Winning the Next War at the Multiplex

Winning the Next War at the Multiplex

BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN

Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies By David L. Robb Prometheus Books 384 pages, $28. hen the Department of Education secretly paid a pundit, Armstrong Williams, $240,000 to shill for No Child Left Behind, it was not the first time that the United States government engaged in covert domestic propaganda. For more than 50 years, the Department of Defense has been examining and altering movie scripts prior to production. As early as 1927, Wings, the first movie to win an Oscar, was filmed at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston using government planes and pilots. Though it can shave millions off production costs, the price of cooperation with the military is artistic independence. Since the First Amendment guarantees filmmakers—like painters and poets—the right to pursue their art without official approval, the Pentagon lacks legal authority to censor cinema. However, its representatives can be persuasive. The armed forces of the United States need not storm a Hollywood studio in order to get their way; they can merely withhold permission to use tanks, planes, ships, and troops. When producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to adapt Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden’s account of a disastrous mission in Mogadishu, he needed to appease the only source of Black Hawk helicopters, the U.S. Army. Bowden’s book recounts the heroism of Ranger Specialist John Stebbins. In addition to a Silver Star, Stebbins later received 30 years in military prison for raping a 12-year-old boy. In order to avoid institutional embarrassment, the army insisted that, as a price for borrowing Black Hawks, the name Stebbins be airbrushed out of the story. The character, played by Ewan McGregor, still appears in the movie, renamed Danny Grimes. For the Pentagon, authenticity was less important than public image; for Hollywood, access to a chopper trumped the truth. If Don DeLillo writes about the Cuban Missile Crisis, he need show his manuscript to no one but his publisher. But when Peter Almond began producing Thirteen Days, he sought airplanes from the Pentagon. Previewing the script, Phil Strub, head of the Department of Defense’s film liaison office, disliked the characterization of General Curtis LeMay as “unintelligent and bellicose,” though historical transcripts demonstrate that the Air Force general was indeed unintelligent and bellicose. (LeMay, who ran as George Wallace’s running mate in 1968, is often credited with the phrase “We should bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age.”) Strub also insisted that the film delete a scene in which a U2 pilot is shot down over Cuba, though it did happen. Because Almond refused to alter the script to suit Strub, he had to find planes on his own in the Philippines. The Pentagon is not the only government agency that maintains an office to promote its interests with the motion picture industry. The CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and State Department do as well. Yet, without any missiles or aircraft carriers, they lack the clout of the DOD. It is not obligatory to obtain Richard Armitage’s actual briefcase in order to dramatize life within Old Foggy Bottom. Cooperation from the IRS is not essential to a film about tax collection, though producers might wish to be wary of an audit. n Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, entertainment journalist David L. Robb attempts to document “a wide-ranging conspiracy against the First Amendment between Hollywood and the Pentagon.” He praises filmmakers, including Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone, Robert Aldridge, Douglas Day Stewart, and Taylor Hackford, who have refused to capitulate to the DOD. He vilifies others, including Bruckheimer, Strub, his predecessor Don Baruch, John Woo, and Walt Disney as “collaborators, in the worst sense of the word, who have plotted to put military propaganda into American movies and TV shows.” Robb argues that the Pentagon’s influence has been insidious and invidious and that the movies it shapes have been making our culture increasingly militaristic. Robb relies on interviews with dozens of filmmakers, military officials, and others, as well as on DOD documents. Operation Hollywood is a series of case studies of how specific projects succeeded or failed in gaining cooperation from the Pentagon. The book is repetitious; in each chapter in which Phil Strub is mentioned—almost every chapter—he is identified again as chief of film liaison. The chapters proceed in no recognizable order, and the style is shoddy; “criteria” is used as a singular noun, and, as if writing about the AAA rather than the DOD, Robb refers to “films that towed the government’s line on the war in Vietnam.” Robb pads his book with photostats of memos and with digressions, such as the oft-told tale of how Ronald Reagan met Nancy Davis, which has little