David Sirota is upset that the Defense Department has become very, very good at forcing Hollywood studios to trade script approval for access to information and subsidized rates on equipment for military movies:
The 1986 movie, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was the template for a new Military-Entertainment Complex. During production, the Pentagon worked hand-in-hand with the filmmakers, reportedly charging Paramount Pictures just $1.8 million for the use of its warplanes and aircraft carriers. But that taxpayer-subsidized discount came at a price — the filmmakers were required to submit their script to Pentagon brass for meticulous line edits aimed at casting the military in the most positive light. (One example: Time magazine reported that Goose’s death was changed from a midair collision to an ejection scene, because “the Navy complained that too many pilots were crashing.”)
Although “Top Gun” was not the first movie to exchange creative input for Pentagon assistance and resources, its success set that bargain as a standard for other filmmakers, who began deluging the Pentagon with requests for collaboration. By the time the 1991 Persian Gulf War began, Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s liaison to the movie industry, told the Hollywood Reporter that he’d seen a 70 percent increase in the number of requests from filmmakers for assistance — effectively changing the way Hollywood works.
Military movies or movies where the military plays some sort of appearance are always going to be reasonably popular, so the Defense Department has an advantage in promoting itself, but it’s also been very smart and strategic. This strikes me less as an argument to shut down the work the Defense Department does reaching out to the film industry than an argument for other agencies and progressive organizations to be much more proactive about advertising that they are ready and willing to give advice to writers and directors working on a wide array of policy themes. Hollywood Health and Society‘s been very good at doing this on medical and health issues. I know the Center for a New American Security sometimes arranges briefings for people in the movie business. It’s not as if military dramas are the only genre that is inherently popular. There are huge openings on health and on criminal justice in particular for organizations that would be up for providing some free advice in exchange for accuracy in depictions.
Second, there’s a difference between movies that are generally approving of the military and movies that are approving of our current conflicts. It may be awesome that our men in uniform can help kick giant robot alien ass, but I can’t think of a single critically or commercially successful movie that argued that our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan were a dandy idea and that our troops there are accomplishing their goals without fuss or bother. If there is evidence arguing that teaming up with Optimus Prime makes Americans more likely to support wars of choice, I would love to see it (interestingly, the first Transformers movie portrayed positive relationships between American soliders and the people who live near their base, particularly in the face of a giant robot threat, but I’m not sure that whitewashes the war or makes people more likely to support it). But I’m not sure I think that it is an inherently wasteful or problematic thing to make the case that the people who defend our country are competent and (as long as they live up to the codes set for them) worthy of our respect and appreciation.
Finally, the implication that X-Men: First Class is a military commercial, whatever the Army’s intentions in the joint promotion deal around it, is deeply strange. It’s a movie where the militaries of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union allow themselves to be manipulated to the brink of nuclear war, and then turn on a small minority that they are unfamiliar with and frightened of, and who have been established as sympathetic protagonists, and jointly try to annihilate that tiny group of people. It does not make being in the military look particularly awesome.