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On board with reality

Times Staff Writer

One SAILOR calmly tells the camera that America went to war for oil. Another, while slurring drunk and again when stone sober, is shown making racist comments. Yet another naval serviceman, who counsels crew members about sexually appropriate behavior, is caught having sex with a shipmate of a lower rank.

Later, a fighter pilot openly questions the rationale for the Iraq war and mulls over the morality of bombing the war-torn country. And finally, a range of enlisted personnel and officers plainly voice disappointment over not dropping bombs during their mission.

While by themselves these incidents may sound like the stuff of enemy propaganda, they are in fact part of a much larger message entirely approved by the United States Navy -- which is somewhat nervously hoping that by allowing itself to look bad in places, it can look good overall.

The American public can watch what may be one of the riskier and more unconventional public relations strategies in U.S. naval history unfold on PBS’ “Carrier,” a 10-hour documentary series about life aboard an aircraft carrier during wartime. The program, which clearly bears the stamp of reality television, premieres Sunday night on KCET-TV and most PBS stations across the nation and runs throughout the week.

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“There’s a city of 5,000 on an aircraft carrier,” said Adm. Ted Branch, who was captain and commander of the Nimitz when the documentary was shot in 2005. “They’re all people and they all have opinions. They aren’t robots.

“I think what may be surprising for our people is to see it on film,” added Branch, who has since been promoted and now works in the Pentagon. “But it’s not surprising it happened.”

Unlike with its one-dimensional recruitment ads that invite young Americans to “Accelerate Your Life,” the Navy did not pay for a camera crew to chronicle the warship’s six-month deployment that began and ended in Coronado, and covered 57,000 ocean miles including a combat mission into the Persian Gulf. The Navy paid instead by surrendering almost total editorial control to the filmmakers, who promised military officials they were out to capture the human stories inside the nuclear-powered ship’s massive steel hulls.

“The Navy participated in and supported movies like ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Pearl Harbor,’ ” said Maro Chermayeff, who directed, co-executive produced and co-created the series, which was bankrolled by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions. “But they were always about the hotshot pilots; they were never about the ordinary 19-year-old sailor on the ship.”

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The unusually candid and personal portrait of life aboard the Nimitz prompted Adm. Gary Roughead, the United States Navy’s chief of naval operations, to e-mail approximately 1,000 senior active, reserve and retired officers, and civilian executives, earlier this month to explain why the Navy agreed to the series, and to allay fears about the program’s potential negative impact.

“We did not get a Navy ‘commercial’ in the traditional sense,” wrote Roughead, a member of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the senior military officer in the Department of the Navy. “ ‘Carrier’ is very different from the hardware documentaries we have supported in the past. This program focuses on our people and the reality-TV approach gives it a sense of authenticity and credibility. Since we did not monitor the individual interviews and ongoing production, the program contains material that does not always and fully represent the discipline, values and mission of the U.S. Navy.”

‘An all-inclusive picture’

The PBS series lands during an especially challenging time for military recruiters. As the unpopular Iraq war drags on, all branches of the military are finding it increasingly difficult to attract new volunteers. Although the Navy met its recruiting goals last year of approximately 37,000 and is on track to do so again this year, it’s spending more money to achieve those figures. The Navy spent $169 million in advertising last year, compared to $117 million in the previous year.

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But the series provides the Navy with a new and welcome platform to reach what Pentagon officials call the “influencers” -- the parents, relatives, teachers, coaches and other adults who help determine whether a young person ultimately signs up for the services. Several years ago, the Army developed a series of successful ads that specifically targeted adults who had no military experience -- not unlike PBS’ audience pool.

“This production, although not an all-inclusive picture of the Navy, will give potential recruits and those who influence them a glimpse of what life is really like in the Navy,” wrote Roughead, whose e-mail was published on several blogs.

In summing up “Carrier,” Roughead said: “The snapshot is frank and may be somewhat disconcerting to some who came into the Navy some time ago. However, that said, I believe it will also resonate with a significant segment of our country.”

PBS clearly has high hopes for the program even as it steers the network into riskier waters than usual. In addition to staking 10 precious prime-time hours to a single show on consecutive nights, the network can ill afford to have a tent-pole program fail during a time of crushing competition from across the television dial.

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Executives are gambling that the series will be able to rally a broad audience and also help drive viewers into other PBS shows, such as “American Masters,” “Nova” and “Frontline.” And it must do so while not alienating its highly educated viewers, who might easily reject “Carrier’s” reality TV and MTV music-video-like influences.

“We haven’t really seen anything like this on PBS,” said John Wilson, the network’s chief TV programming executive. “I have to hand it to the Navy for their willingness to take that leap of faith that allowed us to present an unvarnished look at the Navy. At the end of the day, they had confidence in their men and women and that the program would net out to be a good thing for them.”

New freedom of access

Film crews have been allowed on aircraft carriers before, but never with such unfettered access or final control over the content. Much like combat journalists during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 17-member camera crew was completely embedded on the ship, living side-by-side with sailors for the entire six months. The film crews were allowed to roam virtually anywhere on the ship and conduct interviews without minders looking over their shoulders. (The camera crew paid its own expenses.)

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The Navy did, however, retain the right to review the finished product and objected to only two scenes -- for reasons of national security. Both, which amounted to about 30 seconds of screen time, were cut. One scene apparently disclosed sensitive details about an F-18 jet fighter, while the other showed a screen with classified information on it, said Chermayeff, whose crew shot more than 1,600 hours on the journey.

It took almost a year of intense negotiating between the filmmakers and Navy officials before the project was finally greenlighted. A turning point, said Chermayeff, came when she finally convinced then-Capt. Branch of the Nimitz of the project’s potential upside to the Navy.

“For most of the time, the Navy was like, ‘Thank you for calling, but no, that is never going to work,” said Chermayeff, who also was behind PBS’ 2002 foray into reality television with “Frontier House.” “But Branch saw the value in showing people who these kids [on the ship] really are.”

Added Branch about Chermayeff: “She doesn’t take no for an answer very easily.”

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The filmmaker’s persistence resulted in a piece that follows the stories of about 15 crew members or, as the PBS series refers to them, “characters.” Through this range of people, the audience experiences the expected -- but no less mesmerizing -- life-and-death moments aboard one of the most powerful Navy vessels ever built: nighttime landings by F-18s on a violently pitching deck, a desperate search for a man overboard.

But more attention is paid to personal triumphs and failures of its crew members as they navigate their way through their grinding daily routines, while coping with the tough long-term separation from family that constitutes a lengthy naval deployment.

There’s a sailor who leaves behind a pregnant girlfriend and gradually begins to wonder about her commitment to him. And there’s an enlisted Marine, abandoned as a 3-year-old by his parents at a carnival, who rises in rank through his hard work and dedication and awaits the birth of his first child.

“It shows exactly the way it is on a Navy carrier,” said Chermayeff. “If you’re expecting a Kodak commercial, yeah, it’s a bad light. But if you stand behind your people and you see your people as more complex than a recruitment ad, then no, I don’t think it’s negative.”

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The Navy believes the series carries a new, more enlightened, message to America: That it is strong enough to be open and even tolerate public dissension in the ranks; that when bad things occur, they’ll be dealt with firmly and fairly (the racist was kicked out of the Navy; the crew member who had sex with a junior-ranking shipmate has his promising career ruined); that no matter what their personal beliefs, when the time comes Navy personnel will perform their duty.

“The country as a whole has evolved,” said Branch. And, he added, so has the Navy.

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martin.miller@latimes.com

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