Military and the Movies

When appraising an image of Megan Fox bending seductively over the bonnet of a sports car, the agenda of the United States Department of Defence is hardly the first thing on one’s mind.

Unbeknownst to the casual viewer, however, it is designed, at least subconsciously, to be the second. While the notion of military propaganda may seem like a relic of a time long past; an age of stars, stripes, and bald eagles that now holds little cultural relevance beyond confederate stereotypes and kitsch fourth-of-July souvenirs; the machine is, perhaps, more powerful than ever. The message is the same, but the medium has changed.

In place of Uncle Sam pinning young conscripts with the steely gaze of patriotism, the U.S. government now passes the baton of indoctrination to high profile movie makers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg, all happy to sign away their scripts to the Pentagon in exchange for the resources of one or all of the five branches of the armed forces at their disposal. The ‘glory of war’ has been given a makeover, with slick new packaging, abandoning the grainy black and white news reels of iron-backed troops marching to the drums of war, in favour of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man; Optimus Prime vs. Megatron; and the NCIS team on the trail of a new killer every Sunday night at 9.

Michael Bay, who has helmed projects such as the Transformers series, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbour, has benefited immensely from the post 9/11 social climate to which pro-military propaganda is so crucial.

The 2009 sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen boasted the co-operation of a record four out of five branches of the U.S. armed forces, resulting in the sci-fi blockbuster being touted as “the largest joint-military movie ever made” by Lt. Col Greg Bishop, an Iraq veteran who now serves as a liaison between the Army and the Hollywood studios. “If you go down the list,” he continues, “Black Hawk Down was just about all army, Top Gun was all Navy, Iron Man was predominantly Air Force.”

While this collaboration between branches makes the film more realistic, the accepted art of portraying the military has less to do with content and everything to do with tone. In exchange for Bay’s use of Navy submarines, Marine hovercrafts, and just about every model of aircraft in the sky, he is asked only for token patriotism, and, well, to make the military look really cool. “In Transformers, we’re fighting alien robots, so realism is obviously out the window,” Bishop admits. The Pentagon simply wants the movie-going public to know that if ever science fiction became reality, “This is how we’d do it.”

The massive amounts of money saved by studios in extras, artillery, and attack simulations due to military cooperation is a powerful bargaining tool, and the U.S. administration certainly knows how to use it. The climax of Steven Spielberg’s $600,000,000 grossing War of the Worlds suffered an early stage rewrite in order to portray the story’s fictional Marines as more noble than foolish in their approach to a large-scale alien invasion.

Nevertheless, sometimes a simple rewrite will not suffice; with the powers that be often making surprisingly selective choices. Marvel’s long awaited and massively successful Avengers was ultimately rejected by entertainment liaisons after a tenebrous trial period, reportedly due to the dubiously structured chain of command in the film’s fictional S.H.I.E.L.D organisation. It seems that in the fictional multiverse, as in recruitment propaganda, ‘treason’ is a four-letter word. Even the slightest confusion as to who’s giving the orders is enough to justify literally withdrawing the troops; and when Captain America doesn’t come off quite American enough, you know there’s some strict criteria in play.

Perhaps predictably, and despite First Lady Michelle Obama pushing ‘Joining Forces’, a White House initiative which seeks to call public attention to the lives of men and women in uniform, to Hollywood high-rollers and studio execs, the liaison between the civilian and the martial is not without its controversies and detractors.

Most recently, the upcoming picture Zero Dark Thirty was the centre of an investigation into the leak of high-level classified intelligence to director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. The film tells the story of the six Navy SEAL’s (‘Seal Team Six’) responsible for the capture of Osama Bin Ladin; with the production receiving detailed inside information which included the secret identity of the “planner, operator and commander” of the real-life squad. The House Committee on Homeland Security chairman Peter King decried the collaboration as, “extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous,” though the Obama administration maintained that Hollywood’s access would do no harm. In light of the Department of Defence’s goal and indeed, the level to which media influence penetrates our collective unconscious, Bigelow’s movie is almost sure to have the desired effect.

With studios benefiting financially, and the military propagating their interests, it’s difficult to see where the boardroom back scratching begins and ends. Audiences are fed high quality, supra-stylised images of war, while patriotism, as with any commodity, is distributed and outsourced. As Joe Trento writes: “To be a superpower, there is a basic belief that you must glorify war in order to get the public to accept the fact that you are going to send their sons and daughters to die.”