Paramount / Everett Collection

Hollywood and the Pentagon: A relationship of mutual exploitation

Filmmakers and the Pentagon have long collaborated on projects to bring films authenticity and the DOD publicity

Remember “Jurassic Park III”? The one Steven Spielberg didn’t direct? The film’s producers contacted the Pentagon to see if they could get some A-10s for scenes in which the actors would have to battle out-of-control Pteranodon. The A-10, the military aircraft known as the Thunderbolt, or as the Air Force affectionately calls it, the Warthog, is “designed to fire armor-piercing depleted uranium and high explosive incendiary rounds.”

“I read the script. I called him back [and said], ‘They’re tank killers. A flying dinosaur is no match for an A-10. It would only cause the audience to feel pity for the dinosaur,’” Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s entertainment-liaison officer, said in an interview. “But tell me this: You’ve got this major running around the world with the authority that the president can only dream about, so if you don’t care, would you change his character, make him like the president’s science adviser or something like that? Just get him out of the uniform.”

The filmmakers agreed, Strub said. “And I said, ‘… at the end you want to have a nice military rescue?’ They called back and said yes. So at the end, you see these Marines come and belatedly rescue the scientist and his family. You don’t know where the hell the Marines came from, but there they are.”

The U.S. military offices usually ask to see the entire script, not just the parts that relate to military involvement and, based on the entire script and the portrayal of the troops, will move it forward in the approval process. If based on a historical event, it also needs to pass muster with the Pentagon’s historians.

Phil Strub, entertainment liaison officer at the Pentagon, points at past collaborations between the U.S. military and Hollywood.
Jamie Tarabay

Phil Strub has been the Pentagon’s liaison officer for Hollywood for more than 25 years. His name has appeared in the “producers wish to thank” list in more than 50 films, including “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Lone Survivor,” “Ironman” and some that might surprise you: “The Perfect Storm” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as well as the TV shows “Bones” and “24.”

Movie posters and black-and-white photographs of past Hollywood-U.S. military collaborations hang on the walls of his windowless office at the Pentagon: John Wayne looking grim on the set of “The Green Berets,” people fleeing as a plane appears overhead in “From Here to Eternity,” and an ad for “The Devil’s Brigade,” starring William Holden. The corridor outside his office, which rings around the building, is a showcase for newer productions including “Lone Survivor,” “The Last Ship” and “Godzilla.” 

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While Strub is the point man for Hollywood in the Pentagon, usually the scripts come to his colleagues on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. They work in a nondescript office block along downtown Wilshire Boulevard, in departments belonging to the different service branches of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. They serve tours of duty for several years, just like their fellow troops, but their task is singularly different: to study film and television scripts producers have sent them in the hope the Department of Defense will help them with their project.

The U.S. military has had a presence in Hollywood since the early 1900s. “It’s not like they’re some surreptitious, hidden, secret-propaganda arm,” said Todd Breasseale, a retired Army liaison officer who did a tour in the L.A. office. “The Army’s been there since Hollywood was first built from the Los Angeles canyons and desert.”

The Pentagon liaison officers in Los Angeles primarily provide expertise for films, but they also lend their expertise to television shows, documentaries, and video games. But all their support is conditional. Capt. Russell Coons, director of the Navy Office of Information West, said that his office turns down 95 percent of what comes in.

“Because in most cases it doesn’t represent our core values,” Coons said. “We’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way.”

Generally, the Navy, like the other service branches, will only endorse scripts or productions that showcase U.S. military values that the Pentagon wants to promote: honor, courage and commitment. “Top Gun,” for example, the 1986 film about a cocky young pilot made good, starring Tom Cruise, used Navy crewmen as its pilot and aircrew onboard at least two aircraft carriers, one in San Diego and one in the Pacific Ocean.

Ironically, the Air Force received a massive boost in recruitment, even though it had nothing to do with the film. “The public doesn’t always discern the difference on the outside between the Navy and the Air Force,” Coons explained. “But it was also the single biggest boost to the Navy fighters ever.”

