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The Song Machine

About the author
John Down has a BSc in Sociology from the University of Edinburgh.
The Pentagon’s stark, utilitarian architecture is a salute to the excesses of American militarism. The outcome of many a motion picture has been decided not in a boardroom or a studio, but in the fifty-five acres of this building. Here, the Department of Defense heads a project to provide advice or access to military facilities to the world’s movie industry. This input can make or break a film.

The Department of Defense is a highly selective collaborator. Productions must “inform the American public about the US military” specifies Phil Strub, director of the liaison project and himself a film school graduate, and “be of benefit to military recruitment and retention, reasonably historically authentic and technically feasible – within the constraints of dramatic storytelling.”

The potential for self-promotion is colossal, especially within the core teenage market for action films. How do you reach young people? Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Gillman, representing the US Air Force’s film liaison in California, answers his own question: “The film medium is perfect. I think we have the same target demographic as the people who produce these films.”

Everyone’s a winner

All four armed services have long since established Hollywood-based regional liaison offices, which normally receive hundreds of assistance requests each year. Most are turned down. But the military can also be proactive. “They read the trades and, when they see a project that they may have influence on, they make themselves known to the producers,” says Joseph Trento, President of the Public Education Centre, a non-profit news agency.

“We confer informally,” says Strub, “then typically we’ll go back to the filmmakers, discuss our areas of concern, offer alternatives and see if we can reach accommodation.” Successful fruits of this collaboration range from historically-minded productions, Pearl Harbor and Hamburger Hill to the lighter end of the market – Goldeneye, Air Force One and The Hunt for Red October. But care is taken over each reject, as Gillman explains: “Parting is always amicable, because we want to make sure people come back to us the next time.”

Take Gillman’s first film liaison project: NBC’s popular 1997 mini-series Asteroid. The plot is formulaic: a rock hurtling towards earth can only be nudged off-course by a barrage of US nuclear missiles. This was where the Air Force and the producers reached an impasse.

“What they were planning to send up ran counter to all the treaties we signed about the non-proliferation of weapons in space”, explains Gillman. Film Liaison persuaded the producers to replace the missiles with the USAF’s jet-mounted Airborne Laser, a controversial and then obscure weapons technology. The production team agreed, obtained full access to Air Force personnel, bases and aircraft. And the Pentagon got to plug its new weapons system in return. By a happy coincidence NBC’s parent company, General Electric, is also a partner in the consortium contracted to develop the Airborne Laser. Everyone’s a winner.

The Top Gun effect

Dr Lawrence Suid, military film historian sees it as a history of “mutual exploitation”. The first ever Academy Award for Best Picture was presented to Air Force-supported Wings in 1927. After the Vietnam war, however, Hollywood’s support for the military collapsed, with a slew of damaging releases tarnishing a relationship which reached its zenith in World War Two. Films such as Deer Hunter and Coming Home exposed agony on the home front, whilst Platoon and Apocalypse Now portrayed a military devoid of dignity or honour. None received Pentagon assistance.

But by the middle of the 1980s, public hostility to the military was thawing. “Top Gun was a watershed picture,” remembers Strub. Dr Suid goes further. “Top Gun completed the rehabilitation of the military and made the Gulf War possible,” he insists. “Without it, I don’t think most Americans would have thought that we could win in the Gulf.”

For the Navy as well as at the box office, the film enjoyed phenomenal success. Recruitment figures went up 500%. “So now there are all these poor kids stuck on aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean who hate me,” jokes Tony Scott, Top Gun’s British Director. The film marked a new entente between the Hollywood industry and the Department of Defense. Top Gun’s production costs would have doubled without naval assistance.

However, Scott’s next release, Crimson Tide – a festival of testosterone that also involved an armed mutiny on a USN Trident submarine – was rejected on the grounds that it portrayed the navy in an unflattering light. To obtain shots of the sub, the team was forced to pose as a Japanese advertisement crew in Pearl Harbour. “We sat and waited in a marlin fishing boat with three cameras strapped to it. In the end he dived to get away from us and we got what we wanted”.

There are inconsistencies. Courage Under Fire – a film about a Gulf War “friendly fire” cover-up – was denied Pentagon assistance, whilst the two meteor films Armageddon and Deep Impact were both accorded aid, despite the fact that the plots breached the USA’s observance of the non-proliferation treaty. Pearl Harbor is only the latest to manifest the Pentagon’s capacity for ignoring factual accuracy when it suits. “If you write a ra-ra story that the Pentagon likes and it’s not critical”, Trento explains, “you can get your movie made. If you do a serious film that may have criticisms about the US military in it, there’s no way. Their preferences change with the times and political administrations. If you can’t adapt accordingly, they aren’t going to give you the help you need.” Strub admits, “This is obviously a highly subjective process”, but concludes, “We are under no obligation to work on a film simply because some people think it’s accurate.”

Suid agrees. “The British will co-operate on any film as long as it is accurate. In America, we’re more concerned with image-making.” John Woo’s upcoming Windtalkers stars Nicolas Cage as a Marine bodyguard protecting Navajo Indian code encrypters in World War Two. During production, the Marine Corps threatened to withdraw support unless all reference to the bodyguards’ order to kill Navajo charges who risked capture by the Japanese was removed. Congress had explicitly acknowledged this order in an honorary bill later signed by President Clinton. But the Marines got their way.

So is this the end of the line for all those spectaculars? Will the Disaster Movie industry, spewing out diverting but meaningless creations like the song machine in George Orwell’s 1984, fall silent? Media critic Douglas Rushkoff would not go to the Pentagon for an answer. Pentagon preoccupations with control and access pale into insignificance, he believes, alongside the strong drive to profit of the media conglomerates: “The real enemy here is the market”.

What they said:

  • Asteroid
    “What they were planning to send up ran counter to all the treaties we signed about the non-proliferation of weapons in space.” Lt.Col. Bruce Gillman, representing US Air Force liaison in California.

  • Top Gun
    “Top Gun completed the rehabilitation of the military and made the Gulf War possible…” Dr.Lawrence Suid, independent military film historian.


  • Courage Under Fire
    “We are under no obligation to work on a film simply because some people think it accurate.” Phil Strub, Special Assistant for Entertainment Media at the US Department of Defence.

  • Pearl Harbour
    “The British will cooperate on any film as long as it is accurate. In America, we’re more concerned wit image-making.” Dr.Suid.

  • Windtalkers
    “If you want to use the military’s toys to make your movie, they have a perfect right to dictate how their toys are going to reflect on them.” Professor Douglas Rushkoff, NYU-based media critic, author and syndicated columnist.

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