What do Battleship, Star Trek IV (the whale one), Birth of a Nation and Karate Kid II all have in common? They were all filmed with the assistance of the US Department of Defence.
For a cool $63mil, the makers of Ben Affleck-vehicle The Sum of all Fears were able to produce the film, replete with two rented B-2 bombers, two F-16 fighter jets, a National Airborne Operations Centre, three Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters, a UH-60 Army helicopter, four ground vehicles, fifty Marines and a goddamn aircraft carrier. All the Pentagon asks in return for access to this tax-payer subsidised military equipment, locations, or even costly DOD archival footage, is the ability to vet the script for anything it doesn’t like, and to appoint an advisor to make sure they stay to the approved script.
Obviously this immediately rules out anti-war films, such as Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, neither of which were approved for assistance. The reasons for less obvious refusals are both illuminating and amusing. For example, unlike Iron Man, The Avengers was refused assistance, according to the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison officer Phil Strub, because of its fictional organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unclear purpose and trans-national nature, as well as it being too far-fetched; quite the opposite to the approved Transformers entries. The Pentagon is often reluctant to approve films involving alien invasions because of how ineffective the military is depicted against them, as was the case with the assistance-refused Independence Day.
Without assistance, the costs of producing the film Thirteen Days skyrocketed, necessitating the use of digital effects and shooting jet footage in the Philippines. These kinds of cost increases mean that military censorship begins at the very start of production, with studios often encouraging writers to avoid including anything that would lead films to be rejected. In producer Peter Almond’s words, “There’s a kind of devil’s brew. The problem… with these big-scale projects that involve military assets is that we’re kind of dependent on them for comparatively inexpensive use of the assets in making our stories. So they have us kind of over a barrel.”
The blacklist in 1947 saw over 300 left-wing directors, actors and screenwriters purged by the government in collaboration with studio executives.Whilst Wings first featured bi-plane dogfight scenes in 1929, interference by military and security agencies intensified enormously thanks to Cold War hysteria. I Married a Communist and The Red Menace were just some of a slew of anti-communist films studio execs helped produce in response to the blacklist, which laid the basis for the Pentagon’s influence today.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and, since 2001, even the C.I.A. all now have appointed Entertainment Liaison Offices. The Air Force’s boasts the catchy website title ‘Wings over Hollywood’. They are unabashed about their role in using films and TV to increase enlistment, an unsurprising one, considering the well-known boost in both recruitment numbers and confidence in the armed forces that follows overtly military films. The US Navy stated that after the release of Top Gun, enlistment of young men, wanting to be Naval Aviators increased by 500%. Some screenings even had enlistment booths outside cinemas, with Major David Georgi, saying of the kids in the audience, “[they] came out of the movie with eyes as big as saucers … [and asked] Where do I sign up?”
With statistics showing an average of 22 US veterans committing suicide a day and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimating 11-20% of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in any given year, it’s easy to comprehend how eager the Pentagon would be to make use of such effective cultural influence. So eager in fact that advertising space on video releases of The Hunt for the Red October and Flight of the Intruder was offered to the DOD by Paramount executives in return for the scrapping of millions of dollars in production costs; the idea was only turned down after advice from Grey Advertising that both movies were “already wonderful recruiting tools” and advertising at the start of “what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial” would be redundant.
Instead of waiting for that two hour army recruitment advertising space to be pitched to it, the DOD now makes an active effort to solicit studios with their own ideas. A range of script ideas are available to browse on the C.I.A. website, including the memorably titled ‘Robert Fulton’s Skyhook and Operation Cold Feet’. In 2010, starring in Act of Valor was made a formal task for active-duty, tax-payer funded Navy SEALs after Navy Special Warfare invited production companies in 2008 to submit proposals on a film explicitly aimed at boosting enlistment.
But predisposition to enlistment and a support for the military starts early with children’s TV shows like Lassie and The Mickey Mouse Club having had scripts rewritten to make the armed services more appealing to children. Additionally, movies often being forced to remove content that guarantees an R rating. A letter sent to the makers of The Right Stuff, a 1983 film about the post-war space program stated that “The obscene language used seems to guarantee an ‘R’ rating. If distributed as an ‘R’, it cuts down on the teenage audience, which is a prime one to the military services when our recruiting bills are considered.”
After the C.I.A. and the Pentagon controversially did everything they could in giving Kathryn Bigelow and producers of Zero Dark Thirty access to interview officials, as well as both a translator and navy SEAL who were in the May 2011 raid to kill Bin Laden, was it any surprise at this point that it was routinely criticised for justifying the United States’ use of torture? Bigelow, who gushed about the C.I.A. agents that “fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines […] who gave all of themselves … for the defense of this nation,” could not have given the agency a bigger public relations gift.
Operation Hollywood author David Robb contends this practice of selectively leasing might not even be constitutional, citing the ruling from 1995 Supreme Court case Rosenberger v. University of Virginia that “In the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another.” As film critic J. Hoberman asserted in 2004, “It’s our Army. If you can afford the rates you should be able to rent.”
In any case, the military industrial complex is by no means tiny. The censoring of films selectively provided taxpayer funded military resources sanitises depictions of US security forces and ensures they are subsumed under a pro-military and pro-war ideology. The implications of this must be understood in context: a drone program that has killed between 400 and 10 000 civilians in Pakistan alone, an unspeakably revolting C.I.A. torture report, detainees still in indefinite detention without charge or trial in an unclosed Guantanamo Bay, a vastly overreaching mass intelligence-gathering network and an unjust Iraq War’s questionable role in the formation of Islamic State.
Words by James Munt