“What’s interesting about ‘Top Gun’ is it’s a typical 1930s movie: boy chases girl, gets a few flight scenes. You had all the ingredients of the typical Hollywood movie,” said Lawrence Suid, the author of “Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film,” who has been writing about the military and Hollywood since 1975. “In the end everyone is happy. The last shot is of people on the aircraft carrier, and everyone is cheering.”

Suid coined the phrase “mutual exploitation” when he first stumbled onto the U.S. military-Hollywood connection. “I was teaching the history of the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t explain how we got into Vietnam. I could give the facts, the dates, but I couldn’t explain why,” he recalled. “And when I was getting my film degrees it suddenly occurred to me that people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war, and when [President] Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”

Each side, Suid said, benefits from this arrangement. The U.S. military gets incredible publicity and recruitment advantages, and the film industry gets equipment, locations and authenticity.

“The relationship goes back as far as 1910, 1911,” Suid explained. Back then it focused on things like the filming of an air show or movies about World War I. The connection was really cemented with the 1927 film “Wings.” The movie featured over 3,000 infantrymen as extras, plus military pilots and planes from the U.S. Air Force, and it starred Clara Bow, the original “it” girl, as the love interest two men fight over, enlisting in an effort to become combat pilots to win her affection. It won the first Oscar for Best Picture.

“It was a huge critical success and a financial success,” Strub said. “The reason for that is the unparalleled authenticity the filmmakers were able to achieve by virtue of the fact that the Army Air Corps gave them a lot of access.”

After World War II, the collaborations continued, and the Pentagon specifically requested Hollywood to make a film, Suid said, about Wernher von Braun, a Nazi rocket engineer who helped develop Nazi Germany’s rocket program. He was later arrested by the Gestapo and eventually surrendered to the Americans and was brought to the U.S., where he worked on military rocket programs. “At one point the Army asked the film industry to make a movie about him showing him as an American hero,” Suid said. The film was called “I Aim at the Stars,” and it was released in 1960.

Some of them don’t even come to us. Some of them think that by calling the Pentagon they will have sold out.

Phil Strub

Entertainment-liaison officer at the Pentagon

Not all involvement is so detailed or on such a grand scale, and there are varying degrees of influence today. Some of the current projects the military is working on for the smaller screen, for example the television series “NCIS” and “Hawaii Five-O,” are episode-by-episode consultations, said the Navy’s Coons.

On the CBS hit show “NCIS” (Naval Criminal Investigative Service): “If you watch the episodes, it’s always a dead Marine or a dead sailor and reverse autopsy to see if they were the victim or the perpetrator,” Coons said. “In many cases you’ll see we hold ourselves accountable when the investigation reveals we’ve done something wrong, and we take that person through the proper steps to punish them or make them whole if they were the victim, and it’s demonstrated for the public to see.”

In one instance, Strub said, the secretary of the Navy visited the “NCIS” set (Secretary Ray Mabus even appeared on one episode in 2009) and suggested the show’s producers dedicate an episode to the Navy’s efforts to combat sexual assault with a promo card at the end of the show, which they did.

“They did a good job,” Strub recalled. “They have made many changes. I remember one time there was a scene where this Marine believes he ran away from combat, leaving his shipmates. He was wrong. He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress, and there’s a scene where the doctor meets with him and the doctor was very cavalier, and I complained about that.” The version that aired, Strub said, had the doctor taking an interest in the Marine, handing the Marine his card and urging him to call. “They went even above and beyond what we asked for,” Strub said.

Not all consultations turn into collaborations. “Crimson Tide,” a thriller about a mutinous executive officer (Denzel Washington) and a trigger-happy captain with a nuclear bomb (Gene Hackman) had “two fundamental showstoppers,” Strub said: the mutiny, and the compromise of nuclear weapons. “If there was a compromise of communication we’d just assign comms to another submarine,” he said, adding that real submariners found the film laughable.

