The U.S. military’s Hollywood connection
On a sultry mid-July afternoon on this military base, a few hundred Marines, some with spouses and children in tow, were mustering for a free screening of the movie “Warrior” at a squat cement cinema house on Mainside, the section of the 200-square-mile facility reserved for civilian comforts like the Stars and Strikes bowling alley and Smokey’s House of BBQ.
In the film, which won’t arrive in theaters until September, a Marine just home from Iraq (played by Englishman Tom Hardy) and his estranged brother, a fighter-turned-teacher (Australian Joel Edgerton), train for a mixed martial arts tournament.
The military’s involvement ran deeper, though, than just throwing open the doors to the Bulldog Box Office at Camp Pendleton. The “Warrior” script was vetted by a Marine Corps liaison to the entertainment industry, and more than 200 real Marines appear in uniform in a crowd scene.
The Department of Defense regularly cooperates with Hollywood on projects large and small, from Lifetime’s fictional Army base-set series “Army Wives” and CBS’ naval police procedural “NCIS” to Paramount Pictures’ warring robots franchise “Transformers” and Sony’s Columbia Pictures film “Battle: Los Angeles,” about Marines fighting an alien invasion. The military has allowed Universal Pictures to film its upcoming action movie “Battleship” on the battleship Missouri and permitted Navy SEALs to appear in Relativity Media’s February thriller “Act of Valor.”
Over the decades, the relationship between Hollywood and the military has served the needs of both sides: Filmmakers gain access to equipment, locations, personnel and information that lend their productions authenticity, while the armed forces get some measure of control over how they’re depicted.
That’s important not just for recruiting but also for guiding the behavior of current troops and appealing to the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills. Given that less than 1% of the U.S. population is currently serving in the military, entertainment — including movies, TV shows and video games — is key to shaping the public’s idea of what it means to be a soldier.
“Hollywood feature films have served as the most significant medium to argue for the military,” said Lawrence H. Suid, author of “Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film.” “Americans love violence, and war movies provide all that violence without the danger.”
But controversy over an upcoming movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden — and how much U.S. officials should assist director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal — has shed light on some of the minefields that must be navigated by real-life warriors and the showbiz engine that seeks to portray them.
There are constant tensions over how troops are depicted — the military brass is often uncomfortable with the defiant, cocky heroes that filmmakers, and moviegoers, like to embrace. And rank-and-file troops have complaints from everyday details like the color of a soldier’s boots to broader questions about the true character of men and women in uniform. There are debates about how much access is too much and even whether certain films might serve partisan purposes.
On the surface, cooperating with filmmakers on a movie about the Bin Laden mission would appear to be a no-brainer for the Defense Department — after all, the operation was a spectacular victory for U.S. forces.
Bigelow’s movie — which was gestating long before May’s deadly raid in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs and CIA operatives — is slated for release by Sony in October 2012 and will attempt to chart the decade-long pursuit of the terrorist leader. The filmmakers haven’t locked a script or announced casting or location shooting plans.
Though many details remain to be determined, the story of an anonymous team of highly trained soldiers working successfully off the intelligence of multiple agencies and political administrations would seem to please the military and stand in stark contrast to many of the most iconic pop culture images of soldiering. From George C. Scott’s swaggering World War II general in 1970’s “Patton” to the counterculture Korean War Army doctors in “MASH” (both the 1970 film and the long-running TV series) to Robert Duvall’s unhinged air cavalry commander in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” the most remembered military heroes in movies in the last 30 years are arrogant, independent mavericks.
“There are these enduring stereotypes, Jungian archetypes, and they often show up in uniform in movies and TV shows,” said Phil Strub, director of entertainment media at the Defense Department. “One of the things that comes up all the time is … to be a hero, you have to defy the rules of your organization because they’re not good. And you also have to do it as a loner. Going on your own and recklessly prevailing seems to be a very popular way of portraying people and of course totally antithetical to the military ethos. Just about everything we do, the whole notion of teamwork is kind of fundamental.”
Bigelow and Boal ran into such objections from the military on their last movie, “The Hurt Locker.” The 2008 film, an adrenalized thriller about a renegade Army bomb defuser in Iraq, won the Academy Award for best picture, but the filmmakers’ early discussions with the Army broke down over differences about the script, Boal told The Times last year. According to Strub, the DOD never signed a production assistance agreement for “Hurt Locker” or provided any physical support.
“‘The Hurt Locker’ was problematic for us because it departed from what we thought was the real military ethos,” Strub said. “Of course we want to get the ribbon rack correct, of course we want people saluting looking properly. [But] the bottom line for us is how do people feel — how does a serviceman or servicewoman feel about the portrayal? … That portrayal is more important by far than whether the eagle is facing forward.”
