Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2010

Publication Source

Public Voices


Norma Desmond famously says in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”1 Since then, this phrase has been uttered countless times to ensure the camera does not start rolling until everyone is ready. But all are not afforded the opportunity to get ready and civil servants fall squarely into this category. We know that government bureaucrats are among those individuals that Americans love to hate and attacks on the civil service come from a plethora of sources.2 And because of the ability of film (as well as other narrative forms) to influence perceptions and stereotypes about government (c.f. McCurdy 1995; Holzer and Slater 1995; Lichter, Lichter, and Amundson 2000; Holley and Lutte 2000), it is important to understand how civil servants are portrayed in American film.

Unfortunately, the empirical exploration of civil servants in film remains understudied. The existing research on the portrayal of government in film is inadequate for several reasons. First, a large scale examination of a wide range of films has not been conducted to ascertain how films portray government, and specifically, bureaucrats. In addition, most of the scholarship focuses on small samples or employs case study methodology that looks at a handful of predetermined films to examine the different views of government offered by Hollywood. Finally, often the films that are profiled are rather obscure and one would have difficulty finding many individuals who have actually heard of the films examined, let alone seen them. Thus, the question that arises is how is government, and more specifically civil servants, portrayed in the most popular films in the United States?

In an effort to more fully explore the depictions that contemporary American film presents of government and civil servants, this paper endeavors to address many of the omissions of the existing literature. The films selected for study are the top ten domestic box office grossing films in the United States from 1992 through 2006. These 150 films are the films most likely to have been seen by the majority of Americans. As a result of this large sample, the films included are the ones that have the greatest exposure to the movie-going public in the United States; accordingly, a holistic assessment of how Hollywood routinely portrays civil servants is possible. In the end, we find that the U.S. government is frequently depicted in a negative light, but that civil servants are a different story, especially in the last five years. Civil servants are, more often than not, presented as intelligent, well-trained, and efficient.

This paper first presents an overview of perceptions and how they are informed by various narrative forms, particularly film. Then it turns to the treatment of fiction and film in the public administration literature and considers the sparse research to date that explores how government is portrayed in film. After establishing the context for our research, the methods are presented and the findings from 150 films that depict more than 300 civil servants are summarized. Finally, it concludes with a discussion of our findings and their implications.

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National Center for Public Performance at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark





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