Vietnam War movies like “Platoon” were “dead on arrival,” Strub said, as was “Apocalypse Now” and “The Thin Red Line.” As were “Three Kings,” with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, which did not get any assistance from the Pentagon; nor did “Stop-Loss” or “In the Valley of Elah.”

“Some of them don’t even come to us,” Strub said. “Some of them think that by calling the Pentagon they will have sold out.”

“The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning film, was roundly decried by the military and war correspondents for being wildly unrealistic. The filmmakers were initially in consultation with the U.S. military on aspects of the movie, but ultimately the collaboration fell apart because of differences over the script.

“We were never contacted for ‘World War Z,’” Coons said, referring to Brad Pitt’s zombie apocalypse movie, “and I can tell you the portrayal of the captain kicking the family off the ship to the zombies — that would never happen.”

Even with new computer-generated imagery technology (CGI), the U.S. military and its service branches are still in high demand, said Strub. “We’re certainly no less busy than we were [before CGI], and it seems to me it’s not just a matter of cost. There’s something intangible they get from being surrounded by real military men and women and equipment and installations.”

The involvement can be on a massive scale, as with a blockbuster like “Captain Phillips,” or only a few seconds of a commercial. “They can be everything from 10 seconds of a shot of the steel that’s in the USS New York in response to a question on “Jeopardy!” all the way to a two-hour documentary on piracy,” Coons said. One call he and the five others in his office have come to expect every year, however, relates to film projects tailored around Shark Week on television.

“Every time Shark Week comes out on Discovery Channel we get documentary people wanting to do something on the Indianapolis,” he said, referring to the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1945, sinking in 12 minutes, leaving its 900 survivors to face dehydration, exposure and shark attacks.

We fly our own equipment. We don’t even let stuntmen fast-rope out of helicopters.

Phil Strub

Entertainment-liaison officer at the Pentagon

The bonus for the U.S. military, along with the publicity and reinforcement of its public image, is that it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything.

“If there is ongoing training [and] you happen to have helicopters in the air anyway, or a ship out to sea, then we allow them to film it at zero cost, because we have to do it anyway,” Army liaison officer Breasseale said. “If, however, they need us to substantively deviate, then they pay an hourly cost for the helicopter, ship and daily cost for ground vehicles.”

“We can’t make a profit,” Breasseale said, “so we charge them our closest approximation to what it costs to maintain it every day.” That also goes for transportation costs, overtime for drivers and operators and their per diem. The costs, he says, are usually paid back by the film producers before the movie premieres.

And for Hollywood, those costs are negligible. The Pentagon charged producers of the film “Blackhawk Down” some $3 million to transport the Blackhawk helicopters to Morocco, where real-life Army Rangers fast-roped down from the choppers into the urban setting and actual military pilots steered the aircraft. “We don’t loan it to them,” Strub said. “We fly our own equipment. We don’t even let stuntmen fast-rope out of helicopters.”

The film grossed more than $100 million domestically and almost $70 million overseas.

“Transformers” and its sequel “Revenge of the Fallen” together grossed more than $700 million and used all the military service branches, countless bases, missile ranges, fighter squadrons and aircraft carriers. “Man of Steel,” the latest Superman movie, had fighter jets and Army equipment and made more than $110 million in its opening weekend.

For “Captain Phillips,” most of the ships and destroyers that appeared on-screen were conducting specific training exercises, Coons said. “We worked with the Navy SEAL community to get a training event scheduled that could showcase their capabilities, and we’re very sensitive to the elements of the actual events. We were given instructions to try to recreate it as closely as possible with the resources we had available.”

The benefits for the Navy were incalculable.

“The public’s takeaway was really astonishment that the shipping industry was so unprotected and placed a high value on knowing that the Navy is there and the Navy will help,” he said. “It didn’t hurt that Tom Hanks was the lead either.”

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