Most propaganda machines are not observable to the naked eye, but the military-entertainment complex hides in plain sight. Long have Hollywood and the Pentagon worked together in what has been called a relationship of “mutual exploitation,” producing war agitprop for the masses. Who is the victim amid all this exploitation? None other than the U.S. public. We have about a hundred years of history to prove it.
During the leadup to President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany in the First World War, the U.S. public was firmly set on neutrality. It was not until the destruction of British passenger ship Lusitania that public opinion grew hawkish. To build off this momentum after declaring war in 1917, Wilson—just eleven days after his declaration—established the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI was an independent government agency designed to drum up support for the war through mass media. However, cinema was its main modality. As William Brady, then head of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, once wrote to Wilson, “The motion picture can be made the most wonderful system for spreading the National Propaganda at little or no cost.” Even then, the military-entertainment complex eschewed subtlety.
In 1927, Wings, a silent war film about two lovestruck fighter pilots, dazzled audiences with hyper-realistic air combat sequences depicting the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. It was produced with the help of the U.S. Air Corps at Kelly Field in San Antonio. More importantly, it was the first film to win Best Picture. The critical success of Wings seemingly made possible the fusion of propaganda and high art, cementing both the cultural and commercial potential of the military’s relationship with Hollywood.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI) in an effort to better inform the public about the Second World War via newspapers, radio, and film. The Bureau of Motion Pictures, one of the many bureaus that operated under the OWI, worked directly with every major Hollywood studio to promote the war. Of the 1700 films distributed by Hollywood from 1942 to 1945, the OWI had their hand in about five hundred, all of which contained war-related material. Seminal pictures like Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, and For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of this period. While these films wooed audiences with unforgettable stories of love and romance, they also served as antifascist propaganda designed to assure the U.S. public that the Allied fight for democracy was indeed a cause worth fighting for.
After the war was over, the OWI dissolved and, in its stead, the Pentagon established an entertainment liaison office in 1948, which continues to operate directly out of Los Angeles. In 1989, former Navy videographer Phil Strub took over as the Department of Defense’s entertainment liaison. For twenty-nine years Strub kept his post, gatekeeping the military’s resources for filmmakers willing to adapt their scripts to his liking. Hollywood and the Pentagon struck a powerful symbiosis under Strub’s oversight. As Transformers producer Ian Bryce said: “Once you get Pentagon approval, you’ve created a win-win situation.” If you “cooperate with the Pentagon to show them off in the most positive light…the Pentagon likewise wants to give [you] the resources to be able to do that.” In the 1990s, Strub started building a database to keep record of every film given military aid. And in 2017, that database was made public.
It is estimated that the Pentagon has assisted in producing over five hundred Hollywood films since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. What is more surprising than the breadth of its influence, however, is the depth of its influence. The Department of Defense monitors the production of each film it supports, from start to finish. And if production departs from its vision, the Department of Defense reserves the right to withdraw at any time.
Strub distinguished himself as more of a consultant than anything else, advising filmmakers on how to paint accurate and realistic portrayals of the military. To him, the Department of Defense was never in the business of propaganda. “I associate [propaganda] with something that is not truthful,” he explained, “Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real…that’s propaganda.” Unfortunately, Strub’s words ring hollow in the face of his past demands, which all too often took the form of revisionist history.
Windtalkers—a 2002 war film about U.S. marine Joe Enders who is tasked with protecting a Navajo code talker during the Second World War—was given Strub’s green light only if its director, John Woo, made three changes to the script. First, Woo could not show any U.S. soldiers looting the gold teeth of fallen Japanese soldiers. This was considered too brutish. Second, the film could not have Enders slaughtering Japanese soldiers who had surrendered. And third, Strub insisted that Woo omit a scene of a higher office explicitly ordering Enders to kill the code talker in the event that the code talker is captured by the Japanese. Although there is documented evidence of all three war crimes taking place during the Second World War, Strub deemed these depictions “inconsistent” with the military’s guiding ethos.
Thirteen Days, a 2000 historical drama about the political and strategic deliberations between John F. Kennedy and his staff during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was also somewhat of a wrangle. When called upon for assistance from the Department of Defense, Strub denied the film’s request because the script portrayed the generals as being too bellicose. David Sirota’s Back to Our Future recounts the exchange:
Incredibly, Pentagon officials stuck to their rejection even though the screenwriters provided them the White House audiotapes proving the screenplay’s dialogue accurately represented exchanges that occurred at the time. In other words, the military leadership rejected a screenplay precisely because it accurately reflected military leadership at the time.
Even in the case of science-fiction films, where a staunch commitment to truth defeats the entire purpose, the Pentagon often suspends support. When The Avengers asked for help , for example, Strub objected to S.H.I.E.L.D., the extra-governmental body from which The Avengers take their directives. Since the writers could not adequately situate S.H.I.E.L.D. within the bureaucratic chain of military command, Strub refused to extend aid.
Stories like these abound. The military’s commitment to truth is lacking when truth is not in its favor (which it often is not). It becomes clear, then, that the Department of Defense’s self-proclaimed “advisory” role in Hollywood is just window dressing for the propaganda machine they have been more or less a part of for the last hundred years.
