it is for emergencies only. John replies with, "no sh#t lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza!?" before getting cutoff by gunfire which is so loud they remove their headsets. Despite all that, they merely send a single squad car to investigate.
  • Ghostbusters (1984)
    Walter Peck is an overly rude and condescending caricature of an Environmental Protection Agency inspector who arrives at Ghostbusters HQ with a warrant to turn off their machines. Egon warns Walter that turning off their machines would be extremely dangerous. Walter replies, "I'll tell *you* what's hazardous. You're facing Federal prosecution for about a half dozen environmental violations. Now either you shut off these machines, or we'll shut them off for you." When they refuse to comply, he tells an officer "If he does that again, you can shoot him." They shut it down, havoc ensues and all the caught ghosts escape and terrorize the city.
    Staff Aside
    Of course, if the real EPA is going to make decisions like that it will be done responsibly and in a professional manner taking into account science. They don't just shut down dangerous facilities on a whim and make sure there is a safe process.

How Trope is Biased

Double Standard

  • State or local agencies and departments aren't used as negative tropes nearly as often as federal ones are

Conservative Biases

  • Conservatives are anti Federal government and MAGA Republicans have been especially critical of most every federal agency

Impact of Trope: High

Severity: High   Prevalence: Average
Irrational distrust of federal agencies has been fueled by right-wing attacks over decades, and movies and tv shows have had a major impact.