Bombers in Hollywood: The Price of Military Tech Assistance in Movies

Written by

Abraham Riesman

Last weekend, a depressing irony flew under the cultural radar.

At Camp David, President Obama met up with fellow NATO leaders to discuss the road ahead in Afghanistan. Although no one there used the language of defeat, the implicit message was clear: the war has gone nowhere in the past few years and it’s time to start packing up. Meanwhile, what raked in $25.5 million at the box office? Battleship. And who provided director Peter Berg with the war technology that beats the aliens? The U.S. military.

He’s not the only one: the past few years have seen an explosion of high-profile cooperation between the armed forces and the movie industry. If the most powerful armed force in history isn’t winning in reality, it certainly is on the big screen. And like so many problematic aspects of late capitalism, the military-Hollywood complex has a grimly understandable logic.

Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna in a scene from Battleship (Universal)

For example, consider the thought process of Philip Strub. He’s the Pentagon’s Director of Entertainment Media. If you’re a director looking to use real jets, ships, SEALs, and the like, his D.C. office is the place to send your script.

“Our goal, initially, is to give [filmmakers] news as quickly as possible as to whether the script is something we can support,” Strub told me. And that support, as you might predict, is less than unconditional. “There’s no question: I will plead guilty to bias in favor of the military. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror and go to work every day if I didn’t believe the military is a force for good,” Strub said. “If a script comes to us portraying the military as a malign force, we won’t provide support.”

Peter Berg and servicemen on the set of Battleship (Universal)

Predictably, war-doubting pictures like Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, and The Hurt Locker didn’t get production help. But you might be surprised by some of the other movies that failed this acid test.

Independence Day is one seemingly unlikely case. Despite the movie’s American-led intergalactic victory, the real-life armed forces refused to participate. An internal Pentagon memo gave the rationale: “The military appears impotent and/or inept; all advances in stopping aliens are the result of actions by civilians.” The film’s battle equipment was either purchased elsewhere or made with CGI.

Forrest Gump, too, couldn’t pass muster. A memo cited the movie’s “generalized impression that the army of the 1960s was staffed by the guileless or by soldiers of limited intelligence” as one impasse. It also took issue with the title character showing a buttocks scar to LBJ: “The ‘mooning’ of a president by a uniformed solider is not acceptable cinematic license.”

Still from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Dreamworks)

But once you get past that first hurdle, American war tech is yours to film at very low costs (Strub says he doesn’t keep reimbursement records, but that the military doesn’t generate any revenue from film cooperation). You don’t have to invest in expensive CGI or complex re-creations with open-market hardware. And for some, it’s substantially easier to sidle up to the Pentagon’s bargaining table.

Take action impresario Jerry Bruckheimer, for instance. “In most cases with the military, they like what we’ve done and how we portrayed them, and that’s why we get the access and the military hardware,” Bruckheimer said in a 2003 documentary. “When you come in the door and you say, ‘I produced Black Hawk Down’ or ‘I did Pearl Harbor’ or ‘I did Crimson Tide,’ they say, ‘Oh, I liked those movies.’”

More and more in recent years, filmmakers who get through the door are taking military cooperation to unheard-of heights.

Still from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Dreamworks)

Unsurprisingly, Michael Bay was a trailblazer: 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was touted as the first film in history to receive assistance from four out of the five branches of the military (the Coast Guard sat it out). The eponymous vessel in Battleship, as well as a slew of its machinery and personnel, were all government-issue. The secretary of the Navy even acts in it.

But the most unprecedented leap in the military-Hollywood relationship landed in theaters in February — and doesn’t feature a single cyborg or extraterrestrial.

Act of Valor is something almost unheard-of in America since the Second World War: a wide-release recruitment film. Its stars are actual Navy SEALs and the movie was explicitly intended to raise enlistment numbers.

Crew and SEALs on the set of Act of Valor (Relativity Media)

“Clearly, Act of Valor is a turning point,” Yale film scholar J.D. Connor said in an interview. But he sees larger trends at work. He thinks a decade-plus of war has not only made military stories somewhat inevitable – he also sees economic decline as a possible motivator in Hollywood’s rising demand for military assistance.

“The collapse of DVD revenues has put pressure on budgets,” he said. “So the more access you can get to expensive things that you don’t have to pay [as much] for, the better.”

Matthew Alford, film researcher and author of Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, is even harsher in his critique. “The Pentagon has a manual. Basically, it will only provide full cooperation to propaganda pieces,” he said in an interview.

Crew and SEALs on the set of Act of Valor (Relativity Media)

But, maddening as the situation might be for people like Connor or Alford, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the military has no incentive to let people use its equipment unconditionally. It holds a monopoly on its technology and there’s nothing forcing Phil Strub to let a director use American tanks in a movie about the fundamental immoralities of battle. If you’re watching a movie with American military tech, it won’t ever be anti-war.

“We wouldn’t be doing what we do if we thought the military was a force for evil,” Strub said.

That said, Connor sees at least one bright spot in the military-Hollywood complex.

“Every dollar spent on a military-approved blockbuster is a dollar that isn’t being spent on a Katherine Heigl romcom,” he said. “So there is that.”

Connections:

Top photo: Peter Berg on the set of Battleship (AP)

Topics: war, military, movies, film, battleship, transformers, michael bay, jerry bruckheimer, army, pentagon, navy, marines, air force, SEALs, the-future-of-moving-pictures, the-finer-arts, privacy-and-security

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