to do with the subject at hand—how the producer of Hellcats of the Navy, in which they both appear, was forced to tone down insubordination on a submarine in order to get to use a navy sub. Yet by revealing the control that the Pentagon has quietly exerted over filmmaking, without Congressional oversight and with the complicity of both the Motion Picture Association of America and the Writers Guild of America, Robb has performed an important civic service. The budget of the DOD dwarfs that of the NEA, and so does its influence on American culture, not least by green-lighting certain scripts after ensuring they conform to its visions. Of course, not all movies are military dramas, though even many that are not, including sci-fi flicks such as Star Trek IV, Mars Attacks, and Independence Day and children’s entertainment such as the Lassie and Mickey Mouse Club TV shows, seek Pentagon assistance. It is probably a better use of taxpayers’ money to assign tanks for telling stories than attacking villages. But none of the massive funding allocated for national security is earmarked to subsidize private movie studios. If the DOD allows any production to borrow its expensive facilities, equipment, and personnel, should it not allow all? Who should determine which scripts to support, and on what basis? A flattering biopic about Hyman Rickover was killed simply because the admiral mistrusted movies. Pentagon guidelines specify three conditions for cooperating with a production: that the story be authentic, that it present the military in a favorable light, and that it stimulate enlistment. Yet Robb presents case after case in which military brass insisted that an authentic detail be sanitized in order to satisfy the second two conditions. In the original script for Windtalkers, which recounts how Navajo Marines used their own language as a code to thwart Japanese intelligence during World War II, other Marines are ordered to kill the Navajos in the event of imminent capture. That historical detail was eliminated by director John Woo when he was informed that the Marines simply do not do such things. One of the most disturbing examples of military interference cited by Robb is Battle Cry, a World War II drama about a squad of Marines that fights its way across the Pacific. Victor Millan was cast as a Mexican-American medic who is bullied by a bigot in the unit. Millan’s performance would have made a powerful case for tolerance, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor because the DOD refused to provide planes, destroyers, and carriers for a film that suggested, in 1955, that racism was a problem in the military. The colonel assigned to ensure that Battle Cry burnished the image of the Marine Corps was actually named Jim Crow. In 1966, the Army implemented a plan to recruit soldiers who had failed intelligence tests. Yet when the script for Forrest Gump had its half-witted protagonist drafted into Vietnam, the Army refused to cooperate with a story that, though based on fact, might harm its image. And the Navy refused to assist the CBS movie My Father, My Son, costing the production as much as $100,000 in additional expenses. Based on a book by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and his son, Elmo Zumwalt III, it contended that the younger Zumwalt contracted cancer through exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange along the Mekong River. Unlike the National Academy of Sciences, the Navy refused to acknowledge that Agent Orange was carcinogenic. And no matter how the script was altered, a CBS miniseries about John Walker, the chief petty officer who passed intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union, never stood a chance for military support. Though Walker was without question one of the most damaging spies in American history, a film whose central figure is a Navy traitor had to come up with planes and ships on its own. All of which is to say that, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon remains the last bastion of Socialist Realism, the doctrine that art must portray the world as it should be, not as it is. Strub and his colleagues are idealists, convinced that heroic visions of flawless warriors will inspire viewers with patriotic resolve. To understand their efforts, consider Top Gun, a triumph of military advertising, if not cinematic art. Following its release, recruitment to the Navy increased 500 percent. Or consider how, while carnage continued in Iraq, the commander in chief requisitioned the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as a stage to proclaim: “Mission Accomplished.” It was a performance worthy of John Wayne, whose hawkish tract The Green Berets, made with DOD assistance, so slavishly followed the Pentagon’s line that he was asked not to thank it in the credits, lest he give the game away. Steven G. Kellman’s biography of novelist Henry Roth will be published by W. W. Norton in August.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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