This is an engaging and informative video report on how the Pentagon has helped shape what we see and hear regarding the military in popular culture.
War is hell, but for Hollywood it has been a Godsend, providing the perfect dramatic setting against which courageous heroes win the hearts and minds of the movie going public.
The Pentagon recognises the power of these celluloid dreams and encourages Hollywood to create heroic myths; to rewrite history to suit its own strategy and as a recruiting tool to provide a steady flow of willing young patriots for its wars.
What does Hollywood get out of this ‘deal with the devil’? Access to billions of dollars worth of military kit, from helicopters to aircraft carriers, enabling filmmakers to make bigger and more spectacular battle scenes, which in turn generate more box office revenue. Providing they accept the Pentagon’s advice, even toe the party line and show the US military in a positive light.
The rationalizing of this influence by the head of the Department of Defense Film Liaison Unit, Philip Strub, provides some interesting perspective to this debate. He claims that the Pentagon is simply looking for a “reasonably realistic portrayal of military people.” If that “translates” into a requirement for a “positive portrayal” of the military, Strub mitigates his answer with a diluting ’somewhat’.”
It is claimed that the only thing that the Pentagon finds taboo within these cinematic depictions, is if the military is shown to tolerate “bad behavior,” such as shooting a civilian, or torture. Julian Barnes, a Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal, reveals that the DOD believes you cannot show that on screen, unless you also show that that person was punished. “That’s all that we ask for,” it is claimed.
But is it? Is it simply “accuracy” and “truth” that the Pentagon requires for its cooperation in such Hollywood portrayals? There is ample evidence that the Pentagon has made extensive demands for changes within the scripts, regardless of the proven veracity of the content represented within them.
Now, the argument can be (and is) made, that the Pentagon is under no obligation to support filmmaking, that it is not their mission. That is certainly true. However, a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 said that the government cannot favor speech that it likes, and not give the same benefits to speech that it doesn’t like. By giving material and financial support to films that reflect a political message that favors its interests, and denying that support to other films that might reflect a perspective that they feel doesn’t, is inherently unconstitutional. This is because it places a set of financial burdens upon one party, and not that of another, based simply on the content of their expression.
The interest that the Pentagon declares it has in simply making sure that the portrayal of the U.S. military in cinema is that it is “fair” and “accurate” becomes suspect when one compares how films such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket are denied any support, while Top Gun is lavished with not only extensive material support, but are actively used as a recruiting tool, even to the point of setting up recruiting booths in movie theaters where the film was running.
Particularly revealing within this report is the when it talks about the popular film Charlie Wilson’s War, and how the government had insisted on the removal of a specific scene, on which pointed out the very real, direct links between the CIA’s arming of the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and their later connection to the attacks of 9/11. It also talks about how the film Redacted, was forced by the studios to cut out shots of actual scenes of civilian casualties in Iraq. I guess the Pentagon didn’t think the actual shots of reality were accurate enough.
I’m certainly no big fan of the filmmaker Oliver Stone, but the discussion in the later part of the program with him, filmmaker Michael Moore, and journalist Chris Hedges is quite good. The analysis of The Hurt Locker as a form of ‘war porn’ resonated with me. That film never settled well with me, and exactly why is something I’ve been trying to articulate for some time, but couldn’t quite put my finger on (besides the dreadfully cliche’d and annoying cinematography). Michael Moore nails it, though, by describing not only the cheap techniques that director Kathryn Bigelow utilizes for creating suspense, but the fact that its a film that exploits the war for a dramatic cinematic high, but has nothing to say about the actual war itself. Okay, a guy is trying to diffuse a bomb. Easy dramatics. Cheap, even. But why is the bomb there? Why is the guy there trying to diffuse it? Who are the people putting these bombs all around their own country? It makes no effort at answering those questions, which may be one reason it was as accepted as it was among the critics and establishment press. It could use the war for cinematic purposes, without actually addressing the reality underlying it.
The concluding comments in the show by the program’s host provided one final example of irony and even contradiction (considering that the show’s panel was so critical of exploiting war for audience exhilaration and entertainment; ‘war porn’). During the preparation for the show he requested footage of real wars in order to underline its true horrors. His request was rejected, as he was told that real wars are badly filmed, and are therefore hardly effective, and that manufactured images are far more convincing. So where does that leave us?