Essays · Movies

Instruments of Mass Persuasion: Fear and Media in Film

Media has changed less than you think since the 20th century.
News Media
By  · Published on August 15th, 2018

While browsing Twitter one night, I saw a trending story about a hijacked airplane from Seattle-Tacoma International. The hijacker’s communication with air traffic control was streamed live online. This faceless voice, calm but clearly affected, spoke of doing barrel rolls in the Horizon Q400 he had stolen. He mused over what he expected to feel, “I was thinking there would be some serenity.”

This feels like it’s directly ripped from a sequel to Die Hard, but it was happening live on the internet. And when the plane crashed, Twitter wanted to see footage of the action film come to life. And I began to wonder how the details of these last moments will unfold over the next weeks.

Politicians and pundits will spin the news, audiences will make assumptions and parallelisms to the hijacker, while journalists and reporters will cobble together the truth in ways that fit their targeted demographic. Will there be a hero worship of a man who was upset at the system? Or will he fade into distant memory as the next news story shocks us?

Media decides that fate for us, but only to fuel our own hunger for it. We fight against our desire for sensationalism. Junk food for the brain isn’t trashy talk shows or monster movies anymore, but real life violent content with real-world implications. We care less about the lives at risk than we do the deafening roar of a plane before a crash. Our relationship to media is akin to a snake eating its tail, and we just can’t help ourselves.

Cinema helps us see this relationship in focus through the motifs of the genre film. Stories about media, based in fact or otherwise, are always skirting the edge of horror or dystopian speculative fiction to political thriller riffing on the same theme: fear of the future’s uncertainty.

We’re afraid of how media can inflate egos and influence individuals. We’re scared of the truths, and untruths, that are easier than ever to believe. We look to the past to make sense of the present and we look to the future to predict what we may become tomorrow. And for every film about journalists and producers searching for truth and justice in the face of an existential danger, we have cautionary tales warning us of what money, fame, and sensationalism can do to a society living in fear of not only the media but each other.


Network (1976)

When does satire become reality? Well, in the case of Network about 42 years.

As the recently fired anchor Howard Beale gets loaded with his friend and news division President Max Schumacher, they muse over his declaration to commit suicide on air. They could have a Suicide of the Week, a Terrorist of the Week, Car Crashes, and other morally abject material that would have horrified audiences in the mid-1970s. But in 2018, that’s the news du jour.

While Howard Beale can be seen as the anti-hero of Network, his frank and blunt rants as rally cries of the vox populi have a chilling effect today. The “Mad As Hell” scene takes a new insidious spin, reminding us of the viral reach of demagogic loudmouths on the internet. But Beale, in the throes of a breakdown, isn’t the voice of the people. But what makes his rise unnerving is that with lights and a camera, anyone can seem rational.

“He’s articulating the popular rage.” as Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) reminds us. The societal anger has always been there but with social media, the anger has a larger platform and a louder voice.

All The Presidents

All the President’s Men (1976)

Journalism is a chase for the truth in a world that meticulously attempts to cover its tracks. A quaint idea today because it’s never been easier to hide the truth, but also it’s never been harder to erase the past. All The President’s Men highlights this dualism in the true story of two journalists uncovering an earth-shattering truth as a Presidential administration was hard at work covering their tracks.

While still archaic compared to today’s new cycle, what makes All The President’s Men prescient is the emphasis on technology pushing out the older ways of reporting and the barrier it can put between the audience and the media when disseminating information.

As Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward work in the background of a shot, the focus is in the foreground on a television screen, chronicling how we react to the words they are typing feet away. While they do interview leads in person, most of the film Robert Redford’s Woodward is on the phone calling numbers rather than pounding the pavement. Instead of the camera watching over their shoulders as they write, as if we’re eavesdropping on their creative process, we see a teletype machine printing out byline after byline keeping us a step removed from the very real humans behind the headlines.

A Face In The Crowd Raw Lrg

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

“In TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion ever.”

Elia Kazan’s Face in the Crowd proves one thing: we’ve always been this way. The egomania that can be derived from being able to sway a populous is staggering, but not caused by YouTube or social media: but in deeply ingrained human nature. All a person needs is permission, from someone, to disrupt. And it doesn’t hurt if the person doing that is as charismatic, and horrifying as Andy Griffith.

Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a veteran of the drunk tank who is discovered by a radio host before skyrocketing to national acclaim, stepping on everyone’s back as his fame rises. Radio legitimizes Lonesome’s voice of the people, one that is antithetical to the buttoned-up, carefully measured media of the time. This exact type of rhetoric is still being weaponized today, from Senators to Presidents, to excite voters.

Though something that would have muffled Lonesome Rhodes would have been our modern digital footprint. Rhodes was filled with anxiety of being found out as a fraud, and he would have been with today’s technology. But the thing is: would anyone even care? Or would Rhodes go on being a Kentucky Fried philosopher, his public turning a blind eye to his improprieties? If you just look at certain media personalities, it doesn’t sound that far fetched.

Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994)

In retrospect, Natural Born Killers attempts to forecast a growing media obsession with depravity and violence of the early 90s. While our collective fascination with crime hasn’t subsided, what the film missed the mark on is envisioning we’d turn serial killers into rock stars. We don’t. Those that do may have loud voices, like Incels who praise mass shooters, but as Charlottesville proved one year later: they are small in numbers. It all makes the film feel like a terrifying fantasy of a revisionist future. Natural Born Killers gives us a shred of hope that we have become a better society.

The film follows Mickey and Mallory, two serial killers blazing a bloody trail across the United States, electrifying the tabloid fascination of the country through metaphors. Black and white film is our true selves, color is our Kodachrome dreams. Guns are dicks, traumatic memories are television projections on motel room walls, and a reality crime show is the morbid desires of a society.

But interestingly this fascination knows no political bias, from Deep South conservatives to bleeding heart liberals alike, our curiosity might be the one thing that ties us all together.

Good Night And Good Luck Watching Recommendation Videosixteenbyninejumbo

Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

The truth is often stranger, and more frightening, than fiction. And in these films on mass media, in a time in which news of all veracity is met with hesitation, films like Good Night and Good Luck couldn’t feel more vital.

The film follows Edward R. Murrow as he takes on Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against communist infiltration through his CBS News program. In a country with freedom of the press, it’s unsettling to think of a government flexing its muscles against reporting of the truth like McCarthy did to Murrow and countless Americans. But that’s exactly what happened, and history always has a way of repeating itself.

What’s scarier though is the open secret of what McCarthy was actually doing, silencing any dissenter by adhering the scarlet letter of communism to them. A hijacking of the pursuit of truth. Standing up against this type of abuse of power makes Good Night and Good Luck a cautionary tale in today’s political climate.


Nightcrawler (2014)

If Faye Dunaway’s character in Network had been born in a different decade, she more than likely would have been buying footage from the characters in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. The sensationalism Rene Russo’s Nina wants for her station is similar to that of Dunaway’s: violent, shocking, and ratings gold. They both look to craft a narrative for the sake of driving viewership up, stretching the story because fear sells.

Nightcrawler follows Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a petty criminal who falls into the fast-paced world of cameramen capturing the brutality of the streets of LA. As Bloom rises through the ranks, garnering more power from his footage, we see the old adage anew: absolute power corrupts absolutely. The film teeters on the edge of the psychological thriller as we watch Louis begin to blur the lines between filming and creating the news. The only thing separating the criminal and Louis is his camera.


Videodrome (1983)

“We live in an overstimulated world” – Max Renn (James Woods)

You don’t have to look far to see the truth in that thirty-year-old statement. But as we’ve grown into new media, we’ve learned to regulate this overstimulation. In a way, that’s the heart of the symbolic nature of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. A transhumanistic synthesis between body and technology.

In the film, Videodrome works like a Trojan horse, a virus hidden in a pirated film that causes orgiastic hallucinations in those who watch it. The greater point Cronenberg is making is that we can be controlled by the media we consume, and what we give away ultimately can be used against us.


The Insider (1999)

Adapted from the true story of a Big Tobacco whistleblower, the first lesson we learn in Michael Mann’s The Insider is that confidentiality agreements are imperfect. They are less in place to hide insider information, and more to protect companies from wrongdoing. You may know your company is malicious, but with that agreement, you can’t say a word unless you wish to be financially ruined, or worse, dead.

But more importantly, The Insider shows the empirical good that media provides, especially when facing powerful conglomerates. Al Pacino’s Lowell Bergman is the ultimate unbiased hero wearing no cape, and in a genre of films mining the anxieties of media, The Insider is refreshing in that it reminds us of media’s positive influence. And in an era when media and reporting can be seen as creating false narratives, it’s imperative to continue to tell these stories.

Star Time

Star Time (1992)

In Alexander Cassini’s Star Time, television media’s desire for violence, as symbolized by a wall of TV monitors, convinces the suicidal Henry (Michael St. Gerard) that to become a star, he must kill. John P. Ryan (It’s Alive) plays Sam Bones, a manager who may or may not be an appendage of this metaphorical media, guiding Henry, like Virgil or a sadistic Clarence, into the hellish landscape of making it in Hollywood.

What feels most pressing in Cassini’s film is how listless adults will always follow strong voices. The relationship between Henry and Sam is reminiscent of how media channels like Infowars and Fox News can almost radicalize its fanbase, convincing them of preposterous notions from crisis actors to false flag operations. It doesn’t take much for Sam to convince Henry to become a murderer, he only needed to hear an authoritative voice telling him it was the right thing to do. And in 2018, it’s never been easier to commit mass persuasion.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)