How realistic are motion pictures and television shows about the FBI these days?
Most productions are reasonably accurate when portraying the FBI Special Agent Badge and credentials, equipment, firearms, types of vehicles, general investigative techniques, and the manner in which the FBI conducts an investigation. Most of the shows also are reasonably accurate about portraying the talent, dedication, fitness, ethics, knowledge, training, and pursuit of justice that is found within FBI personnel.
Use of the FBI Seal is governed by statue, and most modern entertainment productions use an approximation of the FBI Seal rather than the actual FBI Seal.
The characters and the plots are developed by the entertainment productions on their own.
Does the FBI “oversee” or “approve” any of the motion pictures or television shows I see?
The FBI does not oversee or need to approve any entertainment production but will help with information when asked. The assistance can take the form of responding to questions that come up before, during, or after filming. Oftentimes, an entertainment production has staff members who have prior experience with the FBI or other law enforcement agencies and are experts in their fields.
In the 2011 motion picture entitled J. Edgar, the actors portraying J. Edgar Hoover and his Associate Director Clyde Tolson were depicted as kissing. This movie also portrayed Hoover as having a relationship with his long-time secretary named Helen Gandy in the early days of the Bureau. Were these historically accurate depictions?
Although Director Clint Eastwood is a legend in Hollywood, the researchers and screenwriters did not present an accurate portrayal of these interactions for Mr. Eastwood to film. None of these events are known to ever have taken place in real life.
What assistance does the FBI provide to authors, screenwriters, or production companies in the United States or abroad who are working on a project relating to the FBI?
Can a member of the public visit the indoor or outdoor set of a motion picture, documentary, or television show about the FBI when it is in production, or watch the filming from a distance?
Motion pictures, documentaries, or television shows are produced by several different production companies and each will have its own preferences regarding guests and visitors. Many conduct their work independently from the FBI even though they feature the FBI’s work, but as a rule unannounced visitors or observers are not permitted.
Entertainment production companies usually will work with local law enforcement agencies and professional location managers to temporally block off or restrict access to buildings or streets in advance of filming scenes. The production companies also go out of their way to avoid disrupting the lives of others but still making scenes as realistic as possible.
Where are FBI motion pictures and television shows filmed today?
Several different locations: New York City, the Los Angeles area (particularly within the Thirty Mile Zone (TMZ) around Los Angeles where filming traditionally has been done), and in Vancouver and Toronto in Canada.
Do FBI employees ever appear as “background actors” or “extras” in motion pictures or television shows?
As a general practice, FBI employees do not appear as extras or background actors in motion pictures or television shows about the FBI. Occasionally, FBI employees have served as extras. Background actors or extras often do this for a living and are members of professional organizations representing them.
Does the FBI have “regular agents” or are they all “Special Agents”?
Special Agent is the correct title and has been used throughout the FBI’s history. There are no other titles for their agents.
What is an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Team, also known as SWAT? I see portrayals frequently on television shows.
These teams do exist and play a very important function. Each of the FBI’s 56 Field Offices located throughout the United States and Puerto Rico has a small group of Special Agents who serve on a part-time basis. Field Offices in larger cities have Enhanced SWAT with more members.
What types of weapons do FBI Special Agents currently use, and what training do they receive to use them?
FBI Special Agents currently train with a 9mm handgun, a rifle, and a shotgun. They always carry a 9mm handgun.
How do FBI Special Agents wear their pistols? Most seem to carry be portrayed being in a holster on a hip, and sometimes I have seen other law enforcement officers use a shoulder holster.
FBI Special Agents are trained to wear their issued automatic 9mm pistols in a holster on the hip of their dominant side, be it right or left. The training has been conducted in this manner for decades, and all Special Agents must be proficient with the pistol on a standardized firing range course to graduate from the FBI Academy. Use of a shoulder holster instead of a using a holster on a hip is permitted, but to do so a Special Agent must be proficient in its use and qualify with their pistol on a range. It usually is more difficult to draw a weapon from a shoulder holster in an urgent situation (called a cross draw) and not that many Special Agents use them for that reason. Nonetheless, some Special Agents prefer them.
I see on this website that many former FBI employees have authored books. Did J. Edgar Hoover ever write his autobiography?
No, he did not. However, many books have been written about his life and career and most of those appear in our Top Books section. The books have been written by a wide variety of authors on different topics and it would be difficult to point out only one that covers everything.
I have seen FBI Special Agents being portrayed as flying in their own private jets or other fixed-wing aircraft. I also have seen Special Agents being portrayed as flying in helicopters. Does the FBI have its own fleet of aircraft?
The FBI has a small number of its own aircraft that it uses in investigations, but the private airplanes or specialized cargo planes portrayed as being used by FBI personnel in television shows are fictional.
How about the large motor vehicles I see that say “FBI” on them?
Yes, the FBI does have such large vehicles that are used as command centers or for laboratory, forensic, or crime scene work.
Does the FBI charge a fee to those making motion pictures or television shows or to authors?
No, the FBI provides a limited amount of assistance to the entertainment industry and to authors without charge as a public service.
Are FBI employees ever permitted to accept any payment or gratuity from a producer or author?
FBI employees, like other Federal employees in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, are subject to strict Ethical Standards that prohibit them from accepting or soliciting gifts or any compensation resulting from their employment. Having said that, Federal employees can attend a widely attended gathering and accept food that is served to all attendees or accept a token item (such as a book from an author) if the value of the item is $20 or less, not to exceed more than $50 in a one-year period.
How realistic are portrayals of the work that forensic examiners perform on evidence in the FBI Laboratory?
The processes, techniques, and equipment used can be realistic, but the results of the examinations do not always take place as fast as is usually portrayed in television show.
What was the first motion picture about the FBI?
Although records are scarce, the first full-length motion picture that referenced the Bureau may have been the 1924 silent film entitled Laughing at Danger.
At the time the movie was made, the FBI was known as the Bureau of Investigation although some references to it refer to the arresting law enforcement personnel as being members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That title was not adopted until 1935.
What was the first television show about the FBI?
The first major weekly television show about the FBI was named, logically enough, The FBI.
Airing on the ABC Television Network, it appeared on Sunday evenings from September 1965 to May 1974. It was among the top-rated television shows, was based in part on actual FBI investigations, and presented a positive portrayal of the FBI to millions. The lead actor was Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The program had a strong supporting cast and had many well-known actors and actresses as guest stars. In concert with the times, the FBI oversaw and supported scripts and story lines with the cooperation of the production company.
Over 200 episodes were filmed and broadcast, all of which can be seen today on DVDs, online, or through streaming services.