The military’s involvement in film goes beyond that of a mere public relations campaign. Its cinematic image-padding also serves directly to encourage recruitment. And they have not exactly been subtle about this either. When the 1997 film Air Force One was out in theaters, the Air Force mounted military equipment in theater parking lots and placed recruitment materials inside theater lobbies. During the 1986 exhibition of Top Gun, which still stands as perhaps one of the biggest propaganda pieces in film history, the military went so far as to station recruitment booths right outside of theaters. Navy enlistment shortly soared by 500 percent.
On the surface, the Pentagon’s genial relationship with Hollywood is somewhat confounding from a developmental standpoint. Why would Hollywood, an industry already so prone to “development hell,” let a bureaucratic government body throw more wrenches into the production process? It is because, financially speaking, they would be stupid not to.
Instead of having to buy, construct, or computer-generate military equipment and vehicles themselves, filmmakers can simply rent them from the military for flat fees. Whereas an F-15 fighter jet costs a bit under $30 million to purchase, it clocks in at about $25,000 an hour to rent from the Department of Defense. If filmmakers are in need of extras, the military will offer their own personnel, allowing producers to circumvent the residuals they would incur from SAG union regulations. In other words, by securing a deal with the Department of Defense, producers are essentially paying pennies on the dollar.
It is high time that Congress address the military’s dubious relationship with Hollywood. After all, it is the U.S. taxpayer who, despite having absolutely no role in the deal-making, is paying for the military’s armaments. Congress has only investigated the relationship twice, the last time being nearly sixty years ago.
It seems as though the Pentagon’s role in moviemaking is just a lingering relic of U.S. history, an outdated arrangement neither party has any interest in changing. Despite this, there remains one glaring legal issue that has yet to be resolved: the First Amendment bars the federal government from allowing or promoting one type of speech over another. Why, then, does the Department of Defense reserve the discretionary right to sponsor certain films over others?
This potential violation of constitutional law has been raised by the legal critics before. According to First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, there are two types of limitations on one’s freedom of speech: “The first involves limitations based on the subject being discussed,” and the second involves a “limitation based on the viewpoint of the speaker.” A filmmaker’s perspective and story, by Abrams’ logic, should have no bearing on whether their film is granted military assistance.
Legal scholar and professor Erwin Chemerinsky echoes similar concerns, adducing Justice Kennedy’s 1995 decision on Rosenberger vs. The University of Virginia. Free speech cannot be restricted, he says, “when the specific motivation behind the ideology or the opinion or the perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.” One might counter that no actual restriction is being imposed by the Department of Defense, since every filmmaker whom they assist agrees to make the changes. But this is a semantic distinction in consideration of the budget constraints most filmmakers are working with. They are in a captive market, where they must heavily weigh originality against practicality. It is in this way that accepted films are self-censored by coercion from the Department of Defense. And rejected films are stymied, perhaps never even made at all.
The furthest the federal government has gone to justify its constitutional authority over Hollywood was in a 2008 statement made by Paul Barry, the CIA’s former entertainment liaison:
Advice and guidance is available to everyone in the American entertainment industry, thereby supporting the notion of equal access. However, discretion is used in making decisions to provide government resources in support of a project. A good analogy might be corporate sponsorship decisions (e.g., does the project align with corporate values?). One reason the government is judicious about endorsing projects is the potential impact on recruitment.
Barry’s defense brings into sharp relief the federal government’s utter neglect for its own laws. His analogue of CIA support and “corporate sponsorship” is downright alarming. Corporations are not responsible for protecting free speech; the federal government is. For the Department of Defense to engage in this sort of corporate roleplay is not acceptable, especially when it has such a big effect on the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens. Once government institutions begin to model themselves on corporations, lives will be lost at the expense of profit and public relations. It opens up a whole host of concerns down the line. What is to stop the Department of Defense from eventually funding films in preproduction? Better yet, what is to stop them from optioning scripts and selling them to studios so long as the studios execute the films to their liking? There may even be a future in which the Department of Defense establishes its own film studio and production arm.
The Department of Defense’s selection process might hold more constitutional water if there were, say, legal recourse for filmmakers whose scripts fail to meet its criteria. But the military offers no such thing. There is no type of appeals process that allows filmmakers to challenge the Pentagon’s denials. And there is no outside regulatory body that deems these denials valid. The Department of Defense calls all the shots on their own, both permanently and unilaterally.
The Department of Defense has not yet proven that it has the legal right to discriminate between movies. And until then, it should not act as though it does. Instead, the military should simply offer its paid services to the industry at large, as it has no business regulating the films people in the United States are able to consume.
Reporter Elmer Davis once said that the “the motion picture” was “the most powerful instrument of propaganda in the world.” We have no reason to believe this does not hold true today. Not only do movies play an instrumental role in military recruitment, but they are clearly tools used to bring moral pretense to U.S. imperialism. When we look back at military-made films like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lone Survivor—all of which inexplicably casted the U.S. military as both the savior to or the victim of Iraq and Afghanistan—it becomes much easier to understand why the U.S. public has tolerated or even supported a nineteen-year-long war with no end in sight: Hollywood and the Pentagon have led us to believe it is a noble cause.