In the case of the Bin Laden movie, though, Bigelow and Boal have run into a different, more political set of concerns. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter to the CIA and the Department of Defense asking for an investigation into whether the White House has granted filmmakers access to classified information for the project, intelligence that could prove useful to America’s enemies.
He also voiced concern about the timing of the movie’s release: Coming less than a month before the 2012 presidential election, he suggested, it could influence the race. In a press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the claim that Bigelow and Boal had received access to confidential information as “ridiculous” and chided the committee, saying it should have “more important topics to discuss than a movie.”
Strub said the Defense officials have yet to determine whether they will officially cooperate with Bigelow and Boal’s project. But Strub did acknowledge that Bigelow and Boal met with Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers this summer.
“They have had one or two interviews with one of our senior intelligence officials...,” Strub said. “Mr. Vickers was extremely discreet and very careful in his wording. He was speaking entirely of the kinds of things he had spoken about at various other unclassified interviews.”
Bigelow and Boal, who declined to be interviewed for this story, issued a statement through Sony that did not address whether they have been privy to confidential information. But they disavowed any political motivations.
“Our upcoming film project … integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world’s most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan, and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”
Bigelow and Boal’s film isn’t the only Hollywood project related to the Bin Laden operation that’s run into resistance in Washington. Less than 48 hours after the White House had announced the news of Bin Laden’s death, the Walt Disney Co. filed a patent application seeking the exclusive right to use the term “SEAL Team 6" — the elite special forces unit that led the raid — on movies, TV shows, video games and toys. When the Navy vocally objected, Disney quickly withdrew the request.
Each branch of the armed forces has its own intermediary to the film and television industries, all of them housed in an office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, while the DOD overseas the largest-scale collaborations from Washington. Some Hollywood heavyweights including “Black Hawk Down” producer Jerry Bruckheimer and “Transformers” director Michael Bay have enjoyed long affiliations with the offices. Strub said the number of productions — including documentaries and even game shows — that receive some form of military assistance annually are too many to quantify and said that producers reimburse the government for out-of pocket expenses such as dedicated flight hours or servicepersons’ time.
While often it’s Hollywood that comes knocking on the Pentagon’s door seeking help, sometimes the appeals flow the other way.
In June, Michelle Obama beseeched an audience of about 500 producers, writers, actors and directors in Los Angeles to tell more military families’ stories in entertainment, part of a larger White House initiative called “Joining Forces” tasked with improving housing, education, health and other programs geared toward those in uniform.
“You have the vehicle to tell stories that just pull people in,” the first lady told the audience. “I … urge you to do what you do best. Be creative. Be funny. Be powerful. Move us, [and] move America to think differently about these issues and about these families, and about our men and women who serve so graciously.”
In early 2012, she will appear on an episode of the Nickelodeon show “iCarly” to bring awareness to the effort, a bid to bring public attention to the largely anonymous struggles of military families.
Sometimes, a third party will play matchmaker between Hollywood and the military. For example, National CineMedia, which sells ads in movie theaters, paired the Army and 20th Century Fox for a marketing campaign designed to reach potential recruits. The campaign intercut footage from the Fox superhero movie “X-Men: First Class” with images of real soldiers as a voice-over intoned, “Heroes — ordinary people who discover they can do extraordinary things.”
The spots played in cinemas, and exit polls of 17- to 24-year-olds leaving the movie theater found that those who saw the ad were 25% more likely to say they would consider joining the Army than those who didn’t, according to U.S. Army Accessions Command Chief Marketing Officer Bruce Jasurda.
“We get asked all the time, ‘Why do you market?’” said Jasurda. “We’re a nation at war going on 11 years, which is … the longest period of consistent conflict that the U.S. Army’s ever been involved in, that the nation’s ever been involved in, longer than any war we’ve been in, and all-volunteer force at that.
“That’s why we market. We want to make sure people understand the full nature of this product. The Army is the ultimate considered purchase. It’s a very dangerous way to make a living.”
Reaching the right kind of recruits, though, is important, Jasurda said — as is disabusing young people of some inaccurate notions about the military that Hollywood may have imparted.
“Rambo types — people who are very brazen, bold, stick out their chest, braggadocios — they’re not the people we’re looking for,” said Jasurda. “All the physical and mental research we’ve done shows that those Rambo types are gonna get weeded out pretty quickly and are probably the poorest recruits.”
Sgt. Cy Sibounma, a motor transport chief waiting in line for the Camp Pendleton “Warrior” screening who has completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan, said Hollywood movies fail to accurately show the temperament of those in uniform.
“You can get the haircut right, the boots, but you can’t emulate a Marine,” Sibounma said. “It’s the intangible things that movies get wrong, the character, what’s inside.”
After signing autographs and shaking hands with Marines, Hardy, “Warrior’s” star, considered Sibounma’s comment and described “five minutes” he served in the Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
“I left ‘cause I wasn’t tough enough,” Hardy said.