The Power of Story

Howard Gordon, executive producer and showrunner for American television shows like Homeland and 24 was the guest on a recent podcast produced by The Cipher Brief, a think tank focused on national security issues. It’s part of the site’s dip into the way national security is portrayed in popular media—television, movies, and books. And it reflects a truth that Gordon says is found in Richard Powers’s book, The Overstory, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

So, what does it take to make a Hollywood hit “in an age of geopolitical turmoil?” as Suzanne Kelly, head of The Cipher Brief termed it. You don’t have to look far to see that turmoil. Today’s news headlines include the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s world role, a new generation of Palestinian fighters, and repression in Iran and Afghanistan, for starters.

Gordon maintains that his new crime show, Accused, which addresses current social issues, is also germane to national security, because society’s strength is affected by how and how well it functions. Accused, which airs on the Fox network, challenges audiences to understand why a crime was committed. The plot lines are drawn from contemporary issues: violence, race, identity and, as what Gordon called “a vital accelerant to the drama,” social media. He says the show is “a new game every week.”

C’mon, this is tv. Is it just wishful thinking to believe fictional television is “important” in a world where so much serious stuff seems out of whack? We’re so polarized along numerous fault lines there seems no good way for people to come together. Stories, culture, food, are all “Trojan horses for empathy,” Gordon believes. If you show someone other types of people in the context of a story, maybe they will come to look differently at people they encounter in real life.

Again, how do these “culture wars” affect national security? Kelly noted that the age of interpretation and context is gone—people seem too eager “to line up on sides.” As retired four-star General Michael Hayden, a frequent contributor to The Cipher Brief has said, society is not suffering so much from a need to find truth, what we have lost is much more important—a desire and critical capacity to want to find the truth. We’ve lost the desire to respectfully disagree, to negotiate. It’s a loss that affects national security because it makes the job of our enemies so much easier.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Story

  1. Vicki, thank you for such a thought-provoking commentary. I plan to share this one with my family and check out Accused. Thanks again!

  2. I managed to watch the first season of 24 back in the day, and the inane aspects of the plot had me gritting my teeth. The final straw was in the last episode where the bad guy triumphantly points a semi-automatic pistol at the hero, smirks, and pulls the trigger only to discover the weapon is empty. Well, with that particular model the gun’s slide would have locked back after the last round in the magazine was fired and this would have been very noticeable. I laughed out loud but also wondered if they couldn’t even get something that basic correct, what kind of research did they do on the rest of it? I found Homeland equally implausible and made it a point not to watch anything associated with either series. Thus, I’ll be skipping this one as well. Thanks for the heads-up.

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